U.S. mans outpost in chaos of Georgia


TBILISI, Georgia - Hands on hips, U.S. Army Lt. Col. Robert Waltemeyer squints at a cluster of prefab barracks and olive-green tents in the middle of an old Soviet gunnery range, a new forward American base in the war against al-Qaida. Having directed construction of the camp, Waltemeyer is proud of his handiwork - "a thing of beauty," he says.

Waltemeyer's assignment for the next two years is to train 1,600 Georgian soldiers, to create a force strong enough to impose order in lawless areas including Georgia's 11-mile-long Pankisi Gorge, about 30 miles northeast of here.

U.S. officials believe several dozen foreign fighters loosely linked to al-Qaida arrived in the Pankisi last fall. Once there, the Americans say, the fighters blended into a community of armed bands, including local bandits and several hundred rebels from the Russian republic of Chechnya, just to the north.

Georgian and American officials are unsure whether the foreign gunmen remain in the Pankisi. They agree, however, that the ill-trained, ill-equipped Georgian army needs help if it is to police the area and prevent the country from becoming a haven for al-Qaida.

Washington's $64 million training program might produce an elite fighting force, but it is unclear if that will be enough to stabilize Georgia - a nation facing political and economic chaos. Georgia is divided by ethnic conflict and weakened by corruption that has accelerated a breakdown in law and order. By dispatching 60 troops here, the United States might find itself entangled in the country's affairs.

"I think it will be necessary for the United States to remain in Georgia for a long time," says Alexander Rondeli, director of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies. "It looks like they are seriously committed to support Georgia to become a really independent country and to achieve stable statehood. It's very important."

The 1,500-year-old city of Tbilisi, with its stone Orthodox Christian churches and pink stucco mansions, hardly seems like the capital of a deeply troubled country. But Georgia's hospitality and charm mask profound ills.

Kidnappings are common; those abducted in recent years include international aid workers, foreign businessmen, Orthodox priests and police. Amnesty International says police torture criminal suspects. Corruption is rampant, with elected officials and military officers accused of profiting from heroin, arms smuggling and kidnapping.

President loses support

So far, critics say, Georgia's leadership has proved unable to make meaningful changes. President Eduard A. Shevardnadze is widely admired in the West, where he is remembered as the Soviet foreign minister who helped end the Cold War. Much of his support, though, has disappeared at home.

Shevardnadze was seen as his nation's savior in 1992 when he assumed power at the request of a military council, after a violent coup ousted the country's first democratically elected president. Shevardnadze then restored democracy by winning election as president in 1995.

In the late 1990s, the economy collapsed, in part because of a rise in violence that frightened away foreign investors. Shevardnadze won re-election in 2000 with more than 80 percent of the vote amid charges of widespread fraud.

Today, one out of seven Georgians is unemployed. Most of those who have jobs earn less than $50 a month. The tourist industry collapsed as law and order eroded. Public protests against the government erupted last summer after the killing of a popular television journalist who was preparing a report on links between officials and criminal gangs.

Shevardnadze's approval rating hovers at about 9 percent; his party received less than 1 percent of the vote in municipal elections in the spring. The 74-year old president's remaining source of popularity, many Georgians say, is the fear that when he leaves, things will become much worse.

"We're going backwards - in human rights, in economic development, in institution building." says Levan Ramishvili, director of Georgia's Liberty Institute and a leading critic of the government. "But the only political institution we have here that is stable - and it's hard to call it stable - is Shevardnadze himself."

Separatist victories

Weakened from within, Georgia faces growing pressure from Russia, which ruled the country for most of the past two centuries. Georgians had hoped to cultivate economic and political ties to Western Europe and the United States, and lessen Russia's grip. Russia, though, appears loath to let Georgia go.

Two Georgian regions - Abkhazia, on the Black Sea coast, and South Ossetia, north of Tbilisi - were seized by separatists in the early 1990s. The fighting in South Ossetia ended in 1992, and a Russian-brokered cease-fire ended fighting in Abkhazia in 1994. In both cases, Georgia essentially lost control of its former territories.

Russia maintains peacekeeping forces in those regions and has strengthened its political ties with the insurgents. Moscow, for example, has issued 150,000 Russian passports to residents of Abkhazia. That move infuriated Georgian officials. "It's something close to an official annexation of territory," says Peter Mamradze, Shevardnadze's chief of staff.

Russia has grievances of its own. Moscow is fighting Islamic separatists in the breakaway republic of Chechnya, which shares a 50-mile border with Georgia. For nearly three years, the Kremlin has sought permission to attack Chechens on the Georgian side of the border. Shevardnadze has refused.

About 4,000 Chechen refugees fled to the gorge three years ago to escape the fighting. Several hundred armed fighters followed them.

Russians say that the rebels use the area of the Pankisi Gorge as a staging area for attacks into Chechnya. As proof, they point to a clash that occurred in July between Russian border troops and about 60 Chechens. Tipped off by a Georgian shepherd, the Russians ambushed the Chechens on the Chechen side of the border.

Thirteen of the Chechens fled into Georgia, where they were captured by Georgian border guards. Georgian officials refused to hand the rebels over to Russia.

