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Let Russia and Georgia Resolve Own Differences
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By Yu Sui

Recently Georgia's relations with Russia have been marred by the "airspace intrusion" incident. The real cause of the incident is still to be resolved, as the two sides continue to blame each other while sticking to their own accounts of what happened.

What we know so far is that on August 6, the Georgian government accused a Russian fighter jet of illegally entering its airspace and fired a rocket. The Russian side has categorically rejected this accusation and countered by accusing Georgia of planting evidence.

Moscow believes the whole thing is a farce staged by Georgia to undermine the planned talks between South Ossetia and Georgia over the status of the South Ossetia region.

On August 16, the United States submitted a draft statement to the UN Security Council outlining an assessment of the incident, but failed to get the council to vote on it because of Russia's objections.

The trouble does not end there. A spokesperson for the Georgian Interior Ministry announced on August 24 that its ground forces opened fire on a Russian aircraft flying over the mountainous region of Abkhazia (Abkhazeti). An aide to the Russian Air Force commander immediately responded by calling the Georgian statement "another public provocation directed at Russia".

Both Russia and Georgia know exactly what the other side is up to amid the bickering. Since the Soviet Union disintegrated, the complex relationship between Russia and Georgia has experienced some intense flair-ups. The cause of their troubled relations can be viewed from two perspectives.

There are at least four sticking points as far as their bilateral ties are concerned.

The first is the South Ossetia issue. South Ossetia is an autonomous region of Georgia bordering Russia's North Ossetia. After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the region demanded separation from Georgia to merge with North Ossetia in order to become part of Russia.

The South Ossetia government has been in a standoff with the central government since it declared independence and large-scale armed conflicts broke out between the two sides. Because the South Ossetia government maintains close relations with Russia, Georgia often alleges that Russia secretly provides South Ossetia with military supplies and financial support, which seriously harms bilateral ties.

Currently the two countries are preparing for talks aimed at determining the status of South Ossetia. US diplomats stationed in Georgia have said: "What worries America is not the missile incident but the whole situation in South Ossetia."

The second is the Abkhazia issue. Abkhazia is an autonomous republic within Georgia. The Abkhaz ethnic minority believes the Georgians have long been changing the demographic makeup in Abkhazia, where the Abkhaz population has fallen to just 25 percent of the total and their legitimate rights as an ethnic minority is routinely disregarded.

In 1992, Abkhazia declared independence and in August that year, armed conflict broke out with Georgia which lasted for 14 months.

Abkhazia is nominally and legally still part of Georgia, but Georgia in fact does not have sovereign rule over the region, which lies between the Psou and Inguri rivers.

The Georgian government only managed to gain control over a small area in the Kodori Valley in July last year. The Georgian government believes the Abkhazia issue has persisted so far because Russia has been secretly supporting the region's ethnic secessionists.

The third is Russian military bases in Georgia. Russia retained four military bases in Georgia after the demise of the Soviet Union. According to a joint statement the two sides made in Istanbul in 1999, Russia has abandoned two of them, while keeping the other two in Akhalkalaki and Batumi. The two sides have yet to agree on leasing terms for the two bases.

On March 10 this year the Georgian Parliament passed a resolution declaring the Russian military bases illegal and that Russia must come up with a timetable for pulling its troops out by May 15, or Georgia would act unilaterally to demolish the bases.

Russia on the other hand insisted it needed three to four years to complete the process. Western media has pointed out the United States is also involved in the military base wrangling and this is but one of many such struggles between the two big powers in Central Asia.

The fourth is Georgia's accommodation of Chechen rebels. The Pankisi Gorge in Georgia is located near Chechnya in Russia. Russia has accused Georgia of providing cover for Chechen rebels hiding in the Pankisi Gorge and said financial support, military logistical supplies and foreign mercenaries have all been entering Chechnya from that area.

The Russian side has repeatedly asked its Georgian counterpart to take joint military action, but Georgian leaders have denied large numbers of rebel forces were present in the area and has rejected Russia's request, saying Georgia was capable of "putting the Pankisi Gorge in order" on its own.

Georgia has announced it had caught a few Chechen terrorists but refused Moscow's demand for their deportation to Russia.

There are also at least four sticking points in the Russia-Georgia multilateral relations.

The first lies with Georgia's attempt to join NATO, which Russia is absolutely against. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko said on October 25, last year that President Vladimir Putin had told NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, Russia was very concerned about NATO's eastward expansion and the strengthening ties between the Western alliance and Georgia.

NATO's eastward expansion and its plan to accept Georgia as a member has worried Russia and will affect its political, military and economic interests as well as casting a negative impact on the fragile situation in the already troubled Caucasus.

NATO's decision to increase dialogue with Georgia has been interpreted by the latter as an offer of support for it to take a confrontational stance against Russia.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in an official letter to France and Germany that Georgia's allegation that a Russian fighter jet dropped a missile inside Georgia was "a ploy" to please NATO.

The second is Georgia's obsession with forming a GUAM (Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova) alliance. Georgia assumed a detached posture when the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) was taking shape and only joined it reluctantly when internal and external hardship left it no other choice.

Georgia needs Russia's help to contain ethnic secessionist movements and secure territorial integrity; it also wants to use international political organizations and media to offset Russia's influence in order to protect its sovereign independence.

With US support, Georgia teamed up with Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova to form GUAM, which has seriously undercut the status of CIS. In May last year according to a resolution reached during a GUAM meeting, the new group was upgraded to "a democratic and economic development organization" and further distanced itself from CIS.

The third is Georgia's enthusiasm for the "color revolution" orchestrated by the US. Compared to those of other former Soviet republics, Georgian leaders were the first to embrace the US-designed "color revolution". US President George W. Bush visited Georgia to show his support in person.

Although small and poor, Georgia boasts a very important geo-strategic position, which the US believes, comes in handy in keeping Russia busy and influencing some of the former Soviet republics.

Today a large number of US instructors are training Georgian armed forces. The Georgian government announced a few years ago that the US would send 150 military experts to Georgia and allocate US$65 million for the purpose. That sum was nearly three times more than Georgia's annual defense budget at that time.

The fourth is the struggle between Russia and Georgia to control the oil and natural gas flow. Georgia is a hub of oil and natural gas pipes from the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean. For decades Russia has capitalized on the oil and gas export pipelines stretching mainly within its borders from the Central Asian production region to Europe. It has a vital grip on energy supplies from the Caspian Sea, which is a lifeline for Western nations, so as to ward off US and Western attempts to encroach upon its traditional sphere of power.

Azerbaijan, Turkey and Georgia have championed a counter measure against Russia by jointly building a pipeline linking oil-rich Baku (in Azerbaijan) with Tbilisi (Georgian capital) and Ceyhan (in Turkey).

The US has shown tremendous interest in this plan and believes this oil pipeline, which circumvents Russia and is free from OPEC intervention, will serve as a key leverage in the world energy market. When completed, the pipeline will break Russia's monopoly over oil transportation in that part of the world.

Deepening grudges between Russia and Georgia serve neither side's interests. The two countries know this all too well but need time to figure out a way to talk about it. And to do so they must keep the US out of the picture.

The author is a senior researcher with the Beijing-based Research Center of Contemporary World.

(China Daily September 4, 2007)

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