Georgia fears a return of the assassins from Russia

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The Independent Online
IT IS a deliberate slap in the face. As soon as Russians arrive at Georgia's new international airport, gateway to territory over which Moscow held sway for centuries, they cannot but notice the absence of signs in their language.

Time was when millions of Soviet holidaymakers came each year to this vivacious, wine-quaffing Caucasian republic to seek relief from the tedium of serving the Communist empire. You wouldn't know it now.

Like the Hollywood sign, the words "British Airways" in 14ft-high letters adorn a hillside overlooking Tbilisi's sprawl. A Greyhound bus, in the ghastly livery of L&M cigarettes cruises the capital promising to deliver the "spirit of America". Though Russian will long be widely spoken here, Georgian and English script dominates. Nearly seven years after declaring independence, Georgia is loosening its bonds with Russia with fresh determination.

Its attitude to its neighbour will always be ambivalent - the conflicting impulses of a small nation which looks north to its Christian brothers and trading partners for protection, but which also nurses pro-Western impulses and a passionate sense of independence.

But now the scales have tilted anew. Someone is trying very hard to kill their President, the former Soviet foreign minister, Eduard Shevardnadze. And the Georgians blame the Russians. They point an accusing finger at regressive elements in the Russian army and other power structures who despise Mr Shevardnadze for his contribution to the collapse of the USSR, and who are determined to ensure no other power fills the resulting vacuum in the Caucasus.

Georgia believes these murky forces lay behind a group of gunmen who blasted Mr Shevardnadze's motorcade with rocket-propelled grenades and gunfire last month. Had it succeeded, the damage would have gone far beyond this particular patch of land, between the Caspian and the Black Sea.

Mr Shevardnadze, 70, has no obvious successor. "Killing one man would change the whole political climate in the Trans-Caucasus," says Alex Rondeli, director of the Foreign Policy Research and Analysis Centre in Tbilisi.

Several days earlier, a bomb was found in a stadium where his close ally and neighbour, Haidar Aliyev, president of Azerbaijan, was expected. Had either attack succeeded, the entire Caucasus would have been destabilised.

Western sources confirm the chief suspect - the president's former secret services chief, Igor Giorgadze - fled by aeroplane from one of Russia's four military bases in Georgia. He is believed to be in Moscow, but Tbilisi's efforts to extradite him have foundered.

Georgians officials say any efforts to co-operate by the Kremlin are scuppered by reactionary forces intent on keeping the Caucasus divided. "The concept is to create controlled chaos to maintain Russia's influence," said Peter Mamradze, an aide to the Georgian president.

Georgia appears certain to be chosen as the corridor through which the bulk of Azerbaijan's huge supplies of Caspian oil will be piped out to international markets, much of it via Turkey. A formal decision is expected by the end of the year. Suspicions abound that the attack was an attempt to undermine the Georgian route.

Big geo-political issues are at stake. The West wants the oil to flow freely, safe from potential meddling from Moscow, an objective which it combines with the long-term goal of blocking any expansionist ambitions in Russia. Their oil giants, including BP, have much to lose, having secured a large footing in the consortia extracting Azeri oil. While Washington watches over the territory with keen self-interest, so do the three powers that lap at the region's edges - Turkey, Russia and Iran.

But a stronger buttress to Georgia's independence has emerged in the guise of an alliance between Messers Shevardnadze and Aliyev, who is five years his senior. The two wily septuagenarians have much in common. Both were head of their republic's security services (Aliyev ran his republic's KGB); both belonged to the Soviet Politburo. When Mr Shevardnadze escaped from last month's attack, Mr Aliyev was on the phone in half an hour with assurances that - no matter what the terrorists did - Georgia would get the pipeline.

But one Western source warned: "The attack on Mr Shevardnadze was well financed and well organised. It will probably happen again - sooner rather than later."