Attempt to kill Shevardnadze fueled by precious Caspian oil Suspicions focus on Russian factions, ex-Soviet generals

March 11, 1998|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

TBILISI, Georgia -- Eduard A. Shevardnadze's big heavy Mercedes tore through the night along the ancient and storied banks of the Mtkvari River, in a mountain city where nations bid for influence and where oil and revenge hold sway.

It passed the Monument to Mother Georgia, with her upraised sword and wine glass, and beyond that the fourth-century ruins of the Fortress of Shuris Tsikhe.

It passed billboards touting American cigarettes. It passed vendors selling Turkish snack food from their nighttime stands. It rounded a bend and came within sight of the 14-foot-high letters of the new British Airways sign, planted high on the hilltop above and dominating Tbilisi.

The car passed not far from the old leaky pipeline which, in the daytime, Australian crews were busy patching and repairing so that the flood of new Caspian Sea oil could begin making its way directly to the West, bypassing Russia.

It raced through the placid Georgian night until the first anti-tank grenade slammed into the car. The explosion miraculously left Shevardnadze unhurt. Then another and another hit the car, but each grenade pushed the car farther away from the attackers. A 15-minute firefight ensued. Three men were killed, the Mercedes was nearly demolished, but the former foreign minister of the Soviet Union -- the man who oversaw the peaceful end of the Cold War -- was whisked to safety in an old Russian-made Lada police car.

Georgian suspicions instantly fell upon Russia. Locked for years into Moscow's orbit, Georgia is striving mightily to break free. The attack on Shevardnadze has only intensified that desire.

Murky game

It comes in the midst of an intricate and murky game that nations -- and factions within nations -- are playing out in the Caucasus, as nearly unparalleled wealth from oil beckons.

Everyone understands that Russia would most benefit from chaos here.

It is Russia that wants to keep Georgia and neighboring Azerbaijan from growing too close to Europe and the United States. And it is Russia that harbors those most likely to plot revenge against Shevardnadze -- the die-hard former Soviet generals who believe he betrayed the empire, and the violent Georgian fugitives who would like to snatch control of their country.

U.S. sends FBI investigators

Within days of the assassination attempt Feb. 9, Shevardnadze's government made a point of welcoming into the country a team of six U.S. forensic specialists from the FBI to help with the investigation.

"Maybe it was an emotional reaction," Alexander Rondeli, director of Tbilisi's Foreign Policy Research and Analysis Center, said of Shevardnadze's willingness to seek American assistance. Maybe it was just showing he had no other way: 'You are killing me -- I have to ask my friends to come help me.' "

The U.S. stake in Georgia is not large. But American petroleum companies have a large stake in Azerbaijan's Caspian Sea oil, and they, along with their European partners, need a way to get it out to the West. To the north of Azerbaijan lies Russia. To the south lies Russia's increasingly warm ally, Iran. Between them, like a wedge, lies the small and insecure but Western-leaning nation of Georgia.

In the weeks following the attack, governments and companies from all over the world turned their attention to the Caucasus.

The FBI agents extracted all the information they could from the remains of the Mercedes. Germany presented a replacement armored limousine. The Australians kept working on the old pipeline, while the Georgian government stepped up its lobbying for the big new pipeline that the Caspian oil consortium will begin planning within the next year or so.

Georgia's fear

The Shevardnadze government's fear is straightforward: If Georgia is reduced to chaos, the big pipeline will go elsewhere, through Russia or, conceivably, through a more moderate Iran.

Either way, Georgia loses its political stability and its hope for economic revival.

"Georgia as a state is not really complete -- it's a quasi-state," said Rondeli. "We have tried to find our place in this harsh and merciless world."

And that means, he said, finding a place that is not directly under Russia's thumb.

"It's not just oil," said Gela Charkviani, foreign affairs adviser to Shevardnadze. "It's independence. Oil makes independence possible."

The problem, he said, is that independence runs up against Russia's deeply ingrained "contradictory spirit."

Russians wasted no time leaping into the fray after the attack on Shevardnadze. The government denied it had any role in the incident.

One report in the Russian press suggested that Shevardnadze himself had staged the attack -- an allegation that seems to have very little evidence going for it. Another article in Moscow last week claimed that Shevardnadze was so ill he would have to step down. This was one that the president took pains to deny.

Tense relations with Russia

The Russian defense minister, Igor Sergeyev, delayed a planned visit here, citing tensions between the two countries.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.