The Return of the Cold War

The marshy, impenetrable terrain spreads east towards the mountains and west towards the Black Sea. A bridge, little more than a thin ribbon dotted with concrete barricades, connects the Ajarian seaport of Batumi with the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. Several alert and well-armed Russian soldiers guard the checkpoint, their AK-47s on prominent display. No one is smiling.

This is the "border" between Georgia and the separatist republic of Ajaria: a place where U.S. regional interests meet Russian pride head on.

Ruled by the iron-fisted Russian-backed Aslan Abashidze since 1991, Ajaria has been relatively autonomous for over a decade, although the region has never officially declared its independence, unlike Georgia's other breakaway republics. But in recent months, its status has become the flashpoint for a confrontation fueled by a growing struggle between the United States and Russia to control the oil-rich Caucasus region.

The Battle over Borders

Until the ascendance of Georgia's provocative president, Mikhail Saakashvili -- who led tens of thousands of supporters to oust Eduard Shevardnadze in last year's Rose Revolution -- Ajaria's autonomous status remained unchallenged. Shevardnadze interfered very little in the affairs of the republic, which had its own security and interior ministries. But when Shevarnadze fell, the Ajarian leadership refused to recognize Saakashvili as Georgian president.

Saakashvili has been vocal about his goal of bringing Ajaria back under direct Tbilisi control. His plans include scrapping its Security and Interior ministries, and forcing Ajaria to pay its fair share of tax and custom duties -- none of which is welcome news to Abashidze or Ajaria.

On Mar. 14, 2004, during a 'routine' campaign trip for the parliamentary elections held last Sunday, Saakashvili tried to force his way through the "border," but was forced to turn back when several warning shots were fired.

In response, Saakashvili announced a complete blockade of Ajaria, forcing Abashidze to back down. A Mar. 18 agreement conceded Saakashvili's immediate demands: Ajaria's participation in Georgia's parliamentary elections; permission for Georgian officials to supervise and collect customs revenues at the Port of Batumi and the land border at Sarpi with Turkey. Moreover, Abashidze reportedly agreed to disarm his private army and allow the central authorities to review the cases of several people imprisoned under less than ideal circumstances.

Return of the Cold War

Although Georgians clearly saw Saakashvili's showdown with Abashidze as a victory, rewarding his party with 55 percent of the vote in the Mar. 28 elections, it is not clear whether Saakashvili will be able to ultimately tame Abashidze or Ajaria -- not if the Russians have anything to do with it, since it would cement the United States' influence in the region.

"If the Cold War is alive anywhere in the world, it is here in Georgia," says Rondeli. He sees the Russian support for Abashidze's push for full autonomy as a holdover from the Imperial and Soviet eras. "Tbilisi is the key to the Caucasus and the American appearance in the Caucasus surprised the Russians," he says.

Donald Rumsfeld's December 2003 visit to Tbilisi certainly alerted the Russians to the depth of the U.S. commitment to Saakashvili. The Russians reacted slowly at first, initially easing visa requirements for Ajarians shortly after Rumsfeld left. When Saakashvili countered with louder threats to Abashidze, Russia announced its intentions a bit more bluntly in early January. Moscow announced that a fresh batch of Russian troops would be rotated into Ajaria and the command of the garrison would be placed under a high-ranking Major-General.

The United States countered soon after when the U.S. ambassador to Georgia, Richard Miles, announced that the American military presence in Georgia, about 250 troops, would remain in Georgia permanently.

A State Department spokesman denied that possibility, saying, "No promises like that have been made. Our focus in Georgia has been on security cooperation and training. The program will last about 20 months. It ends in May." But he admitted that the final decision might lie in the hands of the Pentagon, which recently announced that it is looking for other bases to downsize the expensive U.S. footprint in "old Europe."

Daan van der Schriek, a regional expert on the Caucasus based in Tbilisi, says it's unlikely that the Russians will easily cede control of Georgia. "The American presence in Georgia, that Russians still see as their backyard, annoys them and urges the country to hang on out of pride," he says.

Van der Schriek points out that apart from troops, Russia can also wield its enormous economic clout to control Georgia. "Russian economic penetration of CIS states has become more important in the last few years. In Georgia Russia controls most of the energy infrastructure," he says.

Russian energy interests in Georgia are indeed significant. In August 2003 the Russian energy monopoly RAO-UES bought a 75 percent stake in Georgia's power plants. A few weeks later, they plunged the entire country into a blackout -- except for the "breakaway" regions.

Energy is also clearly central to American grand strategy. "If you hold Tbilisi, you hold the Caucasus," says Rondeli. "It's the gateway to Central Asia and the Russians know this." The U.S.-funded multi-billion-dollar Baku-to-Ceyhan oil pipeline will be completed this December. The project will help make Caspian Sea oil available to Western markets, creating an alternative to sources in the Middle East.

But the Russians aren't about to give up that oil booty. It is why Abashidze recently backed out of key provisions of the March 18 agreement by refusing to disarm his private army. "The militia in the autonomous republic will be disarmed when democracy is built in Georgia," he said.

"Look," says Alex Rondeli, "the Russian military, they've cooked up this bloody dish. But now they don't know who to serve it to."

Sean-Paul Kelley, a freelance writer in Texas, is currently writing a book about the Caucasus and Central Asia. You can read about his travels at his website.

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