ALMATY, March 22
Georgia is now seriously afraid of a shift of military operations into its territory. A western diplomat recently said in an interview to the Guardian newspaper that the U.S.A., which has significant interests in Georgia, also expressed concern that �Georgia would soon be involved in the Chechen conflict.�
But what has caused this sudden fear? Russia's Foreign Ministry has repeatedly made harsh statements towards Georgia, blaming it for supporting Chechen gunmen, who supposedly had training camps there and were able to transport weapons, people and food through mountains. In December President Shevardnadze responded to one of Moscow's regular attacks by announcing that he considered Moscow to be exacting its revenge on Georgia after the latter's refusal to allow Russian troops in its territory, thus denying Russia a base from which to attack Chechnya from south. If the country had agreed, the conflict could easily have spread into the Caucasian country. The Georgian Treasury has even accused some Russian politicians and the Russian media of initiating a wave of anti-Georgian attacks.
Tbilisi has provided a similar response to Moscow. In November 1999 the Georgian Ambassador to Russia Malhaz Kakabadze said that Tbilisi was dissatisfied with the security system that included Russia, highlighting growing distrust. Russia border troops have now all withdrawn from Georgia, although the closure of 4 Russian military bases is under debate. This comes at a time when Georgia is moving away from the CIS Collective Security Treaty and when Eduard Shevardnadze is claiming that if he wins the forthcoming election, Tbilisi �will loudly start knocking on NATO's door�. The country could possibly enter the block in 2005. On March 14 NATO representatives, having noted Georgia's participation in the Kosovo campaign, announced that it could count on membership in the alliance, if it met the necessary conditions.
One of the conditions for entry into NATO is the absence of any military conflict in the country's territory. However, separatist movements hold are extremely popular in Georgia, not only in Abhasia, but in southern Osetia and Adjaria as well. Many experts consider the Gerogian-Abhasian conflict as benefical for Russia, which is eager to link itself to Georgia, through mediating and then acting as guarantor of any agreements between conflicting parties. Georgia believes that, during the military conflict, Abhasia was freely supplied with gunmen and various weapons through Russia. Mr. Shevardnadze recently underlined the possibility that special services of certain countries were preparing for conflict in Adjaria. He also made reference to the Chechen President Vahi Arsanov, with whom he openly sympathised. Arsanov was therefore clearly pointing the finger at Russia.
But there are more examples which demonstrate the current state of relations between Russia and Georgia. For example, there still uncertainty regarding fire by MI-24 helicopters in Georgian territory. The Georgian Foreign Ministry claims that the helicopters belonged to the Russian Air Force. Moscow refuted the accusation, stating that a militia base had been bombed in Chechnya. The RIA-Novosty agency then stated that officers of the Georgian State Security Ministry had been at the bombed staging post.
The "Georgadze factor" resurfaced with the arrest, in May 1999, of a group of people suspected of preparing a fresh attempt on the President's life. Eduard Shevardnadze then claimed that the extremist group's protectors and leaders were based in Russia. Tbilisi has repeatedly expressed its bewilderment regarding Russia's evident protection of Igor Georgadze, the former chief of the Georgian Security Service who is convicted and wanted for terrorism.
Finally, in February President Shevardnadze announced that he was sure that Russia would not shift its anti-terrorists operations to Georgia. The Russian media (�translating from the diplomatic language�) perceived this as a direct accusation, towards Moscow or to influential forces within the Russian military's administration, of preparation for aggression.
Another statement by the President followed. It was a statement of his opposition to the �Blue Flow� project, saying that it is extremely harmful to the ecology of the Black Sea. At the same time Shevardnadze has approved the construction of a Turkmenistan-Turkey gas pipeline that would run through Azerbaijan and Georgia. Georgia demonstrated its increasing disconnection from Russia on energy transportation issues, when it participated in the Baku-Ceykhan project as a transit state.
But how real is the danger, under conditions of worsening relations between Moscow and Tbilisi and their growing mutual distrust? Another western diplomat (THE GLOBE #10(428), 11.02.2000) considers Russia to be unable to make any serious moves southwards, being hampered by economic problems: �It believes itself to be stronger than it really is.�
However, analysts from Stratfor do not agree (THE GLOBE #6(424), 28.01.2000). If Russia is able to deal with its internal problems, they state, then it may believe itself capable of capturing southern states through diplomacy, political cheating and open force, especially with the latter's being too weak to oppose any expansion. Georgia has many domestic problems, ranging from a low standard of living to separatism, and yet its population is only 5 million people, of which Georgians number only 3 to 3.2 million, according to the data from 1999. Obviously, Stratfor's pessimism is a result of Yeltsin's retirement and the coming of �iron Putin�as acting President: a pragmatic, and long-term leader who has managed to consolidate the Russian community from the inside. This transition alone gave the press and experts a great deal to discuss, most of all the future of the Caucasus and central Asian countries.
Sabit Zhusupov, director of the Kazakhstan Institute of Social-Economic Information and Prognoses believes that when Putin is elected as the country's leader, we should expect Russia to strengthen its pressure on the southern states. Russia could potentially widen its influence, to a significant level, through several conflicts: Abhasia, Tajikistan, and Bakent. Russia might involve itself in the Kazakhstan-Uzbekistan border problem.
In his opinion, Russia does not have to demonstrate to the world that it is a democratic country. Mr. Zhusupov thinks that the new geopolitical situation in the post-Soviet arena has been radically transformed since Putin had come to power, and now Russia seems likely to force the creation of a new confederation with a clear hierarchy and leadership.
On Sunday the Russian presidential election will be held. The winning candidate is already certain. The success of the Chechen campaign and raising patriotic feeling have both played a considerable role in his success. But what will happen when the forceful leader, not only professionally but also spiritually, comes to power? Most probably, all power in Russia will start and end with the President. If power becomes autocratic (and many experts, including those inside Russia forecast this), this will be a new era in inter-governmental relations in the post-Soviet arena. THE GLOBE will keep you informed on the changing colours of the Caucasus and Central Asia.
ALMATY, March 23
(Based on sources from the Russian press)
The acting Russian President Vladimir Putin seems to have chosen some extremely accurate and well thought-out tactics for his election campaign, which comes to a head this Sunday.
A fall in his preliminary popularity ratings from 55% to 48% means very little. Over the coming three days, Putin will doubtless be able to regain 5% and perhaps even exceed this. His tea-drinking with an ordinary Kazan family during a sightseeing tour of the Kazan mosque and his being seen shaking hands with the common people will all doubtless boost his authority amongst the people.
The acting President's strategy towards the army has been extremely accurate, with his �secret KNB� tactics proving most effective.
Having left people guessing as to where the acting President was, Putin managed to sneak into a SU-27 bound for Chechnya. �It was right that he used a fighter plane. If he had used a bomber aircraft, and dropped bombs on the gunmen, it would have been too much. The world then saw the fighter landing at Severny airport, with Russia's acting leader in the co-pilot's seat. The question is how on earth his main competitors will be able to equal this before the election. Yavlinsky is not going to be able to pull away in three days and Zyuganov, despite his craftiness, will not circumnavigate the world in a submarine. There seems to be no need for economic policies. Nor even a second round. After all, how many other candidates for the Russian Presidency can fly into the Kremlin on a Sukhoi fighter?� (Vesti.ru).
This highly populist step by the leading candidate was clearly the result of long reflection. Even the Chechen campaign itself was started to promote an unknown and unpopular Putin.
Nor is his flight into Chechnya a step up, as Putin last time travelled to Chechnya by car, for the New Year celebrations, amongst champagne soaked Russian soldiers, where the phrase �soak in lavatories� was coined. This time Putin came "to coat his statue in bronze�, and beside the statue, on March 26th, a ballot-box will be placed for Russian soldiers. Every soldier posting his ballot sheet will proudly remember that Putin himself had personally waved at him, as he got into the SU-27.
The acting President is allowed to visit army divisions �the country's geopolitical situation even requires it. It is no bad thing and ideally it has little to do with campaigning. However, the visit of the Yabloko leader, Grigory Yavlinsky, to one Russian regiment has been seen as purposeful agitation. This runs contrary to the entire election campaign. As a result, the Central Election Commission (CEC) not only officially noted the Yabloko leader's actions, but there are also rumours that his candidature will be withdrawn. What is more, Yavlinsky has already exceeded the CEC's permitted allowance the for the election race. Four candidates (Govoruhin, Zhirinovsky, Panfilova and Djabrailov) have all complained about Yavlinsky's agitation campaign, accusing him of buying up all of the media "air time" available.
Zhirinovsky is not alone. With only a few days left before the election, having disagreed with his competitors he announced they should nominate a common candidate from the opposition. The latter only smirked. The acting President also Vladimir Volfovich's statement with a pinch of salt, saying that it was very much Zhirinovsky's style, as was his visit to a Gypsy group.
The tension of the election campaign mounting. Today's standings put Vladimir Putin as first (48%).
Gennady Zyuganov second (19%)
Grigory Yavlinsky third (over 4%).
Vladimir Zhirinovsky and Aman Tuleev have 1% each.
March 22 (abc)
Supporters of Russia's acting President Vladimir Putin have been accused of electoral violations during early ballotting in the country's frozen far north.
Final opinion polling before election day confirms what most Russians believe that Mr Putin cannot lose on Sunday.
But he remains concerned to get enough votes to stave off a second round because he says Russia cannot afford the cost.
So there has been a vigorous effort to ensure that all eligible voters have their say, among them reindeer herders in Siberia's far north.
It is there that Russian journalists say they witnessed electoral violations in favour of Mr Putin.
The Kremlin has not commented.
The man himself, who had said he would not campaign, has been doing just that in several Russian regions.
He has been kissing babies and promising increased state wages.
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