Trouble in the Caucasus

Print edition : September 10, 2004

Georgia's attempts to reunite with it the secessionist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia brings it into conflict with Russia and escalates tension in the Caucasus.

in Moscow

Russian tanks move outside Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia, on July 23.-VANO SHLAMOV/AFP

TENSIONS are running high in the Caucasus as Georgia attempts to reunite with it the secessionist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The move is a result of Georgian President Mikhael Saakashvili's aggressive policy of bringing the breakaway Georgian regions back into the fold. The first breakthrough came in May when he won back, peacefully, the Georgian region of Adjaria, with Moscow's help.

However, experts are of the opinion that by attempting this course of action Saakashvili might disrupt dangerously the balance in the Caucasus. For Moscow, too, the exercise is proving to be "taxing" strategically as well as diplomatically. South Ossetia and Abkhazia are pro-Russia and have survived mainly with Moscow's support.

In the Caucasus, clashing interests are many, so are the ethnicities. South Ossetia and Abkhazia gained relative autonomy from Georgia in 1992 through an armed uprising - among the many that sprouted with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Since its violent civil war of 1991-92, South Ossetia has existed in a state of "definite anarchy" as some experts describe it. After the war ended, a joint peace-keeping force comprising Russian, Georgian and Ossetian troops was established under Russian command. Only Russia has recognised South Ossetia's independence and the country thrives on trade and interaction with North Ossetia, an autonomous republic within the Russian Federation. Smuggling is the mainstay of South Ossetia's economy and the territory is infamous as a trade route for narcotics and arms; it has also reportedly been used as a transit point by Chechen Islamic militants. Russia has been very generous in granting passports to people in this region, and most South Ossetians are Russian passport holders.

Mikhael Saakashvili.-DAVID MDZINARISHVILI/REUTERS

The situation is similar in Abkhazia. Its Black Sea beaches attract over 7,00,000 Russian tourists every year. In the civil war that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, the ethnic Abkhazian succeeded in driving out most of the Georgians and since then Abkhazia has been an autonomous, though internationally unrecognised, state. Many Abkhazians are Russian citizens and Moscow maintains a base at Gudauta, which is in the conflict zone and is used by peace-keeping forces. The base is a sore point between Russia and Georgia, with the latter alleging that it is used to offer military support to pro-independence forces within Abkhazia.

FIRED by his success in Adjaria, Saakashvili posted customs officials on the ceasefire line with South Ossetia in a bid to terminate the contraband trade. This led to friction with Russian peace-keepers and South Ossetian forces. Saakashvili upped the ante by sending troops into South Ossetia, which, in retaliation, collected a volunteer force of over 2,000 fighters from across the Caucasus. Sporadic firing continued between the two forces through the summer months. Recently U.S.-trained Georgian troops replaced the border police squads and daily gunbattles have become the norm in this region.

In July, South Ossetian forces captured 38 Georgian police officers and released them later. In retaliation, Georgia seized a convoy of Russian trucks and returned all except two trucks that contained over 160 missiles. This sparked a war of words between Russia and Georgia, even as Georgian troops and South Ossetian and Russian peace-keeping forces exchanged fire on the border.

Meanwhile, Saakashvili announced to the BBC that "South Ossetia is not a political issue. It emerged because we shut down our border there to smuggling, to trafficking, and a lot of people lost their vested interests." Subsequently, Saakashvili visited London and the U.S. in a bid to drum up support for his engagement with the secessionist states.

In August, tensions also arose in Abkhazia, with Saakashvili threatening that the Georgian Navy would blockade the region and open fire on boats, including tourist vessels, violating Georgian waters. Announcements were made that all ships arriving at Abkhazia would have to be screened by Georgian immigration and customs officials. Saakashvili told mediapersons: "I have given an order to open fire on all ships that violate our territorial waters. I say this so that tourists who are now coming to Abkhazia will hear it." Russian Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov slammed the order, saying it "smacks of piracy and cannot be reconciled with the norms of international law." However, this did not stop a Georgian patrol boat from firing at a ship carrying Russian tourists off the coast of Abkhazia. The Russian Foreign Ministry reacted angrily, accusing Georgia of trying to damage the Abkhazian economy. The Ministry also reassured Russian tourists in Abkhazia that Russia would ensure their security.

ON August 6 Georgia accused Russian military aircraft of violating Georgian air space. Russia denied the accusation. Meanwhile, shelling continues along the border in South Ossetia and the capital city of Tskhinvali has been hit. Peace talks are under way between Georgian and South Ossetian officials. Russian and Georgian Defence chiefs have also met in Moscow in an attempt to find a settlement to the conflict that threatens to drag in Russia.

The dynamics of this conflict are massive, in strategic terms, with Russia backing the secessionist states and the U.S., which has been training the Georgian Army, backing Georgia. Georgia is vital to U.S. interests, which are entangled in the construction of a $3 billion oil pipeline by a BP-PLC consortium from the oil-rich Caspian Sea. The pipeline cuts through Georgia from Azerbaijan to the Mediterranean coast, bypassing Russia and Iran. This is a major factor behind the U.S. support of Georgia and, in turn, Saakashvili is keen to reap the benefits of the pipeline for Georgia. For this, he has to gain full control over Georgia and stamp out secessionism.

As for Russia, it cannot overlook its long-term interests in the region, despite the fact that it cannot afford another war. Moscow is also becoming increasingly wary of increased European Union and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation activism in the Caucasus and Central Asia, Russia's traditional playground. On the other hand, lawlessness, secessionism and militancy proliferate in the Caucasus. The lines are drawn, but the boundaries are yet unclear. Russia will seek to avert war at all cost and Saakashvili will try to use the Russian dilemma to achieve his goal of a reunited Georgia.

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