That, the Georgians say, would violate the strict code of the Caucasus Mountains, where betrayal is never forgotten. "It would spoil relations with the Chechen people for centuries," says Mamradze, Shevardnadze's chief of staff.

Moscow has responded by increasing military pressure. When snow melted in the Caucasus passes this summer, Russian helicopters and planes began straying from Chechnya into Georgia, Georgian officials say. Georgians say the Russians sometimes fired rockets or dropped bombs on Georgian territory. Those occasional small-scale raids caused no casualties.

Rising violence

Then, in mid-August, an Mi-26 military cargo helicopter crashed in a minefield near the Chechen capital of Grozny, killing 118 Russians aboard. Chechen rebels claim to have shot down the aircraft. A few days later, Russian airplanes bombed a suspected rebel camp deep inside Georgia. Georgian authorities said one man was killed and five wounded.

Shevardnadze threatened to retaliate, but his country was powerless to respond. "What should we do, shoot down the planes?" asks Lt. Gen. Valeri Chkheidze, chairman of the State Department of the Defense of the State Border of Georgia. "According to all the norms of international law, we should do it. But can you imagine what would happen if we shot down even one Russian plane?"

Late last month, Shevardnadze dispatched 1,000 troops into the Pankisi to try to restore order, and satisfy Russia and his countrymen. But no Chechen fighters were found, and the Russian military prevailed on Georgia to allow joint operations in the Pankisi.

The strained relationship between Georgia and Russia has placed American forces here in a delicate position. Waltemeyer blandly talked about equipment deliveries, the water tanks, the gravel, but avoided questions that touched on the escalating tensions.

As Waltemeyer looked on, Zaza Damenia, a gangly 29-year-old Georgian recruit, said, "I am a patriot, ready to use my skills to defend my country against its enemies." When Damenia was asked who those enemies are, Waltemeyer would not let him answer.

In the Georgian countryside, many older Georgians, nostalgic for the stability of Soviet times, can barely conceive of Moscow harming their nation. "If they really wanted to bomb us, they would bomb us properly," says Gayoz Kunelauri, 65, an unemployed grandfather, sipping coffee and eating blackberry preserves on the porch of his home.

Georgia's army cannot offer much challenge to Russia or any rebels who might remain in the Pankisi Gorge. "If 100 Chechens came here to Tbilisi today," says Lt. Col. Nika Djandjgava, "no Georgian force could stop them."

Problems in military

Djandjgava was appointed in June to lead Georgia's army and coordinate the American training program. What he found on assuming command, he says, was a mess.

Although Georgia claims to have 20,000 soldiers, he says it has only 5,000. Barracks are falling apart. Salaries aren't paid for months on end. Desertion is common. One brigade had just 100 men, Djandjgava says, but its top officers received money to feed and equip 3,000.

Fed up, he met with his superiors and demanded to know where the weapons and money were going.

Unsatisfied with the answers, Djandjgava and 101 other Georgian officers and NCOs - most with some training in Europe or the United States - submitted resignations in July. After talking it over, all but Djandjgava decided to withdraw their resignations, remain in the army and push for reform.

He calls the American program "a dream come true." But Georgia's military leadership is resisting the reforms the program demands, he says. "The Americans are like a doctor," he says. "They're giving us a small pill. And we are so damn lazy, we don't even want to swallow this pill."

Georgia remains heavily dependent on Russia. Almost one-fifth of Georgian men work permanently or seasonally in Russia. Most consumer goods come from there. And Russia remains Georgia's sole supplier of natural gas, which Georgians depend on for heat and electricity. Last winter, Russia threatened to cut off gas supplies to Tbilisi, and backed off only after U.S. intervention.

Shevardnadze has sought to lessen the country's dependence by talking of Georgia as the western gateway to a new Silk Road. Instead of camels carrying spices from China, the modern Silk Road would have tractor-trailers loaded with Central Asian cotton, and pipelines connecting oil fields in the Caspian Sea region to the west. These new routes would bypass Russia and create new competitors for Russian oil exports.

But Georgians might have a hard time forgiving Shevardnadze for failing to enforce the rule of law.

Ramishvili, the director of the Liberty Institute, encountered lawlessness in July, during a meeting with Council of Europe officials in his second-floor office. About a dozen men entered uninvited. One intruder beat him with brass knuckles; others cornered and bloodied members of his group while the terrified Europeans watched.

"This was like a military operation," Ramishvili says. "I think they did everything in three or four minutes. They didn't shout or scream. They did it with no emotions." Ramishvili suffered a concussion and eye injuries that required surgery. Some Liberty members ran downstairs, where they found police waiting. But the police refused to intervene.

The attackers, Ramishvili says, could have been sent by anyone from gangsters to top government officials. But he holds Shevardnadze responsible. "Most of our problems are associated with him," he says. "The ministers of the government might come or go, but the final problem - which is Shevardnadze - remains."

There is also the example of Nuzgar Dunduzashvili, 58, who scrapes out a living selling soap and pens along a roadside. He makes about $1.50 a day and is increasingly nostalgic for Soviet times. "There were jobs, there was food, there was everything," he says.

"Now? We have bedlam."

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