Sunday, January 17, 2010

Georgia Becomes Ground Zero For Conspiracy Theories

In the past few days the Russian press has floated a couple of pretty remarkable conspiracy theories surrounding their neighbor to the south, Georgia.

On Friday, Russia Today ran a piece suggesting that terrorist groups were being trained by “foreign instructors” at bases in Georgia to then launch attacks aimed at destabilizing the already fragile Northern Caucasus region of southern Russia. In the past year, several of Russia’s Northern Caucasus republics have been rocked by high-profile terrorist attacks, including the attempted assassination of the president of the Republic of Ingushetia. Last year, Russia’s top security agency, the FSB, even went so far as to accuse the Georgian military’s special forces branch of actually training al-Qaeda operatives to conduct terror attacks in southern Russia.

It’s worth remembering here that in 2008 Russia and Georgia fought a five-day war over the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russia has since recognized the independence of the two regions and has stationed peacekeeping troops in both, while the Georgians insist that the two places are still part of Georgia.

Meanwhile in Ukraine, the frontrunner in today’s presidential election, Viktor Yanukovych, is claiming that Georgia is trying to interfere in his country’s political process. He warned that in the past few days three charter flights have arrived from Georgia carrying “400 athletic men”. Why these 400 athletic men chose now to visit Ukraine is unclear, though the inference is that they’re in town to disrupt the election. For the past few years Ukraine and Georgia have grown closer as their respective pro-Western leaders have tried to distance their countries from Moscow. But Yanukovych is widely seen as being pro-Russian and the belief is that if he’s elected president he’ll try to rebuild the close Ukraine-Russia relationship at the expense of Ukraine’s relations with the West.

Interestingly, Ukraine’s election commission earlier refused to register 3,000 observers that Georgia tried to send to monitor today’s election. The Georgians were attempting to send more election monitors than all of the other countries and international organizations watching the vote combined, a move that raised some eyebrows and sparked charges that the “monitors” were really meant to disrupt the election instead.

Perhaps feeding into this regional paranoia over Georgia is a recent report issued from a member of the United States Senate; Richard Lugar, the ranking Republican member of the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee issued a carefully-worded report warning of a de facto arms embargo against Georgia. The logic goes that because of lower costs and familiarity in dealing with the weaponry thanks to their shared history as parts of the Soviet Union, the Georgian military is still largely equipped with Russian-made gear. But Russian firms are refusing to sell their wares to Georgia, which is still trying to rebuild its military from the 2008 conflict. The Georgians are touting the report as justification for the United States to begin arms sales to them, though the Lugar report never explicitly endorses this idea.

Officials from Abkhazia and South Ossetia, meanwhile, are saying that the Georgian desire to acquire American weapons is another indication that Georgia is in fact a belligerent, destabilizing force in the Caucasus region.
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