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Georgia wriggles in Russian orbit

US, Russian military delegations visit Tbilisi this week as Moscow pushes against pro-West stance.

By Scott Peterson Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 13, 2001


As Georgia struggles to reorient itself toward the West, the former Soviet republic is coming under increasing pressure from Moscow to remain in the Russian camp.

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Long alarmed by Georgia's close ties with the West - it has received $1.5 billion in aid in the past decade - and constant talk about joining NATO, Russia is using energy as one way of bringing the Tbilisi government to heel. In recent weeks, Georgian analysts and officials say, Russia has ratcheted up efforts to reestablish its influence across the Caucasus region.

President Eduard Shevardnadze appeared to mollify Moscow's concerns last week, by discussing a balance in the East-West tug of war. NATO membership was not a foregone conclusion, he told reporters on Feb. 5, and it is "possible that Georgia will become a neutral country.... Between now and 2005, there could be many changes in the world political scene."

But presidential aides privately dismiss the possibility of any strategic re-alignment back toward Russia. A small but important corner of the imperial Russian and Soviet empires for two centuries, Georgia since independence in 1990 has sought to counterbalance its vast northern neighbor with American and European friends.

Yesterday, Russian newspapers noted that the visit of a senior Russian military delegation this week coincides with an American one. The US team is led by Col. Othar Shalikashvili (ret.), the Pentagon's point man on Georgian defense matters.

Still, Russia's bare-knuckle politics have been on full display, Georgians say, and are getting steadily worse. The slide began last year after President Vladimir Putin - revered at home for heavy-handed action against separatists in Chechnya - took over in the Kremlin, vowing to restore Moscow's leadership role and international prestige.

"Putin wants tough measures against those trying to escape Russian hegemony," says Giorgi Baramidze, chairman of the Georgian parliament's Committee on Defense and Security. "[The Russians] want to show to all other newly independent states: If they want to cross the red line to join the civilized world, and not accept Russian rules, then they will be punished."

Western assistance is "the one reason we are still alive as an independent state," he says, echoing a widespread view.

Located at the crossroads between Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, the ancient kingdom of Georgia had endured invasions for centuries. Under a 1783 defense pact, Russia agreed to provide protection from advancing Turkish and Persian troops, while Georgia kept its king and sovereignty. Instead, Georgia was annexed in 1801.

These days, strong-arm tactics used by the Putin Kremlin across former Soviet republics from Ukraine to Kazakhstan include leveraging Soviet-era energy dependence on Russia into political clout. Georgians are used to energy crises that require power-rationing every winter. But last November, outages were so severe protesters took to the streets.

Moscow's finger on the energy button has greatly compounded the problem, and is calculated to deliver a "catastrophic blow" to Georgia says Alexander Rondeli, head of the Foreign Ministry's Foreign Policy Research and Analysis Center in Tbilisi.