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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Terror Threat Inches Tbilisi Closer

Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze tried Monday to reassert his country's independence, firmly rejecting Russian participation in military operations in Georgia's crime-infested Pankisi Gorge.

But despite Shevardnadze's harsh words and tensions between the two nations, pressure from the United States in its war on terrorism has pushed Tbilisi a bit closer to Moscow in recent days -- largely by forcing Georgia to acknowledge the threat emanating from the ungovernable Pankisi area.

"It is a fact that relations are improving," Georgian Foreign Minister Irakly Menagarishvili said in an interview Friday. Menagarishvili was in Moscow for a second round of talks aimed at hammering out a framework agreement on cooperation between Russia and Georgia.

Signs of a tentative thaw in relations came earlier this month when Georgia staged security operations in the isolated gorge, implicitly giving credence to Moscow's long-time accusations that the area -- which borders Chechnya -- was a hiding place for terrorists. After the raids, the Georgian government said it detained Saudi and Jordanian citizens it claims were trying to establish a terrorist base there.

The gorge has been a major stumbling block in relations with Tbilisi.

Moscow has long maintained that up to 2,000 rebel fighters hiding among Chechen refugees there, but Tbilisi has shrugged off the claims, describing them as a Kremlin attempt to exert control over its southern neighbor.

The new twist that has prompted a change is that Washington has supported Russia's position.

In an interview with a Georgian newspaper last week, U.S. charge d'affaires Philip Remler said several dozen al-Qaida and Taliban fighters had fled Afghanistan and infiltrated the Caucasus, including the Pankisi Gorge. Moreover, Remler said the terrorists maintained ties with Arab warlord Khattab, who operates in Chechnya, and echoed Russian claims that Khattab, in turn, maintained ties with Osama bin Laden.

The United States also pledged last week to increase military and technological assistance to Georgia to help the country fight terrorists.

Russian and Georgian politicians, in the meantime, have taken advantage of the new atmosphere to pursue detente.

Vakhtang Rcheulishvili, the deputy speaker of Georgia's parliament, said Monday during a visit to Moscow that Georgian policy toward Russia is beginning to come out of its "cold war" phase, Interfax reported.

State Duma Speaker Gennady Seleznyov welcomed the remarks, saying he hoped "ties with Georgia live on. We have no antipathy toward Georgia."

The Pankisi issue has yielded mutual gestures of good will.

The Foreign Ministry backtracked Friday on Russia's previous position that Chechen refugees in the gorge should be forced to repatriate. Chechen Prime Minister Stanislav Ilyasov said Monday that accommodations for some 2,000 refugees had been set up in the Chechen city of Gudermes, but reiterated that "no one intends to relocate refugees against their will," Interfax said.

Georgia, meanwhile, promised to provide Russia with information about the refugees, saying an official survey would be conducted next month.

Political analysts also noted the change, although they warned bilateral ties still had a long way to go.

Alexei Malashenko, a Caucasus expert at the Moscow Carnegie Center, said diplomatic relations were "stabilizing" rather than improving. He added that Tbilisi's change of heart about the Pankisi Gorge was more likely an inevitable byproduct of overall volatility in the region than a direct result of pressure from Washington.

But Kremlin-connected political analyst Sergei Markov was bolder in his assessment and saw a bigger U.S. role in the nations' policy shift.

"Relations between Russia and Georgia are clearly improving and the U.S. position is the main influence behind that," Markov said in a telephone interview. He suggested that the U.S. position may have taken Tbilisi by surprise "because Georgia had hoped its hard-line anti-Russia stance would be better rewarded."

Washington and Moscow have jostled over influence in Georgia over the past decade. While Moscow sees the former Soviet republic as part of its sphere of influence, Washington has sought to buffer Russia's reach by supporting Tbilisi with financial aid and military cooperation.

In his comments Monday, Shevardnadze drew on that rivalry, saying Georgia would not agree to Russian military involvement in the Pankisi Gorge, but would theoretically consider launching a joint security operation with the United States.

"As for the possibility of a future joint action with the U.S. special forces in the Pankisi Gorge, we haven't yet had systematic discussions on that. ... But, if it becomes necessary, we have been and remain ready for dialogue," The Associated Press quoted him as saying.

In a report issued last week, Stratfor, a private, Texas-based intelligence services agency, also hinted at U.S. military involvement in Georgia. If Moscow is not allowed to hunt down Chechen rebels on Georgian soil, Stratfor said, Russia might face another deployment of U.S. troops in a former satellite state, a "nightmare scenario" for Moscow.

Carnegie's Malashenko, however, said U.S. involvement on the ground was highly improbable. "It would mean fighting Chechens on Georgian soil," he added. "That would amount to a U.S. involvement in the Chechen conflict."

Malashenko added that Shevardnadze's statement on U.S. cooperation was most likely an indication to Moscow that the Pankisi Gorge remains an internal problem.

But Tbilisi will be hard pressed to rein in the violence on its own.

For the past 10 years, Georgia has been plagued by political instability.

In an analysis released last week, the Washington-based Central Asia-Caucasus Institute said why it offers an attractive haven for terrorists: "Georgia is the easiest country in the region for illegal business, due to the absence of law and order and the presence of low-intensity conflicts, several territories outside state control and widespread corruption."

Last November, Tbilisi was rocked by street protests following the murder of a reporter, which many saw as a politically motivated crime. Crowds demanded Shevardnadze step down along with his Cabinet. The president sacked the government, but reappointed it a month later largely untouched.

A month earlier, fighting broke out in the breakaway region of Abkhazia between separatist rebels and a group of Georgian soldiers and Chechen fighters. A clear chain of events has not been established.

The flare-up was part of ongoing violence that began with a civil war in 1991. The fighting shifted to Abkhazia, where Tbilisi suffered defeat in 1993. Although the ensuing stand-off was stabilized with Moscow's help, Georgia has accused Russia of supporting the Abkhaz separatists.

The two countries have no shortage of stumbling blocks on the road to a closer relationship.

One is the visa regime for Georgians traveling to Russia installed by President Vladimir Putin last year -- a devastating blow to the country's economy since many Georgians depend on money sent home by relatives working in Russia.

Another sore point is the presence of Russian soldiers on two bases in Georgia, ostensibly for peacekeeping. Tbilisi insists Russia must withdraw its troops, but Moscow says an exit would spark civil war because Tbilisi cannot control several of its regions.

Relations over the last decade have also been increasingly strained because Russia, which provides 90 percent of Georgia's natural gas, has repeatedly interrupted supplies, citing nearly $200 million in debts.

Late last year, the escalation of rhetoric seemed to be reversed when Shevardnadze threatened to pull out of the Commonwealth of Independent States and Putin indicated Russia would not meddle in the decision.

Now, it seems, the fight against terrorism is one thing that can bring the countries closer.

The current warming may lead to more serious improvement in relations "particularly if Georgia succeeds in clamping down on terrorists' freedom of movement in the Pankisi Gorge and the rest of the country," Markov said.

But even on this issue, the diplomatic situation remains precarious.

Defense Minister Ivanov on Monday reiterated Russia's claim that Osama bin Laden could be hiding in the Pankisi Gorge, news reports said. Ivanov offered no evidence.

Shevardnadze ridiculed the claim, originally made by Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov last week. Noting that Igor Ivanov hails from Georgia's Akhmetsky region, where his mother still lives, the Georgian president said perhaps bin Laden is hiding "precisely in that house."