Georgia wriggles in Russian orbit

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

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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.

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."

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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.

Its roots are an "old fashioned" world view that mandates control of the Caucasus, a historical flashpoint. "This paranoia of the West and the US in Georgia is overblown. We [Russia and Georgia] can't escape each other, but the Russians are causing mistrust; they are pushing us to be more pro-West," says Mr. Rondeli. "Modern Russians," he adds, "must understand that a healthy, wealthy Georgia is in Russia's interest."

In a move that analysts here call a "watershed," Georgia refused permission in late 1999 for Russian forces to attack Chechen rebels from its territory. Russia accuses Georgia of backing the separatists, a charge Tbilisi denies. But last week, for the first time, Mr. Shevardnadze conceded that arms are present in a border valley controlled by ethnic Chechens.

Georgia also rejected an official Russian request to extend for 15 years its troop presence at two military bases here. Two other Russian bases are due to be vacated by July.

Russia, for its part, has long opposed an American-backed Caspian oil-pipeline project that gained new life last fall when a consortium of oil companies committed $25 million to a feasibility study. The proposed pipeline route - from Baku, Azerbaijan, to the Turkish port of Ceyhan through Georgia - would lessen Georgian energy dependence on Moscow. With projected transit revenues in the hundreds of millions of dollars at stake, Russia is pushing a route that would upgrade its existing network.

"Like it or not, Russia is 'at war' with Georgia," says Mamuka Nebievidze, head of the independent Tbilisi Center for Euro-Atlantic Studies.

The first strike came in December, when Russia - citing unpaid debts - cut off natural gas supplies, depriving the capital of most heat and light for three days. Soon after, Russia imposed a visa regime that effectively limits critical cash remittances from Georgians working in Russia.

"An objective reason for making Russian-Georgian relations worse is Georgia's attitude to the West - its separation from Russia and its attempts to find its own political place," says Alexander Iskandaryan, director of the independent Center of Caucasian Studies in Moscow.

Energy and visas are where Tbilisi is most vulnerable, so this is where Russia "exerts maximum pressure against Georgia," he says. "Imperial relics" are part of the Russian equation, Mr. Iskandaryan adds, while on the Georgian side are "phobias of a state that used to be the heart of an empire, a fear of a big and mighty neighbor which is trying to get involved in Georgia's domestic policy."

For President Shevardnadze, a former Soviet foreign minister, finding the right East-West balance has not been easy. "We depend on Russia for a lot of things," says Otari Babunashvili, an analyst at the Center for Strategic Research and Development of Georgia. "So whether we move toward the West or not, Russia plays a role in our decision-making process."

In 1983, Soviet authorities celebrated the bicentennial of the Russia-Georgia "Friendship Pact" by erecting several monuments in Tbilisi. One, a 15-foot bronze ball, rolled from its hilltop site during an earthquake down to the highway below. It was sold for scrap.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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