Putin Takes One Step Back on Georgia, Catching Tbilisi Off-Guard
by Jaba Devdariani: Re-Posted October 17, 2001 © Eurasianet
Georgia’s political leadership was caught off guard by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s surprise announcement of a “hands-off” Russian stance on the fighting between Georgian insurgents and Abkhaz separatists. Observers say Putin’s deft political maneuver exposed Georgian government weaknesses, thereby putting pressure on Tbilisi to acquiesce to Russia’s will without the appearance of overt Kremlin intervention.
Putin announced October 12 that Russia did not intend to get involved in the renewed Georgia-Abkhaz conflict and indicated that he would be willing to authorize the withdrawal of Russian peacekeepers. In addition, Putin expressed Russia’s support for Georgia’s territorial integrity and characterized bilateral relations as “quite satisfactory.”
The Russian president went on the suggest that continued membership in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) would provide Georgia with economic benefits.
Georgian leaders have blamed Russia for fomenting the crisis in Kodori Gorge, where Abkhazian separatists are battling a Georgian partisan force. Chechen militants are said to be fighting alongside the Georgian guerrillas. Putin’s comments were designed to firmly establish that the chief source of the conflict is the inability of Tbilisi to exert effective control over the entire country.
In essence, Putin called the diplomatic bluff of Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, who had not only demanded the withdrawal of Russian peacekeepers, but also hinted that Georgia might withdraw from the CIS. [For background information see the Eurasia Insight archives]. Putin appeared to bet correctly that Georgian leaders do not have a plan to fill the security void created by the departure of Russian peacekeepers. On October 16, Shevardnadze backtracked on his peacekeepers’ position, saying he had yet to decide whether to press for the withdrawal of the Russian force.
While some politicians and analysts in Georgia hailed Putin’s announcement as a concession, others are cautious. A “hands-off” Russian policy, skeptics say, deprives the Georgian government of a scapegoat, placing it in an untenable position. “By alluding to the ‘full responsibility’ of Georgia for security in the region, as well as the ‘economic advantages’ of CIS membership, Russia exposes the weak power-base of the Georgian government,” argues Levan Berdzenishvili, Director of the Georgian National Library.
The Georgian government has officially distanced itself from responsibility for the guerrilla warfare being carried out by Georgian insurgents in Abkhazia. At the same time, some government members and media outlets have tacitly encouraged partisan action in Abkhazia. If Russia were to hand Georgia full responsibility for security in Abkhazia, officials in Tbilisi could be caught in a trap largely of their own making: having effectively sanctioned Georgian partisan activity at the outset, the government could end up ensnared in a conflict spiraling out of control.
Abkhaz leaders say their troops have their Georgian and Chechen opponents cornered in the Kodori Gorge, and are poised to annihilate the insurgents. The threat of a crushing defeat increases the pressure on the government to dispatch the Georgian army to rescue the encircled partisans. Yet, while popular sentiment may push for the renewal of an all-out war between Georgia and Abkhazia, officials in Tbilisi are well aware they cannot afford such a conflict.
State coffers are almost empty. The Georgian parliament had planned to discuss serious budget cuts in its fall session, responding to a revenue shortfall. At the same time, the effectiveness of the Georgian military has come into question. In May, some units mutinied in a protest for better living conditions and payment of overdue salaries. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archives]. In August, Defense Minister David Tevzadze argued that his projected budget couldn’t even maintain minimal combat readiness.
Thus, a war could potentially cause the total collapse of Georgian state authority. A rapid descent into warlordism is a very real possibility. During the first round of fighting between Georgian and Abkhaz forces in 1992-93, Georgia experienced a near-complete collapse of law enforcement. At the very least, the current instability appears to severely damage prospects for oil and gas pipeline construction that involves Georgia, including the Baku-Ceyhan project.
The only way out for Shevardnadze’s government appears to be cooperation with Russia, which appears intent on reestablishing its controlling interest in the political and economic development of the Caucasus region. In addition, Russia wants Georgia’s help in crushing Chechen resistance. After years of pursuing pro-Western policies and trying to diminish Russia’s influence over Georgia, Shevardnadze has indicated that Georgia would be more cognizant of Putin’s geopolitical agenda.
“He [Putin] is undoubtedly a politician and a state figure with whom it is possible to develop constructive cooperation and to resolve major problems, while complying with the interests of both Georgia and Russia,” Shevardnadze said in an October 15 radio interview.
Editor’s Note: Jaba Devdariani is a founding director of the United Nations Association of Georgia (www.una.org.ge) and Research Director of the UNA’s program for applied research.
Posted October 17, 2001 © Eurasianet