TBILISI (Reuters)–Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze said on Thursday his former Soviet state’s decision to accept US military training and hardware was part of a long-standing plan to strengthen its independence.
The commen’s were his first since Washington promised elite troops to train and equip Georgia’s army. Russia has denounced the US move as liable to aggravate an already volatile situation in the sensitive Transcaucasus region–which straddles export routes for oil from big new fields in the Caspian Sea.
The plan amounts to a diplomatic coup for Shevardnadze–who was Soviet foreign minister under Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980s and has tried in the post-communist period to orient his country towards the West despite civil wars and ethnic conflict.
The 74-year-old Georgian leader–who has survived several attempts on his life in the chaotic past decade–indicated there was more at stake for his strategic Black Sea state than an operation to deal with Islamist militants said to be entrenched in a remote gorge close to the mountain border with Russia.
"We have been working toward this for eight years. Step by step we have been trying–against the background of great American assistance–to establish factors of time and trust," he told reporters. "We also tried to establish good neighborly relations with Russia. But nothing much came of it."
Washington says it is sending the instructors and equipment to help Georgia fight Islamists in the remote Pankisi Gorge near Russia’s breakaway Chechnya region as part of its response to the September 11 attacks on the United States. US officials say its forces will not be involved in combat.
But Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov issued a fresh broadside against the proposal in a telephone conversation on Wednesday with US Secretary of State Colin Powell.
"Moscow has well-founded concerns that the direct involvement of US military in the fight against terrorism in Georgia could further complicate the situation in the region," the Foreign Ministry said he told Powell.
"Washington must take this into account."
A decade after the Soviet Union broke up–Russia maintains military bases in Georgia–plus peacekeepers monitoring ethnic conflicts that the Georgian army lacks the capacity to resolve.
Shevardnadze said three or four US military specialists had arrived in Georgia so far.
"Their goal is to strengthen the sovereignty and military readiness of Georgia," he said.
"With the assistance of the American specialists–military units will be trained–one or two–which will be the elite. This will be the basis to create an up-to-date army."
Georgians have gone without heat and suffered power cuts since Moscow cut off the gas when Soviet rule ended. Two Georgian provinces–Abkhazia and South Ossetia–declared independence in the 1990s–driving out Georgian troops and hundreds of thousands of residents.
Georgia has long hinted that it believes Moscow fostered the secessionist rising to keep a foothold in a land where Moscow’s troops have guarded their southern frontier for centuries.
"I am especially disappointed that it is the Americans who come and say–’How can we strengthen Georgia?’ Why doesn’t Russia think about this?" Shevardnadze said–adding that Moscow had left Georgia defenseless after the Soviet Union broke up.
"Russia took everything they could take from us. There were 1,000 tanks. Two aviation divisions–with the highest class of aircraft. They left nothing but rusty guns."
Interfax news agency reported that the Russian Duma international relations committee chairman Demitry Rogozin warned Thursday that if US forces are stationed in Georgia–the Russian parliament will entertain the issue of Abkhazia’s independence.
Meanwhile–Interfax added–that Abkhazia has signaled that it will establish "bi-lateral relations" with Russia in the event of US military deployment in Georgia.
Moscow has been angling for permission for its own troops to deal with suspected Chechen rebel bases in the Pankisi Gorge. Shevardnadze has resisted any Russian role there and his acceptance of US help seems to put an end to the issue.
Ivlian Khaindrava–an independent political analyst in the Georgian capital Tbilisi–told Reuters the Pankisi Gorge was "not just about the fight against terrorism but about the interests of Russia and the United States in the region."
Ex-Soviet Georgia–Azerbaijan and Armenia are surrounded by the big regional powers of Russia–Iran and Turkey.
The Moscow daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta said Russia was losing clout throughout the former Soviet Union: "Western influence is tightening its grip on her borders," it said.
But Shevardnadze called the Russian media response "genuine hysteria," adding: "Anyone with self-respect should be ashamed of such behavior."
He should have a chance to hear the reaction of Russian President Vladimir Putin at first hand as he was about to fly to Kazakhstan for a summit of former Soviet states.