Russian-Georgian tensions escalate

News & Analysis
Russia & the former USSR

Russian-Georgian tensions escalate
By Simon Wheelan
13 August 2004

There is mounting evidence that London and Washington are encouraging
the Georgian government to challenge Russia’s presence in the
breakawayrepublics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Strategically
situated between the Black Sea and the oil-rich Caspian, and sitting
astride two key oil and gas pipelines, Georgia borders Russia, Turkey,
Azerbaijan and Armenia.

Since being installed in power following a US-backed coup last
December which usurped former President Eduard Shevardnadze, Georgia’s
President Mikhail Saakashvili has made clear that he intends to
reunify his fractured republic by force if necessary.

Having wrested back control over the coastal region of Adjaria and the
major port of Batumi in May, Georgia has stepped up its threats
against Abkhazia and there have been reports that its troops are
massing on the border with South Ossetia where Russian troops are

In the early hours of Thursday August 12, at least three people where
killed after an exchange of fire on the Georgian side of the border,
near the village of Eredi. South Ossetia said that Georgian forces had
opened fire first, injuring seven people on its side of the
border. But a Russian colonel was initially quoted as stating that
South Ossetia had fired first, although he later changed his account.

The deaths come after tensions between Tbilisi and Moscow had reached
new depths in the last weeks. On July 20, Saakashvili threatened to
renounce the 12-year-old deal whereby Georgian, Russian and South
Ossetian forces have patrolled the breakaway republic. And on Tuesday
August 3, Saakashvili announced on television that his forces were
ready to attack ships that `illegally’ enter the waters off Abkhazia.

Georgia lost control of the waters over a decade ago. Nonetheless
Saakashvili warned, `I earlier ordered… that we should immediately
open fireon, and sink, every ship which enters Abkhazia.’

The Black Sea coast is a popular destination for Russian holidaymakers
arriving by boat from the nearby Russian resort of Sochi. Russian
tourists should ` pay attention’ to his words, Saakashvili
threatened. Just days earlier a Georgian patrol boat had fired at a
civilian vessel in the Black Sea.

A Russian foreign minister said that the threats showed `Tbilisi wants
to play with fire’. In a statement Moscow warned, `Any attempts to
injure or threaten the lives of Russian citizens will receive the
necessary rebuff.’

Just two days after making his provocative remarks, Saakashvili was
meeting with US Secretary of State Colin Powell in Washington. Despite
claiming that he wanted to avoid any confrontation with Russia, and
was seeking to `calm tensions’, Saakashvili again warned Russian
tourists that, `Abkhazia is no place for rest. It is a war zone, from
where 300,000 Georgians have been expelled ‘.

Saakashvili has boasted of his daily contact with Powell and US
National Security adviser Condolezza Rice and obviously feels
emboldened by his links with the western powers. In recent months
Georgia has strengthened its tieswith NATO and has received some $1
billion in aid from the European Union.

Tbilisi has demanded that its forces control the South Ossetian
entrance to the tunnel beneath the Caucasus linking North Ossetia, in
Russia, to South Ossetia in Georgia, supposedly to clamp down on the
trade in contraband.

Exacerbating this potentially explosive situation is the fact that
British and US military forces are currently involved in training the
Georgian army, effectively inciting them to challenge the Russian
presence in the breakaway republics.

During his visit to London last month for talks with Prime Minister
Tony Blair, Saakashvili stated brazenly that, `Britain is becoming
more involved in the region and not only on the (Trans-Caucasus)
pipeline. We just had last week joint training of UK Special Forces
together with the Georgian armyâ=80=9D.

Saakashvili boasted that Britain was now the third biggest contributor
to the Georgian armed forces after the US and Turkey.

According to the Times newspaper, it is believed that approximately
160 British troops are involved in training Georgian forces. Simulated
military operations, named the `Georgian Express 2004′, took place
July 5-18 at a military base in Vaziani. During exercises soldier’s
practised techniques in establishing checkpoints and patrols-all of
which have been essential to the Georgian army’s recent incursions
into South Ossetia.

In a qualitative deepening of the relationship between Tbilisi and
London, Saakashvili also revealed that British General Sir Garry
Johnson was now permanently based in the Georgian Defence Ministry to
co-ordinate ongoing military assistance. A light infantry detachment
took part in exercises with Georgian commandos and further exercises
are scheduled with British advisers training Georgian officers and

Earlier in the year the Pentagon decided to privatise its military
presence in Georgia by contracting the work to a group of retired US
military officers.

At the time a senior western diplomat told the Guardian newspaper,
`One of the goals is to make the army units capable of seizing and
defending a given objective’.

The US has maintained a presence in Georgia since 2002 when military
trainers and advisers arrived in the country, ostensibly to combat Al
Qaeda forces said to be in the Georgian Pankisi Gorge on the border
with Chechnya. World Socialist Web Site