Paul Goble reports:
FSB Director Aleksandr Bortnikov said yesterday that “the special services of Georgia together with Al Qaeda are carrying out a war against the Russian Federation by coordinating the transfer of militants into Chechnya and Daghestan and also by supplying arms” to groups in those troubled republics.
That suggestion, implausible if not absurd on its face, has already been denied by the Georgian foreign ministry, but today, Sergey Markedonov, one of Russia’s leading specialists on the Caucasus, said the most disturbing thing about Bortnikov’s remarks was what they said about how Moscow officials are thinking about the Caucasus.
Russia’s National Anti-Terrorist Committee, to which Bortnikov made that statement, “is more than a structure which is called upon to struggle with ‘the organizers of great acts of violence.’ Undoubtedly, it has ideological functions as well,” Markedonov continues. And this latest suggestion falls into that category.
“Not infrequently” in the past, the Moscow analyst points out, the committee has been the place where “official versions” about the nature of “the strategic threats” facing Russia. Now, Russians have been told that in the North Caucasus, Moscow faces “a combined campaign of the militants of the international terrorist network together with Georgia.”
So hyperbolic is the current suggestion, Markedonov says, that one is tempted to treat it as the latest manifestation of the return of Soviet-style propaganda in which communist officials spoke about “the combined campaign of the Entente” or ‘the imperialist encirclement’” of the country as justifications for vigilance. But in fact, he suggests, the current declaration requires “more serious attention.” First of all, Markedonov says, “however we think about Georgian foreign policy, the thesis about ties of official Tbilisi with the international terrorist network seems too great a stretch,” however much the Georgian government might like to find allies to recover Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
On the one hand, the international environment is such that no country including Georgia would be willing to cooperate with Islamist radicals in the way that the US did in the early 1980s in Afghanistan against the Soviets. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, made that absolutely impossible. And on the other, Markedonov points out, “Georgia has its own reasons to avoid any friendship with such structures” like Al Qaeda. That group’s agenda would further threaten Georgia’s territorial integrity in the Pankisi Gorge and create new problems for Tbilisi all along Georgia’s northern borders.
Officials in the Georgian capital certainly know “about the slogans of the North Caucasus salafites,” who in addition to being anti-Russian, anti-Western, and anti-Semitic, are also to a certain extent “anti-Georgian.” For all these reasons, linking Georgia to Al Qaeda “seems very problematic.” Without evidence, “it hangs in the air” and resembles “propaganda.” Still worse, at least from Russia’s perspective, it reflects a continuing tendency “to ascribe [Russia’s] own failures and mistakes” to the actions of shadowy foreign forces: Now, according to some, the US and Israel are directing “terrorism in Ingushetia; now, Georgia “is acquiring the extent of a great super power with a truly powerful spy network.”
What Russia needs “instead of alarmist comments concerning espionage and provocatory actions of Georgia,” Markedonov says, is a willingness to look “at the internal causes for the North Caucasus crisis” and to see that “[Russia’s] own corruption, bribe taking and privatization schemes are much more dangerous than the intrigues of Al Qaeda.” President Dmitry Medvedev suggested as much in his programmatic article, “Russia, Forward!” Markedonov argues. While suggesting that “crimes” in the North Caucasus are “being committed with the support of international bandit groups,” Russians need to acknowledge that “the situation would not be so sharp” if domestic conditions were better.
Unfortunately, the statement of the FSB director yesterday shows that many officials are unwilling to follow his lead and prefer instead to “make Georgia into some kind of universal” bogey man “to whom it is possible to ascribe everything” and thus avoid taking any responsibility on oneself. That could prove disastrous, the Moscow analyst suggests, because “both the powers that be and citizens need a serious expert discussion about the problems of the Caucasus, an open and honest exchange of opinions, and not conspiratorial competitions of professional patriots” of the kind now on offer. Only if Russia faces up to that reality in the North Caucasus now, rather than retreating into the ideological shibboleths of the Soviet past, Markedonov concludes, can the powers that be in Moscow have any chance to cope and thereby “effectively stand up against the threats of the 21st century.”