Satellite state hopes to slip its handcuffs on road to prosperity

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The Independent Online
Poti - Armed with nothing but a dog-eared notebook and a telephone, Igor Ignatev stands in his watchtower and scans the flat haze of the Black Sea. A fishing boat chugs out of port, so he jots down its details.

All perfectly normal behaviour for an official supervising a harbour, you might think - except for one detail: this is Georgian territory, and yet the badge on Mr Ignatev's khaki fatigues reveals that he is a Russian border guard.

At the base of his watchtower, lies the port of Poti. With its rusting cargo ships and weed-choked promenades, it looks like any other former Soviet harbour, which age is withering. But this town of 51,000 is enjoying a growth in strategic importance that others cannot boast. It is becoming the gateway for a transport corridor linking Europe with the Caspian Sea, a pathway which Georgia hopes will eventually be a modern variant of the ancient Silk Road that linked China with the Mediterranean.

The catalyst for this process is neighbouring Azerbaijan. There, the international race to exploit the Caspian Sea's vast oil reserves is fast gathering pace in the capital city of Baku. Supplies demanded by this star-burst of economic activity are travelling by rail and road through Georgia.

Every day, a steady flow of lorries from Poti and its neighbouring port of Batumi rumble eastwards across a pot-holed highway to feed the needs of of the world's oil gladiators; BP is in Baku; so is Amoco, Exxon, Unocal, Total and more.

But at the entrance to the corridor stand the Russians. If, from his tower, Mr Ignatev spots a ship breaking the law - for instance, by trying to sneak out of Poti without paying harbour fees- Russian coastguards will be dispatched to intercept it. Six years after Georgia acquired independence, Moscow's forces are still in the republic. Russia has four military bases in Georgia, its troops stand on the border with Turkey, and Russian patrol vessels continue to throw their weight around in their Black Sea waters.

The art of diplomacy is not their strongest point. In recent months, the coastguards have shot dead a Turkish fisherman, and fired across the bows of a Greek vessel. Border guards also arrested the crew of an allegedly errant Ukrainian ship and flew them back to Moscow.

The latter was "a scandal ... the greatest violation of our sovereignty", complained Peter Mamradze, chief of staff to Georgia's president, Eduard Shevardnadze. Whilst the border guards are in Georgia on contract (filling in, while Tbilisi sets up a force of its own), there is "no legal basis for their coastguards to be in Poti, or defending the coast of Georgia".

For Georgians, all this strikes to the heart of a basic issue: is Russia trying to compromise their sovereignty? Several years ago, the geopolitical picture seemed fairly clear. Russia had supplied arms and aircraft to Abkhazians fighting for independence from Tbilisi. Georgia was (and still is) convinced that Moscow's security services masterminded the 1995 assassination attempt against Mr Shevardnadze. Meddling in Georgia to keep it divided and dependent seemed to be the Kremlin strategy.

Now Georgians say that Moscow has become more moderate. The so-called "new pragmatists" in the Yeltsin administration talk about co-operation and sharing the spoils of the Caspian oil. Yet hardliners still lurk within Russia's foreign and defence ministries, who are itching to call the shots again.

A reminder of Russia's nastier impulses came in March, when one of Moscow's leading newspapers, Nezavisimaya Gazeta published an anonymous article warning that the oil bonanza in the Caucasus meant that it was in danger of slipping from Russia's grasp. Only "destabilisation in Georgia and Azerbaijan is capable of preventing the consolidation of state power in these republics on an anti-Russian basis", it concluded.

Complicating the issue is the suspicion that some elements in Russia want to stop Georgia being selected as the route for the main export pipeline (as opposed to two already agreed smaller pipelines) which will eventually carry the bulk of Azeri oil to western markets. Moscow wants the pipe to run through southern Russia.

As the two countries struggle to define their post-Soviet relationship, the creation of a transport corridor linking Kiev with Tbilisi, Baku and Central Asia could play a critical part. Not only will it help resurrect Georgia's economy that - according to official estimates - shrank by 75 per cent during the anarchy that followed independence in 1991. It will also help make the shaky independence of this nation of 5 million people more concrete.

No one disputes that Russia will always exert a powerful influence over Georgia - geography, Christianity, a shared Soviet past, military connections, and cultural forces, make that inevitable. But a new "silk road" that does not go through Russia could finally loosen the handcuffs that have for centuries connected Moscow and Tbilisi. That is what the Georgians hope. Whether Moscow can stomach it remains to be seen.