US, Russia pulling strings in GeorgiaAFP, November 24, 2003
Two big powers move quickly to protect their interests amid the political crisis
TBILISI - Opposing political groups were fighting for power in Georgia yesterday but behind the scenes two much bigger forces - the United States and Russia - are also slugging it out for influence in this tiny but strategic state in the Caucasus Mountains.
Russia's Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov rushed to the former Soviet republic of fewer than five million people overnight yesterday and met opposition leaders and embattled President Eduard Shevardnadze to press his country's interest.
US Secretary of State Colin Powell spoke to Mr Shevardnadze by phone and was also reportedly considering a trip to Tbilisi.
Both Moscow and Washington have a major stake in the outcome of the drama being played out in Tbilisi, where Mr Shevardnadze is hanging onto power by his fingertips after the opposition stormed Parliament on Saturday and declared Ms Nino Burdzhanadze, one of its leaders, acting head of state.
Yesterday, Georgia's Defence Minister David Tevzadze said that the military would not use force to solve the nation's political crisis and pledged his allegiance to Mr Shevardnadze.
Thousands of protesters, meanwhile, maintained their vigil outside the parliament building overnight after opposition leaders had appealed to them to defend their gains.
Opposition leader Mikhail Saakashvili, who led the march into Parliament, said he and other opposition leaders had given Mr Ivanov their demands and the Russian Foreign Minister promised to convey them to Mr Shevardnadze.
He also said Mr Ivanov had pledged that the Russian military stationed in Georgia would not intervene.
The reason little Georgia is getting such high-level attention is its location, wedged between Russia and Turkey.
'Georgia is strategically important because that is where Nato, in the shape of Turkey, meets Russia,' said Ms Zeyno Baran, director for International Security and Energy at the Nixon Centre in Washington and a specialist on Georgian affairs.
Another factor is oil. Georgia has none itself but it is on a transit route for the export of crude from the nearby Caspian Sea, where Western oil companies are hungrily developing new fields.
Control the export route for the oil, say analysts, and you control the oil itself.
Moscow has powerful levers of influence in Georgia. It has two army bases in the south and west of the country. It also provides most of Georgia's energy needs through a gas pipeline, and it is in de facto control of two chunks of the country, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, where Moscow-backed separatists have seceded from Tbilisi.
Washington, too, has its influence. It is Georgia's biggest bilateral aid donor, propping up a government that is nearly bankrupt. It provides military aid.
US Marine Corps instructors are working with the Georgian army and Washington has given Tbilisi six Huey helicopters.
For many years, the US edged out Russia as Georgia's chief foreign influence. Mr Shevardnadze - a former reforming Soviet foreign minister with hero status in the West - has squabbled with Moscow and cosied up to Washington.
But, in the past year, that has changed as Mr Shevardnadze's position weakened.
The President has drifted closer to Moscow and entered into an alliance with Mr Aslan Abashidze, the powerful leader of Georgia's Adjara region who is desperate to see Georgia firmly in Russia's orbit. -- AFP
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