Vladimir Radyuhin

The United States is encouraging Georgia's adventurism in a bid to erode Russia's position among the former Soviet States.

THE FORMER Soviet state of Georgia has emerged as a new focal point of Russian-American rivalry. Nearly three years after orchestrating a "rose revolution" in Georgia, the United States is now using the country's fiercely anti-Russia President, Mikheil Saakashvili, to try and edge out Russia from the Caucasus and weaken its leading role in the former Soviet Union even at the cost of provoking an armed conflict in the region.

Last month, four Russian military officers were arrested in Georgia on charges of espionage and subversion. Two days later the officers were released but Tbilisi used the arrests to raise the pitch of a conspicuously provocative campaign of Russia-baiting. It accused Moscow of masterminding acts of terror and sabotage on Georgian soil, and of trying to "ruin" Georgia and annex its breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Russia's reaction was swift and harsh. It recalled its Ambassador in Georgia and pulled out all but two diplomats from the embassy. It cut all transport and postal links with Georgia, stopped issuing Russian visas to Georgians, and launched large-scale naval manoeuvres off Georgia's Black Sea coast.

The U.S. also got its share of Moscow's anger, with President Vladimir Putin accusing Washington of egging on Georgia's leadership. In a telephonic talk with President George W. Bush, the Russian leader bluntly stressed, according to the Kremlin press service, "the unacceptability and danger of any actions by third nations that could be interpreted by the Georgian leadership as encouragement of its destructive policy."

The anti-Russia campaign in Georgia had gathered momentum after Mr. Saakashvili's July visit to Washington. President Bush assured the Georgian leader of America's support for his bid to join NATO and restore control over Georgia's breakaway territories. Two months later NATO offered Georgia "intensified dialogue," the first step towards membership of the alliance. At the height of the spy scandal between Georgia and Russia, the Republican majority in the U.S. Senate tabled a bill pledging support for early admission of Georgia and some East European countries to NATO.

In the past few years, Georgia has emerged as a strategic springboard for the U.S. in its push to wrestle from Russia control over the Caucasus, the energy-rich Caspian and Central Asia, and to build an oil and gas export corridor to the West bypassing Russia, which still controls the bulk of energy exports from the region. The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline inaugurated a year ago runs through Georgia, and a gas pipeline is now being built along the same route.

The U.S. has been training and equipping the Georgian military since 2002, and last year NATO member Turkey joined in the programme. Russia still has two military bases in Georgia, but they are to be withdrawn by the end of 2008. The Pentagon has already deployed U.S. troops in Georgia to guard the BTC pipeline. For its part, Georgia has actively supported U.S. operations in Iraq, contributing 850 troops for the multinational force in that country. Besides, Washington plans to use Georgia as a bridgehead for possible military action against Iran.

As seen in Moscow, Washington has now given carte blanche to Tbilisi to reclaim its lost territories. On a visit to Georgia this summer, U.S. Senators Richard Lugar and John McCain publicly backed it in its standoff with Abkhazia and South Ossetia and on its demand that the Russian peacekeepers be replaced with a European force.

Reintegration of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which gained de facto independence from Georgia in bloody civil wars in the early 1990s, is absolutely top priority for Mr. Saakashvili, who won the presidency on the promise to reassert control over the breakaway regions before his five-year term in office expires at the end of 2008. But he has effectively forfeited the peaceful option. Georgia has refused to amend its Constitution to allow autonomous status to ethnic minorities, and rejected recommendations from the U.N. Security Council and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe to sign agreements with South Ossetia and Abkhazia against the use of force. Abkhazia and South Ossetia, for their part, in numerous polls have reaffirmed their refusal to be part of Georgia and vowed to defend their independence with arms.

