Some say that rebels in the Pankisi Gorge receive money from al Qaeda; others claim that Georgian and Russian generals smuggle arms and drugs in Pankisi and Abkhazia. Official Georgia has joined the United States' antiterrorism coalition and signed pacts with Azerbaijan and Turkey on April 30 affirming mutual cooperation against terrorism, organized crime, drugs and arms trafficking. [For more information see the Eurasia Insight archive].
But - responding to reports that paramilitary groups of Chechen separatists are regrouping in Pankisi - Russian President Vladimir Putin has publicly reproached Georgia's President Eduard Shevardnadze over the separatist areas' lawlessness. The Russian military insists they have the right to pursue Chechen militants in the territory of Georgia.
Meanwhile, Georgia is waiting for Russia to abandon Georgian bases they've maintained since Soviet times. [For more information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Shevardnadze's invitation to American trainers may seek to pressure Russia by raising fears of a permanent American base in the South Caucasus, near Iraq and Iran.
The Georgian Minister of Defense, David Tevzadze, recently visited the United States to go to meetings at the Pentagon and participate in Harvard University's Black Sea Security Program. In his public remarks, the defense minister assured participants that troops with American training wouldn't use that training to storm the separatist region of Abkhazia, which has called itself independent for several years.
EurasiaNet: Mr. Minister, what problems do you see Georgia facing with respect to security in the Black Sea basin? Tevzadze: Naturally, I would emphasize two groups of problems. The first concerns separatism within Georgia. This issue affects the stability of the entire region, not just Georgia. Second is the unresolved matter of Russian military bases in Georgia.
EurasiaNet: How do you evaluate Georgia's decision to invite Green Berets to train the country's Special Forces? Tevzadze: First, it stands to help Georgia manage its own problems without outside help or involvement; problems such as those we have in Pankisi Gorge [with Chechen separatists]. Second, it should be clear that it develops our integration with the structures of NATO. We have long participated in [NATO's] "Partnership for Peace" [training] program, as a result of which we have detachments trained to take part in the Kosovo peacekeeping force. From the outset we have openly declared that we will participate in the anti-terrorist coalition. The help our American colleagues are providing will help us to solve Georgian internal problems, and also to assist in international missions.
EurasiaNet: How would you explain Georgia's dissatisfaction with Russia's military presence? Do Georgians see it as an impingement on national sovereignty, or do they have direct suspicions of Russian assistance to Abkhazian separatists? How is it that Georgia and Russia have not worked out a fruitful military cooperation? Tevzadze: Naturally we would prefer to clear our country of any foreign military presence. Of course, the Russia presence feels like an impingement on Georgia's national sovereignty.
EurasiaNet: After the civil war in Georgia, and after the series of ethnic conflicts within the country, many armed groups had taken root. I have in mind [the military group] Mkhedrioni, for example. Do you feel that the national army has uprooted these groups? Tevzadze: Yes, in the area under state control these groups are finished. We no longer have any armed groups there [in the Pankisi Gorge]. In short, I can say that the state is not able to control all of its territory.
Darchiashvili, free of the burden of speaking for his government, confronted security issues in greater detail.
EurasiaNet: What interest does Georgia have in the troubles around the Black Sea, in your opinion? Darchiashvili: We see a variety of problems, threats, and perspectives around the Black Sea. The region remains very unstable, with many countries having only just regained independence. We must improve communications with our neighbors, for we are building umbrella structures to coordinate our interests with them. This is instrumental to state building and improving international cooperation. It is especially important because of the need to export the oil and gas of the region, including Azerbaijan's, through pipelines. Obviously, in these circumstances the security of the region is important to the entire world community.
EurasiaNet: The political evolution of Georgia is still problematic. What is the key factor? Is it the presence of Russian troops, the persistence of Chechen rebels in Pankisi Gorge, or internal political turmoil? How can Georgia escape the vicious cycle of difficulties? Darchiashvili: Well, there are many issues and complications, and we have very little historical experience with them. All of the issues you raise are part of a complex causal knot. It is already ten years since Georgia became an independent state, but we still do not have real stability, self-government or real democracy. As a primary political task for Georgia, I would emphasize the struggle with corruption. The state structures are unable to resolve those matters the constitution assigns them. Another serious problem is the sensitive relationship between ethnic groups. Moreover, our relations with our former parent-state Russia remain undetermined.
EurasiaNet: In that case, how would you judge the arrival of the first contingent of Green Berets to train Georgian military forces? Will this prove to be stabilizing, or is it simply a way to pressure Russia and Abkhazian separatists? Darchiashvili: Well, for now all of that falls under the framework of building Georgian democracy. The Green Beret aid is not meant to help us in solving ethnic conflicts or pressuring Russia. How exactly the Green Beret's help will be used is another question. It depends very much on Georgia's ruling elite. [In general,] military structures should be reinforced. The stability of each country in the region contributes to the health of the region as a whole, and I hope to see this health improve.
Rustem Safronov, political analyst
and journalist, is a frequent contributor to the BBC's Russian
Service and Voice of America's Eurasian Service. He has written
extensively about Central Asia, including a chapter on "Islam
in Turkmenistan" for The Center for Political & Strategic
Studies' book "Islam in Central Asia." He produced
two documentaries about Turkmenistan for Russian State Television.