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Eurasia Insight: A New Year, but Old Problems With Georgian-Russian Relations

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By Marina Murvanidze Mitchell

According to local news reports, the flow of refugees from the embattled Chechnya region of Russia into neighboring Georgia is abating. A few of the over 5,000 refugees who have fled to Georgia in recent months are even returning home, the Georgian news agency Prime-News has reported.

Nevertheless, fighting in Chechnya appears set to continue for the foreseeable future, and, as a result, relations between Russia and Georgia could come under additional strain. Indeed, Chechnya's could lead to a renewal of other regional wars, in particular the Abkhazia conflict, prompting another round of population displacement.

As it currently stands, coping with the Chechen refugees is a problem for the Georgian government. Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze appealed to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to provide assistance for the refugees. He has described the refugee situation as a potential "humanitarian disaster."

The Georgian government aims to provide refugees from Chechnya with an allowance of 12 GAL per month (the equivalent of US$6), pending the approval of the state budget in February. However, there are potentially severe side effects to such an aid effort. Even such minimal assistance could cause discontent among hard-pressed Georgians. Most are struggling to carve out an existence amidst bleak economic conditions, and are experiencing significant delays in the payment of salaries and pensions.

More importantly, government aid to Chechen refugees would likely arouse the ire of Georgia's more than 200,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) from Abkhazia. The majority of IDPs live in dire circumstances, with little hope for an improvement in circumstance. A political solution to the conflict, one that would permit IDPs to return to their homes, seemingly remains as elusive as ever.

There are indications that patience within the IDP community is reaching the breaking point. The longer the war in Chechnya lasts, the greater the temptation for some IDPs, along with Georgian nationalists, to resort to violence in an attempt to settle the Abkhazia question.

Among the dangerous indicators is the formation of a "Committee for the Liberation of Abkhazia." According to a report in the Georgia Times, the committee, which was formed on Jan. 1, advocates the resumption of military action to regain control of Abkhazia if negotiations do not make significant progress in the near future. Russia's action in Chechnya could be used as justification for the use of violent methods to achieve political aims.

Some politicians in Georgia have stated that a renewal of hostilities might be the only means to achieve a breakthrough. For example, in his recent interview with Caucasus Press, the Chairman of the Supreme Council of Abkhaz Autonomous Republic in exile (sitting in Tbilisi), Tamaz Nadareishvili said; "Taking into consideration that we have a similar approach to the use of force for returning the lost territories as Putin has, and the situation in Chechnya proves it, we will insist on a similar approach to be used in respect of Abkhazia."

Such statements not only damage the peace process between Georgia and Abkhazia, but also may draw the ire of Russian leaders. Acting President Vladimir Putin and others have stressed that the conflict in Chechnya is a war against terrorism in Russia, and not an effort to restore the lost territories of the Russian empire.

Relations between Georgia and Russia have been deteriorating since last October, shortly after the renewal of the Chechen war. Georgian authorities have resisted Russian pressure to enter into a border control agreement and have sought to maintain neutrality.

Russia, however, has persisted in claiming that Georgia is not acting firmly to seal its border with Chechnya, and thus prevent arms and reinforcements from reaching Islamic militants who are resisting Russian federal forces. On several occasions, most recently December 17, Russian forces have attacked targets within Georgian territory.

The Government of Georgia responded to Russian pressure by appealing to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) to monitor the border between Georgia and Chechnya in the Russian Federation.

On December 15, the Permanent Council approved additional responsibilities for the OSCE Mission to Georgia. Up to 20 international personnel will "join border monitoring activities, which will be carried out by vehicle and on foot. The monitors will be unarmed, working in co-operation with the Georgian authorities," according to Permanent Council Decision No. 334.

The OSCE action is a positive development from Georgia's standpoint. However, it is unlikely that the additional 20 unarmed monitors will be able to prevent Chechen fighters from crossing the border should they want to do so. It is not clear whether OSCE involvement will convince Russia to ease its pressure on Georgia, as up to now Moscow has seemingly ignored criticism of its Chechnya-related policies. However, OSCE monitors can serve a valuable function by promoting joint border control by Georgian and Russian guards.

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Editor's Note: Ms. Murvanidze Mitchell is Co-Director of the Princeton Partnership for Policy Research.

The Central Eurasia Project aims, through its website, meetings, papers, and grants, to foster a more informed debate about the social, politcal and economic developments of the Caucasus and Central Asia. It is a program of the Open Society Institute-New York. The Open Society Institute-New York is a private operating and grantmaking foundation that promotes the development of open societies around the world by supporting educational, social, and legal reform, and by encouraging alternative approaches to complex and controversial issues.

The views expressed in this publication do not necessarily represent the position of the Open Society Institute and are are the sole responsibility of the author or authors.