Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili faces a new round of serious challenges. Last week, demonstrators took to the streets of the capital Tbilisi to demand his resignation. Members of Parliament are calling for impeachment hearings. And an investigation by the European Union concluded that Saakashvili started last year's conflict with Russia by firing on innocent civilians and then lying about his role. Opposition members are calling for a war crimes trial in The Hague.
But more damning charges against Saakashvili may be yet to come. Last month, Alexander Bortnikov, the head of Russia's FSB security agency, accused Georgia of harboring al-Qaeda terrorists in the northern, heavily forested region of Pankisi Gorge, which borders Russia, and which has played host to Chechen insurgents in the past. A decade ago, there was firm evidence that training bases for military extremists existed in the region, and today there is no evidence those bases are gone. As a result, Georgians are terrified that Russia will seize the opportunity to begin antiterrorists raids, potentially harming innocent civilians. Russia is determined, along with the United States, to fight the war on terror. Especially in its own backyard.
Bortnikov was quoted as saying, "Audio evidence seized from insurgents shows that, together with emissaries of al-Qaeda, they had contacts with representatives of the Georgian secret services." Georgia, he claims, "participated in the training and transfer of terrorists to the territory of Chechnya." Moscow also states that Tbilisi is supplying arms in the neighboring region of Dagestan.
There is reliable information (beyond Russian allegations) that after Saakashvili came to power in 2004, Shamil Basaev-the Chechen militant responsible for the Beslan massacre-had a private meeting with Georgia's interior minister and presumably was convinced that the new president would turn a blind eye to the activities in Pankisi Gorge. After being wounded in Afghanistan, Dokka Umarov, the head of al-Qaeda's South Caucasian efforts, was treated in a Tbilisi hospital. His former boss, Ruslan Gelayev, who was killed by Russian border guards in 2004 while fleeing into Georgia, was said to be a close friend of Saakashvili. Gelayev and his henchmen were welcomed by the Georgian authorities because of their promise of violence in the Russian-controlled breakaway region of Abkhazia, a territory Saakashvili has all but forfeited after last August's five-day war with Moscow.
But with Western support for Saakashvili now floundering, and the Obama administration's efforts to "reset" relations with Russia, Georgia is no longer the beacon of democracy the United States had hoped for. Saakashvili has turned from democracy to autocracy, jailing political prisoners, shutting down free media and paying millions of dollars to Washington lobbying firms and public relations experts to shore up his increasingly bizarre image while his country endures severe economic privations-Georgia's unemployment rate is just over 13 percent, one of the highest of any former Soviet Republic. Still, Saakashvili has hired Julio Iglesias for over $1 million to sing at a New Year's Eve party in Batumi.
The American people may not care about Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but allegations that our ally is assisting terrorists might not go down so well with the Obama administration. The Pankisi Gorge, where the terrorists operate, is now regarded as one of the most internationally dangerous regions and is potentially another Waziristan, the most volatile terrorist breeding ground in Pakistan.
Georgia, the size of Maryland, receives $5 billion annually in U.S. aid. How much of that money has gone to the Georgian people is anyone's guess. At least we know where $1 million of the Georgian budget will go: to Julio Iglesias, ringing in 2010.
Tsotne Bakuria is a former member of the Georgian parliament. He lives in Washington, D.C.