In a letter to the OSCE after the spy scandal, President Putin warned that Georgia is preparing to retake the breakaway territories by force. Two months ago, Georgia moved troops into the Kodori gorge next to Abkhazia and installed a so-called government-in-exile in the area, which under a 1994 ceasefire accord is a demilitarised zone. Georgia has also built up troops and armour around South Ossetia. Georgia's hawkish Defence Minister Iraklii Okruashvili promised to toast in the New Year in Tskhinvali, capital of South Ossetia. Georgia's defence budget has increased nearly seven-fold since 2004 to a whopping $336 million this year, or a sixth of all budget spending. This figure does not include massive military aid from the U.S. and Turkey.

The only restraining factor has been the presence of 2,500 Russian peacekeepers in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The arrest of the Russian officers last month and a string of earlier provocations against the Russian military were aimed at discrediting Moscow as a mediator in Tbilisi's standoff with its breakaway territories and getting Russian peacekeepers removed from the region.

Russia is worried Georgia may try to provoke a military confrontation in the breakaway regions in the next few months, before the U.N.-administered Serbian province of Kosovo is granted independence creating a precedent for other similar conflicts. The U.S. and Europe insist Kosovo is a "unique" case but Russia has warned that the same standards must be applied to all frozen conflicts, including those in the former Soviet Union.

So far Russia has supported the principle of Georgia's territorial integrity, even while giving economic aid and moral support to Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Now Moscow has indicated it may extend recognition to the two regions once Kosovo gains independence.

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov warned that if Georgian forces attacked Abkhazia or South Ossetia "Russia will not stay on the sidelines" and would defend its nationals, whose share in the two territories had grown to 90 per cent after Moscow started issuing Russian passports to the local population several years ago.

Even if an armed conflict can be avoided, Georgia's attacks on Russian peacekeeping efforts can seriously dent Moscow's potential to mediate in other frozen conflicts in its backyard in Nagorny Karabakh contested by Azerbaijan and Armenia and in Moldova's breakaway province of Transdniestr. This could eventually erode Russia's position in the former Soviet Union. This is exactly what the U.S. is trying to achieve by encouraging Georgia's adventurism.

Russia has apparently decided that the best way out would be to precipitate a change of regime in Tbilisi with the help of sanctions aimed at undermining the Georgian economy and provoking large-scale discontent to bring down Mr. Saakashvili, like the other two post-Soviet Georgian leaders, Zviad Gamsakhurdia and Eduard Shevardnadze.

Georgia, one of the poorest countries in the former Soviet Union with a population of 4.5 million, depends on Russia for natural gas and electricity and for jobs for half of its 2.1-million workers. Following the spy row, Russian authorities said Georgia would not get any migrant work quotas for its citizens and started deporting "illegal" Georgian workers and closing down Georgian businesses. Georgian workers and businessmen in Russia are estimated to be sending back home up to $2 billion annually, which is comparable to Georgia's budget revenues. Russia also indefinitely extended a ban on Georgia's main export items wine and mineral water introduced last winter on health grounds. There is speculation that Russia's Gazprom monopoly may further hike the price of natural gas for Georgia, which went up from $64 per 1,000 cu m last year to $110 this year.

The economic pressure tactics partially worked in case of the Ukraine, where a sharp increase in Russian gas prices in January helped Russia-friendly leader Viktor Yanukovich eight months later to regain the post of Prime Minister he held before the Orange Revolution. In Georgia, however, Mr. Saakashvili has so far skilfully exploited Russia's "hostility" to mobilise nationalist support for his government. In the local government elections held on October 5, immediately after the spy scandal, the ruling party garnered 60 per cent of the vote, leaving a fragmented opposition far behind.

It is a high-stakes game for all sides involved. For Mr. Saakashvili, it is a question of political survival. For Russia, it is a crucial test of its leadership in the former Soviet Union. And for the U.S., Georgia is the door to Central Asia and a chance to reverse a string of recent setbacks in the region marked by the rise of defiant Russia, the closure of a U.S. military base in Uzbekistan, and the unravelling of the "people's power revolutions" in Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan.