- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 7, 2002

Relations between Russia and the former Soviet republic of Georgia have deteriorated rapidly in recent days as Moscow has used increasingly belligerent rhetoric about what it sees as its neighbor's failure to restrain separatist rebel groups operating in Chechnya.
Georgia has protested incursions by Russian bomber jets as recently as Saturday into the Pankisi Gorge, a largely lawless Georgia border region that is home to many refugees from the protracted struggle in Chechnya. Many in Tbilisi, the republic's capital, argue that Russia's recent threats reflect Moscow's inability to accept Georgia's very existence as an independent state.
Russia's goal "is to crush a sovereign and independent state and put it under their heel, under their jackboot," Georgian State Border Guard Chairman Valeri Chkheidze said in a July 30 television interview. "Their mentality has not changed."
Georgia has consistently rejected the idea that Russian troops be used to flush out terrorist and rebel enclaves on its territory, even as Tbilisi has eagerly embraced a $64 million Bush administration program to have U.S. anti-terrorism specialists train Georgian troops.
In a rebuff to Russian President Vladimir Putin, Georgian prosecutors yesterday refused a direct request to hand over 14 Chechens captured by Georgian border guards. The 14 were attempting to cross back into the country from Russia.
"We will judge how serious the intention of the Georgian authorities to fight terrorism is depending on how quickly these criminals end up in Lefortovo prison" in Moscow, Mr. Putin told reporters in the Russian capital Monday.
But Georgian authorities said Moscow has not provided any evidence to support its contentions that the detained Chechens had been engaged in terrorist activity.
Georgia and Russia have long clashed over charges that Chechen rebels have used the Pankisi Gorge as a sanctuary. Mr. Putin's inability to crush Chechen resistance 10 pro-Russian Chechen policemen were killed when their truck hit a land mine yesterday has only fueled the Kremlin's anger.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe warned on Friday of growing tension between the two countries, as OSCE monitors confirmed for the first time Georgian assertions that Russian military aircraft had been crossing the border in strikes at rebel strongholds.
Russia has multiple ways to pressure its smaller neighbors, beginning with Russian troop outposts inside Georgia dating to Soviet days. Georgia also accuses Russia of supporting a powerful separatist movement in the Georgian coastal region of Abkhazia.
Nationalist Russian legislator Vladimir Zhirinovsky argued yesterday in the State Duma that Russia end gas and oil subsidies to its energy-dependent neighbor.
"We provide Georgia with energy resources at 50 percent of their world price and in return receive bands of terrorists freely based in Georgia," he said.
The State Department on July 31 issued a strong statement in support of Georgia's sovereignty, but Brenda Shaffer, research director at Harvard's Caspian Studies Program, said the U.S. military training program had actually increased tensions, sharpening the conflict.

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