Since the collapse of the USSR, the United States and the Russian Federation were putting forward fiercely their influence on the Caucasus and Central Asia. Through States and interposed provinces, both powers were trying to take control of the energy resources (oil and gas mainly) of the Caspian basin, impose the route of oil pipelines and change the strategic balance. The region has become a “great chessboard”, as labeled by the former US national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski. Georgia is today at the center of this turmoil. France, very fearfully, is trying to get involved with the uncertain hope of obtaining some oil benefits.

This small post-Soviet State of 5 million people is at the center and has borders with Russia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Turkey, not far from Syria, Iraq and Iran. The United States of Bill Clinton provided massive assistance to the Georgia of Eduard Shevardnadze to develop his construction project of an oil pipeline Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC), which should link Azerbaijan with Turkey. Therefore, this State has become the second beneficiary of the US assistance, after Israel. There is a marked degree of interest that this oil pipeline does not go through Russia and to use instead [1] the route of Chechnya that surrounds Iran and Armenia.

Stirred Instability

Oil is the only thing that counts. As mentioned earlier, since the collapse of the USSR, the United States changed its doctrine of “containment” in the region - that is, limitation of the Soviet influence upon its closer satellites - for a strategy of “rollback” that should force the withdrawal of Russian positions. In this context, Georgia is a key element, as well as Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and Moldavia, grouped within GUAAM for military and security matters.

Since the United States assists the central power, Russia has focused its efforts on three provinces where secessionist movements have been encouraged: first, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and Adjaria today.

In 1993, under president Yeltsin’s term, the politician Vaeri Stepanov, close adviser to the Georgian president Shevardnadze, held responsible the Russian conservatives for the civil war in Abkhazia: «We are fighting the Abkhazians. What we need to face is a non-declared war against Russia». It is true that the region was a «strategic place, with a vital access to the Black Sea since Crimea is now in the hands of Ukraine» [2] .

Russia, in a defensive attitude, deployed an interposition force in South Ossetia to cool down the pro-independence supporters as requested by the Georgian central power. By doing this, Moscow was able to maintain the military bases in Georgia’s territory, in the secessionist provinces. Definitely, the armed confrontations had only one political solution: Abkhazia became an autonomous republic while South Ossetia remained officially united to Tbilisi, but operated as an autonomous republic.

Aslan Abashidze, Russian Allied

Aslan Abashidze
President of Adjaria

At that time, Adjaria was relatively respected. Integrated theoretically to the Georgian State, the province quickly enjoyed an advanced political autonomy, including its wealth which was the most important in the country. The Russian influence was a lot easier because Adjaria was led since 1991 by Aslan Abashidze, an autocrat similar to Yeltsin.

However, the unfortunate Russian presence turned out to be a victory for Tbilisi’s government, since in 2003, allowed the president Eduard Shevardnadze to change its foreign policy. Indeed, Georgia was under the influence of the United States, later under the Russia of Vladimir V. Putin during Shevardnadze’s term and today again under the US influence and led by the Georgian president Mijail Saakachvili.

Such past rebalance allowed resolving the secessionist incidents that multiplied in Abkhazia. It should also be interpreted as of the assassination attempt against Chevardnadze who miraculously survived.

Hence, before Mijail Saakachvili took power, an important contract on exploitation of gas resources was signed with the Russian company Gazprom, affecting the United States which complained to Tbilisi. The US Ambassador in the country, Richard Miles, demanded that «Washington be previously informed before those agreements are signed [3]». One of Bush’s advisors on energy issues, Steven Mann, traveled to Tbilisi where he warned Shevardnadze about the consequences of the agreement.

The opposition at that time, Mikail Saakashvili and the president of the Parliament, Nino Burjanadze, complained about the talks with Gazprom and set up the dismissal of the Georgian president. At the same time, American businesses were explicitly excluded from oil contracts and the construction of the BTC was delayed.

In November 2003, just before the “revolution of roses”, Eduard Shevardnadze visited the province of Abjaria and met with the president Aslan Abashidze [4]. On that occasion, the president of the province indicated that he was willing to provide military assistance to the central power, in case of an attempt of a coup d’état. His troops could only be those of the Russian bases in the province. Besides, Shevardnadze had discussions with president Putin to be sure. As a result of his visit, the Russian military bases in Georgia were on alert status. Igor Ivanov, Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs, traveled to Adjaria «upon the request of Shevardnadze [5]», but it could not prevent the fall of the Georgian president.

As a result of the coup d’état carried out by the United States under the excuse of civil unrest: “The Revolution of Roses” of the people [6], the country again became the center of struggle for power between the powers, and it took place in Adjaria. While Russia should have recognized the new central government of Mikail Saakashvili, the politician Aslan Abashidze refused to do it. He even refused to hold presidential elections in his province to crown Mikail Saakashvili, the ringleader of the opposition and coup d’état, who was trained by the US Ambassador Richard Miles. Then, as evidence, Putin openly invited Aslan Abashidze to Moscow. Richard Miles, in turn, traveled to Adjaria to convince Abashidze to drop his extremist position [7]. Finally, Saakashvili was elected president of Georgia on January 5, 2004.

