Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Thu Aug 17 13:30:26 UTC 2006

Eurasia Insight:
Molly Corso: 7/28/06

Tensions between Tbilisi and the separatist leaders in Sokhumi escalated
July 28 after Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili announced that the
Tbilisi-based Abkhaz government-in-exile will be moved to the Kodori
Gorge, a small pocket of Georgian-controlled territory within the disputed
territory of Abkhazia. The president announced this decision during an
emotional televised address to the nation late on July 27. Referring to
the move as a "fundamental political event," Saakashvili said it would
place Georgian authority in the "heart of Abkhazia" for the first time
since the 1992-1993 civil war. The gorge is located roughly 30 miles from
Sokhumi, the capital of separatist Abkhazia.

"We decided to relocate the Abkhaz government to the Kodori Gorge where it
will enforce the full jurisdiction and the control of the Georgian
government," he said, adding that the governments operation in the gorge
against rebel militia leader Emzar Kvitsiani had been "successfully
completed." "Life will return to normal and reconstruction work will
begin,"  Saakashvili assured viewers. Abkhazia's de facto leadership in
Sokhumi reacted sharply to the announcement. According to reports by the
Russian Interfax news agency, Sergei Shamba, the breakaway regions de
facto foreign minister, vowed to take "any action" necessary to prevent
the move. The separatist government has termed Saakashvilis decision an
"open provocation."

In response to the announcement, the separatist government Friday decided
not to attend regular weekly talks with Georgian, Russian and United
Nations representatives, the Georgian television station Rustavi-2
reported Ruslan Kishmaria, Abkhazias de facto presidential representative
to the Gali region, as saying. During his Thursday speech, Saakashvili had
noted that Georgia would attend the talks as usual, despite the operation
in the Kodori Gorge against Kvitsiani. [For background, see the Eurasia
Insight archive]. Officially, representatives of the Abkhaz
government-in-exile in Tbilisi maintain that they are pleased with the
presidents decision. In an interview with Imedi television on July 28,
Teimuraz Majavia, chairman of the Abkhaz government-in-exile, said that
the move would be "good" and that the government would be able to
"protect" residents of the remote mountain gorge. Representatives of the
government-in-exile have declined further comment.

Some officials in Sokumi have a different interpretation however. Sending
the exiled Abkhaz government to the Kodori Gorge is akin to exiling it to
Siberia, noted Christian Bjaniya, spokesperson for Abkhazias de facto
President Sergei Bagapsh. "The impression is that Saakashvili just wants
to get rid of the so-called Abkhazian autonomous government-in-exile,"
Bjaniya told the Russian news agency Regnum. One political analyst in
Tbilisi, however, notes that while the move will do little to change the
balance of power in the breakaway region, its affect on negotiations with
the separatist government in Sokhumi will not be positive. "Of course, the
Abkhazian side will use it to make sure the Russian peacekeepers are not
pulled out," said Tina Gogueliani, a political analyst at the
International Center on Conflict & Negotiation.  "It will work for the
Russians and the Russian peacekeepers. [They will say] there is a big need
for maintaining stability in the region."

In an apparent bid to build a sense of security in the gorge, President
Saakashvili stated on Thursday night that the Georgian government would
repair local roads, hospitals, schools and an airfield, as well as provide
social welfare payments to Kodori residents. A humanitarian aid shipment
made up mostly of food left for the gorge on July 28, Georgian television
reported. In a separate statement, Giorgi Targamadze, chairman of the
parliamentary committee for defense and security, has warned that if "the
Abkhaz side will pose a threat to this territory, they will be hit by a
devastating strike," the online news service reported on July 28.

Adding to the tensions, on Friday the Georgian government reported that
militia leader Emzar Kvitsiani has escaped to Sokhumi with his family and
two supporters. In a televised briefing, Georgian Presidential Chief of
Staff Giorgi Arveladze said that Georgian forces had allowed the fighters
to leave the Kodori Gorge village of Chkhalta late on July 27 in an effort
to avoid civilian casualties. Georgian troops had found a cache of arms
and ammunition in the gorge worth $30 million, he claimed. An interview
with Russian public television has been aired on Georgian television and
cited by the government as proof that Kvitsiani is in Abkhazia. The
television footage, depicting the militia leader sitting on the grass,
gives no indication of its exact location, however.

Officials in Tbilisi maintain that there are no plans for further
"anti-criminal" action in the conflict zone, but both the Russian
government and the separatist government have already voiced concerns that
the Georgian government does not intend to limit itself to the gorge. News
reports on July 28 quoted Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov as saying
that Georgia intended "to solve the problems of Abkhazia and South Ossetia
by force." Members of the Russian government have repeatedly accused
Georgia of using excess force during the operation and jeopardizing
stability in the region. Addressing the separatist government on Thursday,
Saakashvili stressed that his government is committed to a peaceful
resolution of the conflict, but added that the "only possible final
outcome" of the negotiations was for Abkhazia to return to Georgia.

The Georgian government launched an "anti-criminal operation" in the
Kodori Gorge, located within Abkhazia, late on July 22 in response to
threats of rebellion from Emzar Kvitsiani, the ethnic Svan leader of the
Monadire or Hunter militia, a group estimated to contain about 300-400
fighters. Although the militia was originally part of the Georgian
military, Tbilisi reportedly disbanded the group in 2005. The main phase
of the armed operation was reported completed yesterday. The government
has not yet released a full list of casualties, but at least one civilian
died during the fighting.

Editors Note: Molly Corso is a freelance reporter and photojournalist
based in Tbilisi.


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