Military operations in any country cannot occur without a significant impact on the neighboring countries. The current war in Chechnya is no exception. The Chechen conflct may result in both the political and economic destabilization of the Caucasus in general, and Georgia in particular.
Although Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin claims that Russian forces are trying to avoid harming the civilian population in Chechnya, the numbers speak for themselves: more than 150,000 people have fled Chechnya, and are seeking refuge in the neighboring countries. During the last 10 days about 1,400 have sought asylum in Georgia. Some of them are using Georgia as a transit country as they make their way to Azerbaijan and Turkey. About 400 refugees were born in Akhmeta region in Georgia (where ethnic Chechens, called Kists, reside). These people resettled in Chechnya several years ago in an attempt to expand their economic possibilities, and are now finding themselves having to return to their original homes. More refugees are expected in Georgia, which is already struggling to cope with the burden of 150,000 internally displaced persons from the separatist Abkhazia region.
The conflict in Chechnya has aggravated relations between Georgia and Russia. Moscow is seeking an agreement with Georgian authorities that would allow Russian troops to be positioned on Georgian side of the Russia-Georgia border in the Chechnya sector. At present, about 50 miles of the border between Chechnya and Georgia is not under Russian control. Moscow claims that fighters and weapons are entering Chechnya via Georgia and Azerbaijan.
So far, Georgian authorities have Russian resisted pressure to enter into a border control pact, and are trying to remain neutral. However, if Georgia is forced to agree on the deployment of the Russian border guards, this might result in Georgian territory being involved in the military conflict. Given that Russia has significant influence in the Abkhazian peace process, Moscow has the means to increase the pressure on Georgia regarding the Chechen border issue.
The Chechen conflict also poses an economic danger for Georgia and other nations in the Transcaucasus. Despite the fact that Georgia was recently accepted as a World Trade Organization member, the country still has a long way to go towards developing a healthy market economy. Economic recovery hopes will continue to depend on foreign assistance for years to come. Of course, political stability in the region is requirement number one for any potential donor government. Without stability, donor governments may hesitate to extend assistance. In particular, the Chechen conflict could negatively impact the European Union's regional cooperation efforts with Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan.
The hostilities in Chechnya also come at a time when Georgia is in the last phase of a hectic parliamentary election campaign. The vote is scheduled for October 31. So far, events in Chechnya have had little influence on the campaign, but the situation can change quickly. The pre-election atmosphere is getting more and more tense. In response to a recent campaign-related attack against a parliamentary candidate, the OSCE /ODIHR Election Observation Mission issued the statement condemning "any forms of violence, or the threat of violence." As for voters; many appear to have lost interest in politics. Though many are disillusioned, they are likely to vote for incumbent officials, preferring not to make a dramatic change in such uncertain times.
Editor's Note: Ms. Murvanidze Mitchell is Co-Director of the Princeton Partnership for Policy Research.
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