U.S. mans outpost in chaos of Georgia

American training helps small army in the fight against Islamic extremists

September 09, 2002|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

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.

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