[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Tuesday, 14 September, 2004, 13:57 GMT 14:57 UK
Russian threats alarm Georgia
By Natalia Antelava
BBC, Tbilisi

Speculation about a possible Russian military strike is rife in Georgia, in the aftermath of the Beslan school tragedy and the Kremlin's threats to go after "terrorists".

Georgian troops in S Ossetia
Georgia is anxious to retain a hold on South Ossetia

From 1 October no Georgian aircraft will be allowed to land in Russia - the explanation from Moscow being that Georgian airlines have not been paying their airport dues.

But to Tbilisi this is another sign of what many officials say is unprecedented pressure from Russia following the Beslan siege.

Georgians are concerned that Moscow will try to link the school siege in Beslan to Georgia and will carry out its threat of preventive strikes in Georgia, which shares borders with Russia's troubled republics of Ingushetia, Dagestan, North Ossetia and Chechnya.

Statements from Moscow are fuelling the fears.

Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has said he does not exclude links between Georgia's breakaway province of South Ossetia and the events in Beslan, which is only 40 kilometres (25 miles) from the Georgian border.

Simmering tensions

Russian media allege that one of the hostage-takers from Beslan is hiding in the Kodori Gorge, in Georgia's other breakaway province - Abkhazia.

Moscow also claims that there are still Chechen "terrorists" in Georgia's Pankisi Gorge, on the border with Chechnya.

Pankisi, once a haven for Chechen guerrillas - and some even allege al-Qaeda fighters - has been bombed by Russia in the past.

But Georgia insists that its borders along the snow-capped Caucasus range are now fully under control. The question, according to Deputy Defence Minister David Sikharulidze, is whether Russia will choose to believe this.

"Our border guards are on high alert and we absolutely rule out infiltration of Chechen fighters into Georgia," Mr Sikharulidze says.

"But we know that unfortunately Russia will try to use this school tragedy to try and pursue its own agenda in the Caucasus."

This agenda, Mr Sikharulidze adds, includes destabilising Georgia.

For years, Georgians believe, Russia has done just that by supporting separatist regimes in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Saakashvili defiant

Just last week Russia infuriated Tbilisi by resuming a train service between Moscow and Sukhumi, the capital of Abkhazia.

View of Russian border from Pankisi Gorge
The Pankisi Gorge was a haven for Chechen militants until 2002

Analysts believe that Moscow is punishing Georgia for its pro-Western course.

Georgia's aspiration to join Nato, and the presence of US marines, who are training and equipping the Georgian army in Moscow's backyard, are all thorns in Russia's side.

Moscow says President Mikhail Saakashvili's vows to reunite Georgia are stirring up trouble on Russia's borders.

Earlier this summer, Mr Saakashvili sent extra troops into South Ossetia, claiming that it was a haven for smugglers.

The move sparked heavy fighting, which escalated until Georgia withdrew its troops and handed control back to a joint peacekeeping contingent under Russian command.

The Georgian president describes the peacekeepers as "piece-keepers - there to keep the pieces of the old empire and not the actual peace".

In South Ossetia at least, the Soviet empire, and with it the Cold War, does seem to live on.

Soviet nostalgia

Just a month ago, as Georgian and Ossetian forces exchanged fire and shells fell on the capital Tskhinvali, Russia's General Sviatoslav Nabdzorov was drinking vodka in one of Tskhinvali's restaurants.

His eyes filled with tears as he raised his glass to the "Great Soviet Union".

General Nabdzorov's comment about the conflict was much briefer then his long and nostalgic toast.

"Only Russia can sort out this conflict," he said, "not America!"

And so the fear in Tbilisi is that the Beslan school siege will give Russia a free hand to "sort out" the conflicts in the Caucasus, including those in Georgia.

And while President Saakashvili says he hopes to defuse tensions with Russia at a security summit in Kazakhstan this week, he too is flexing his muscles.

Last Sunday, Georgian interior ministry troops launched massive exercises by the South Ossetian border.

"The enemy is only 20 kilometres away," said Georgian Interior Minister Irakli Okruashvili as he saluted his troops. His finger pointed to the north.

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites


News Front Page | Africa | Americas | Asia-Pacific | Europe | Middle East | South Asia
UK | Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature | Technology | Health
Have Your Say | In Pictures | Week at a Glance | Country Profiles | In Depth | Programmes
Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific