Los Angeles Times
December 1, 2001
Georgia Accuses Russia of Bombing It This Week
Diplomacy: Moscow plays down allegations but agrees to joint investigation at anniversary gathering of Commonwealth of Independent States.
By JOHN DANISZEWSKI, TIMES STAFF WRITER
MOSCOW -- A meeting marking the 10th anniversary of the post-Soviet Commonwealth of Independent States got a little sidetracked Friday by a question: Did Russia bomb its neighbor Georgia earlier this week?
Georgia, a small country in the southern Caucasus that declared independence from Moscow during the breakup of the Soviet Union a decade ago, says that it was bombed Tuesday--and that the ordnance looks like it came from Russia.
Russia says that most likely no one bombed Georgia, and if someone did, it wasn't a big deal. "When one speaks of the alleged bombing of these villages by Russian planes, one should answer the question: What sort of bombing was it if there were no casualties? Either the strikes were not made at all, or they were not made in populated areas," Russian President Vladimir V. Putin told reporters Friday.
The bombing allegedly took place in Georgia's Pankisi Gorge, a remote area that Moscow has contended serves as a haven for extremists fighting to evict the military from the nearby Russian republic of Chechnya.
Putin has accused Georgia of tolerating Chechen rebels in its territory. Georgia, meanwhile, says Moscow is the main backer of separatists who have created a breakaway enclave in Georgia's Abkhazia region.
Georgian officials say they are sure that a sustained, deliberate attack took place.
"Air-control monitors have established that the raid continued for several hours with at least 13 warplanes and six military helicopters," Georgian Foreign Minister Irakly Menagarishvili said.
Georgia Says Incident Is Not the First
Russian Defense Minister Sergei B. Ivanov hotly disputed Georgia's accusations.
"Helicopters do not fly at night, especially in the mountains," Ivanov said. He deadpanned that it was probably a large-scale battle in that area between Arab mercenaries and Chechen rebels. (Russia believes that Arab mercenaries, some linked to Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network, are fighting on the side of the Chechens.)
Georgian President Eduard A. Shevardnadze wanted to meet with Putin to discuss the incident, which he said is not the first case of Russians bombing Georgian territory. But after the plenary session of the Commonwealth of Independent States here in Moscow, Putin said he had already agreed to Shevardnadze's proposal to set up a bilateral commission to investigate the allegations.
Before the meeting, Shevardnadze said he didn't think Putin knew about the bombing but that presidents are able to halt "absolutely unjustified actions or mistakes by individual military officials."
The bombing allegations add to the already testy relations between Russia and Georgia, which has annoyed Moscow over the last 10 years by cozying up to the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and by demanding that all Russian troops abandon their bases in Georgia.
Complicating the relationship is the fact that Georgia is led by Shevardnadze, who was foreign minister of the Soviet Union during the perestroika era of Mikhail S. Gorbachev. Many Russian military officers continue to blame Shevardnadze for the breakup of the Soviet Union and for the abrupt pullout of Red Army troops from East Germany, Poland and other Warsaw Pact countries--before any decent housing or conditions were prepared for them back in Russia.
Alexander Iskandaryan, director of the Center for Caucasian Studies in Moscow, said Russia is throwing its weight around more audaciously now that the United States is in Russia's debt for helping in the war on terrorism.
Commonwealth Is Increasingly Fractious
Russia "makes no bones about what it wants from its relations with other CIS countries, including Georgia, and it thinks that it has the blank check from the rest of the world to act at its own discretion," he said. "Russia expects that its attempts to cut Shevardnadze and the whole of Georgia down to size will not be met with any confrontation on the part of the U.S."
The differences between Georgia and Russia underline how fractious the CIS has become. Formed in December 1991 when then-Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin and the leaders of Ukraine and Belarus proclaimed the Soviet Union dead, it was hoped that the CIS would function as a loose federation to help the post-Communist states preserve some of the cooperation of the Soviet years.
In reality, the CIS has wielded little political clout and hasn't regulated economic issues.
Putin reiterated Friday that he still considers the CIS an important organization for the former Soviet states. "My belief in the necessity of the CIS has only become stronger since I took office," he told a news conference.
At their meeting, CIS countries agreed to coordinate their activities against terrorism and to work on setting up a joint free-trade zone.