Tensions ratcheted up between Russia and Georgia following a successful Georgian military offensive against a pro-Russian separatist rebellion in the remote Kodori Gorge in July – and they are soaring again with last week's sensational allegations of a Moscow-backed coup d'état planned to overthrow President Mikhael Saakashvili.
Georgian security forces last week rounded up about 30 opposition leaders and charged 14 of them with treason in a purported plan to stage disturbances in Tbilisi, leading to an opposition seizure of power.
Most of those arrested were officials of the pro-Moscow Justice Party, whose leader, former Georgian KGB chief Igor Giorgadze, is reportedly hiding in Russia. Others were activists of the opposition Conservative Monarchists and of the Anti-Soros Movement, a coalition of groups that accuses billionaire George Soros of "interfering" in Georgian politics by funding pro-Western nongovernmental organizations and think tanks.
Mr. Saakashvili, who himself came to power on a wave of mass unrest in 2003's pro-democracy "Rose Revolution," suggested that the Kremlin stood behind the alleged coup plotters. "Certain forces in Russia decided that this autumn is the last time when it is still possible to stop the process of Georgia's formation," Saakashvili said. "Their ... hope was that local collaborators would help them. But this scenario has failed."
Russia has denied any involvement.
It's just the latest chapter in a deadly chess game – played out on Georgian soil – between Moscow and successive Georgian leaders who've sought to loosen traditional ties with Russia and move closer to the West. In the early 1990s, Russia backed the violent emergence of two separatist statelets, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, to keep pressure on Georgia, experts say. Former Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze, who ran Georgia from 1992 to 2003, walked a cautious line between Russia and the West. But Saakashvili, a US-trained lawyer, has pledged to reunite his nation and lead it into NATO before his term expires in 2009.
In a recent speech, Saakashvili acknowledged that this might lead to conflict with Russia. "Moscow has very firmly expressed its policy in respect to Georgia. I want to believe that this is the policy of only one part of the Russian authorities – and this policy is very simple: not to let Georgia become strong and not to let Georgia restore its territorial integrity," he said.
The danger of war with Russia was on full display when Georgia moved this summer to crush a local warlord, Emzar Kvitsiani, who was threatening to move his tiny fiefdom in the rugged Kodori Gorge away from central government control and into the arms of separatist forces in Abkhazia. In late July, Mr. Kvitsiani announced he would take up arms against the central Georgian government. Kvitsiani's paramilitary group, called Mondaire, or Hunter, was officially disbanded by Minister of Defense Irakli Okruashvili more than a year ago.
Saakashvili ordered his ministers of interior and defense to lead an operation deep into the tight gorge, disbanding Mondaire, though failing to capture Kvitsiani. Journalists were prevented from entering the gorge and camped out in a nearby village, unable to make telephone calls after the government cut the lines.
Still, successful seizure of the district is widely seen as a key step for the Georgian military, which has been remaking itself, with US assistance, after being defeated by Abkhazia and South Ossetia's separatist armies more than 10 years ago.
"It's not about the Kodori Gorge. It's about the success of the Georgian state," said Parliamentary Deputy Chairman of Defense Nick Rurua. Part of Georgia's Svaneti region, the gorge is virtually inaccessible for four months of the year when snows block the mountain passes, and has traditionally been seen as a zone of lawlessness and tribal rule.
But Georgia's Kodori operation was viewed with deep alarm by Russia, whose armed peacekeepers police the region under a 1994 cease-fire accord. At the height of the crisis, Moscow sent 6,000 special alpine troops to hold "exercises" nearby and the Russian Foreign Ministry warned in a statement that, "this area borders directly on Russian territory, and what is going on there affects the security of the Russian Federation." Russian officials have repeatedly said that Moscow will intervene "to protect Russian citizens" if Georgia moves militarily against South Ossetia or Abkhazia. Experts say about 90 percent of the population in both statelets have been issued Russian passports.
Occupation of the Kodori Gorge, which makes up 17 percent of Abkhazian territory, brings Georgian forces much closer to the Abkhaz capital of Sukhumi. The Abkhaz separatist government and Russia claim that Georgia has violated the cease-fire pact, which forbids the use of military troops in the conflict zone. But Georgia claims the Kodori invasion was a "police action." Abkhaz leaders warn that they, too, might turn to military action. "Countermeasures will be tough," said Abkhaz president Sergei Bagapsh.
Georgia has since installed a shadow Abkhazian government, housed in Tbilisi.
Fighting has also flared around South Ossetia. Last month, Ossetian gunners nearly brought down a helicopter carrying Georgian Defense Minister Okruashvili, while forces of the two sides clashed last week near Tskhinvali, South Ossetia's capital, killing four people.
But for now, the impact of the Kodori siege is most visible at home. In recent months, Georgians have been swept by a resurgent nationalism. But some experts worry that Saakashvili may be moving too quickly to end Georgia's multiple separatist threats and cement the country's pro- Western course. "There is a Russian expression that talks about the hangover of success," says Georgian Open Society Institute chief Dato Darchiashvili. "That is what I am afraid of here."