Centre for Research on GlobalisationCentre de recherche sur la mondialisation
As Georgian troops began their "anti-terrorist" operation in the Pankissy Valley last week, an alleged Russian air strike against a village in the valley made Georgian-Russian uneasy relations dangerously hostile. In reference to the incident, Georgian President Edward Sheverdnadzhe demanded an apology from Russia to normalize damaged relations, while the Georgian ambassador to the United Nations accused that country of state terrorism. The sudden escalation of hostility between the two neighboring countries reflects the growing sense of insecurity of Russia since the deployment of American "military advisers" in Georgia. It also indicated Georgia's increasing boldness in its relations with Russia, stemming from its expanding military relations with the United States, a growing power in the Caucasus and Central Asia.
Georgian-Russian ties have experienced troubles since the fall of the Soviet Union and the independence of Georgia in 1991. In particular, two issues have contributed to conflicts. One has been the Georgian government's bid to forge close relations with Western countries, particularly with the United States, at the expense of weakening Russia's influence in its country. Its alleged ties with the Chechen armed groups seeking independence of Chechnya from Russia has been another source of irritation as the Russian government has accused its Georgian counterpart of tolerating Chechen rebels who have sought refuge in Georgia's Pankissy Valley, neighboring its Republic of Chechnya. They have allegedly used their Georgian bases to conduct military operations against Russian forces stationed in Chechnya.
Despite their disagreements on Russia's claim on the Georgian government's implicit collaboration with the Chechen rebels, both Georgia and Russia agree that the Pankissy Valley has become a refugee for Chechen armed groups fleeing the Russian military. However, the Georgian government blames Russia's second round of military operations against the Chechens for their escape to that region, an operation still in progress after three years of its launching. Thus, the Georgian government denies any role in Chechens seeking refugee inside its territory, as it also denies its tolerance of their presence. Its inadequate military capability to monitor its border with Russia and to remove any illegal armed group from its territory has been its explanation for such presence.
That these two sides should be making accusations against each other regarding the Chechen armed groups is not a new phenomenon, but last week's escalation of their conflict was a definitely new development arising from a significant change in the Caucasus since the initiation of the American war on terrorism. Earlier this year, the Georgian government accepted the deployment of American "military advisers" in its territory to help it train its forces for "counter-terrorist" operations, including those against the Chechen groups with alleged links to al-Qaeda. Coming to Georgia in the wake of Russia's initial acceptance of an American military presence in Central Asia to assist the US military operations in Afghanistan, the Russians did not react harshly to the development, despite their obvious concern about the deployment of American military personnel along their southern border. On the contrary, they sought to downplay its significance and to find an even positive impact in future expected Georgian anti-terrorist operations on Russia's "anti-terrorist" war in Chechnya.
Against this background, Georgian and Russian military preparations to deal with "terrorists" in the Pankissy Valley have created a very dangerous and unstable situation. The Russians, who had long blamed Georgia for tolerating Chechen armed groups, deployed their military forces along their border with Georgia last week. They hinted at their determination to deal with the threat of valley-based Chechens in the absence of the alleged Georgian government's resolution to tackle the problem. The Georgian government also deployed its American-trained troops around the valley last week and began its "anti-terrorist" operation against the valley's armed groups.
Given the history of their conflicts, the two sides' concentration of troops on both sides of the Pankissy Valley has created a fragile situation prone to escalation. This is a feasible scenario due to an increasing concern in Russia about insecurity, and particularly about the growing American military presence along its southern borders. The fragile situation characterized with a sentiment of suspicion and mistrust on both sides could provoke a confrontation between the two neighbors at the time when sporadic low level military operations launched by "unknown forces" have angered both the Georgians and the Russians.
Last week, Georgia protested over an alleged Russian air strike against a village in the valley. While Russia has denied responsibility, Georgia has referred to the reports of Georgian and American military experts and that of European observers to support its claim. In the same week, the firing of "unknown" forces on a Russian border post left two Russian soldiers wounded. The Russian military put the blame on Georgian forces, although they denied responsibility and attributed the incident to Chechen armed groups.
Last weeks' sudden escalation of conflict between Georgia and Russia reflected the beginning of Russia's reaction to the expansion of American forces along its borders. In particular, it demonstrated its growing concern over its gradual encirclement by hostile countries hosting American military forces. Their existence has surely made their host, including Georgia, more confident and more assertive in their dealings with Russia, a nuclear power highly vulnerable to foreign security threats because of its numerous domestic problems, including economic, political and military ones.
Dr Hooman Peimani works as an independent consultant with international organizations in Geneva and does research in international relations (©2002 Asia Times Online Co, Ltd. All rights reserved. Copyright 2002, For fair use only/ pour usage équitable seulement .
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