Mikail Saakashvili, a US Pawn

Mikail Saakashvili
President of Georgia

The first decisions of the new Georgian administration did not settle down Moscow. Tbilisi subscribed an agreement with the Pentagon, since it decided to privatize its military presence in Georgia by signing a contract with the US retired military officers to equip and advise the Georgian army. Cubic, an American company, signed the contract for 3 years amounting to 15 million dollars. That program replaced the collaboration with Washington that began with Shevardnadze in 2002 with the excuse to fight terror [8] . The US military advisers had also the mission to improve security of the BTC oil pipeline. In return, Georgia would send 500 men to support the US occupation forces in Iraq.

On the other hand, the Secretary of State Colin Powell, expressed his desire to set up military bases in Georgian territory [9] . Obviously, this annoyed Russia, which, under international pressure, had decided to dismantle some of its military bases in Georgia within a few years. The presence of the US army a few hundreds of kilometers off its southern border made Russia to cancel such decision.

The situation became more critical between the Georgian central power and the province of Adjaria, considered in Tbilisi the entrance door of the Russians to the country. In January 2004, the Minister Zurab Zhvania condemned a number of arrests of politicians of the opposition in the province. The “recovery” became the key word of the president Saakashvili who wanted to make out of Adjaria an example. Therefore, he offered means to those who oppose Aslan Abashidze to win the future elections in Batumi, the capital of the province [10] .

As of March 14, 2004, it was evident that the developments became more acute. That day, the Georgian government had its army on alert status «since tension had suddenly risen with Adjaria» [11]. Such escalation caused an immediate reaction from Russia which, through its minister of Foreign Affairs Igor Ivanov, “strongly dissuaded” the Georgian power to invade the province. The first step was taken by the autonomous government of Batumi, which managed to repel with its troops the convoy of the Georgian president when was about to enter the territory of the province. Mikail Saakachvili wanted to go there «to offer his support to the local democratic opposition» [12]. At the same time, Aslan Abachidze was visiting Moscow from where he encouraged his followers to «remain firm». Hence, Georgia closed its air space and ordered a blockade against its province of Adjiria.

Of course, such economic siege was not favorable to the Georgian government since Adjaria was the richest province of the country, and despite its autonomous status, was highly involved in the national economic exchanges. Besides, it was a suicide for Tbilisi to burry itself in an internal war with no solution, a situation similar to that of Chechnya, but the other way around, in which Moscow sided the resistance and Washington the repression. After several meetings with Aslan Abachidze, the Georgian president Saakachvili, who was aware of the trap, declined to sacrifice the pawn. He agreed to lift the blockade, and according to him, «all the issues which have led to this misunderstanding have been resolved». The spectacular escalation revealed, however, the incredible tension that prevails in the Caucasus.

Salome Zourabichvili, French Pawn

On the other hand, such crisis arose in a moment in which, within the international context, France and Germany tried to reconcile with the United States. Paris had just cooperated with Washington to catch and kidnap the president of Haiti. In Georgia, France was willing to support the United States to have access to a part of the oil source.

The BTC gas pipeline was made by the French company Amec-Spie-Petrefac, which worked with the Norwegian Statoil. The risks were covered by the insurance company Marsh of Buah’s advisor, the politician L. Paul Bremer III (former civil governor of the Anglo-Saxon Coalition which invaded Iraq). To seal such spectacular alliance, Salome Zourabichvili [13], who was representative of France to the NATO Council, then Ambassador in Tbilisi, resigned from the French diplomacy, became Georgian citizen and was immediately appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs of Georgia by Mikail Saakachvili [14]. This dangerous game could compromise, for convenient interests, the French-Russian relations.

[1These issues have already mentioned with more details in our article «Les dessous du coup d’Etat en Georgie», dated January 8, 2004

[2Karel Bartak: «Moscou dans le bourbier caucasien», Le Monde Diplomatic, April 1993

[3Jonathan Steele: “The new cold war”, The Guardian, January 3, 2004

[4Natalia Antelava “Shevardnadze’s Russian dance”, BBC News, November 11, 2003

[5Conference de presse des ministres des Affaires etrangeres d’Afghanistan et de Russie, November 27, 2003

[6For details of the coup d’état, please see « Les dessous du coup d’état en Georgie », op.cit

[7Nick Paton: “Georgia pins hopes on poll”, The Guardian, January 3, 2004

[8Nick Paton: “US privatises its military aid to Georgia”, The Guardian, January 6, 2004

[9Peter Slevin: “U.S. May Set Up Bases in Former Soviet Republics”, Washington post, Washington Post, January 28, 2004

[10Jean-Christophe Peuch: «Georgia: Groups Working Toward Regime Change In Restive Adjaria», Radio Free Europe, January 22, 2004

[11Niko Mchedlichvili: «Tension entre l’Adjarie et la georgie, Moscou avertit Tbilisi», Reuters, March 14, 2004

[12«The Georgian president threatened to impose an economic blockade on Adjaria, which denied his access», Le Monde, March 15, 2004

[13Granddaughter of Ivan Zourabichvili, Georgian minister of the latest white government (before the Soviet era), Salome Zourabichvili is the cousin of the Ambassador Claude de Kemoularia and the academic Helene Carrere d’Encausse. She enjoyed of Dominique de Villepin with whom she worked in close collaboration at the Embassy of France in Washington from 1984-1988

[14“The French Ambassador to Georgia was appointed head of Georgian diplomacy”, AFP, March 12, 2004