IWPR: Russia Stokes Abkhaz Conflict
- Russia Stokes Abkhaz Conflict
Reports of a military build-up on the Abkhaz border send shockwaves
through the region
By Mikhail Vignansky in Tbilisi (CRS No. 96, 31-Aug-01)
A reported force of 800 Georgian and Chechen fighters, allegedly
poised to launch attacks on against Abkhazia, has revived fears of
war in the region, although neither side in the long-running conflict
knows with certainty if the unit even exists.
The panic began on August 24 when the Russian news agency Interfax,
citing military sources, reported that 500 Georgian "partisans" and
300 Chechen fighters, led by the Chechen rebel commander Ruslan
Gelaev, had been located in Georgia's Tsalendzhikhi region, near the
Abkhaz border. The sources said the fighters might attempt to break
through Abkhazia territory and into Russia.
The news triggered an immediate denial from Tbilisi, which called the
report a provocation. "Georgia has always supported the principle of
a peaceful settlement of the Georgia-Abkhazia conflict," said a
spokesperson for President Eduard Shevardnadze.
But Shevardnadze, nevertheless, sent his trouble-shooter, Special
Affairs Minister Malkhaz Kakabadze, to Sukhumi, the Abkhaz capital,
one day later. Kakabadze later told journalists, "There was a real
danger of conflict. Certain movements of armed persons were recently
observed in western Georgia." Shevardnadze confirmed that a
"spontaneous gathering" of 200 to 300 armed men had been reported
near the Abkhaz border.
But the deputy prime minister of the Chechen rebel state, Akhmed
Zakaev, said the Russian report was primarily aimed at destabilising
the region. Zakaev asserted "Chechen units only carry out military
operations on the territory of Ichkeria [Chechnya]".
Georgia has always denied repeated accusations by Russia that Chechen
fighters maintain training camps and bases in the Pankisi Gorge, a
region in north-eastern Georgia that remains out of the control of
the Tbilisi authorities. The largest ethnic group in the gorge are
Kists, ethnic Chechens.
David Shengelia, commander of the Georgian guerrilla unit Forest
Brothers, said, "[Georgian] partisans would never have anything to do
But Zurab Samushia, head of another such group, White Legion, has
claimed there's reliable evidence of Chechen fighters in Abkhazia
preparing to launch attacks in the region.
Both the White Legion and the Forest Brothers paramilitary groups
were set up after the secession of Abkhazia from Georgia in 1992, to
"protect" ethnic Georgians in the Gali district, which straddles the
new frontier at the River Inguri.
In response to the Russian news report, Sukhumi, nevertheless,
announced a partial mobilisation of army reservists. Defence chief
Vladimir Mikamba called on civilians to be prepared to repulse a
possible invasion from western Georgia, which "might be supported by
Chechens from the Pankisi Gorge". Mikamba is convinced that the armed
groups are mainly composed of Mengrelians belonging to Georgian
Some politicians and media in Tbilisi link the current scare to the
controversy over Russia's continued military presence in the
Abkhazian seaside town of Gudauta. At the summit of the Organisation
for Security and Cooperation in Europe in Istanbul in 1999, Moscow
agreed to shut the base by July 1, 2001, but it failed to meet the
"It is uncivilised of Russia to try to guarantee its presence in the
zone of conflict by using such methods," said Kakha Sikharulidze, a
senior official in the Georgian foreign ministry. However, he said
that Tbilisi had no intention of pressing for the withdrawal from
Abkhazia of the largely Russian peacekeeping force (formally under
the auspices of the Commonwealth of Independent States), which it
considered a "definite stabilising factor" in the region.
The tension in Gali district, meanwhile, is palpable. Despite the
presence of 100 UN military observers and the 1,800-strong Russian
peacekeeping force, the region has seen deadly skirmishes since early
April between armed groups that both Georgia and Abkhazia describe as
The Tbilisi newspaper Rezonansi recently reported that Megrelians,
living in Gali, talk of armed Chechen fighters preparing for military
actions. Residents believe they are willing to fight for the Georgian
cause because Sukhumi is so closely allied with Moscow.
The deputy speaker of Georgia's parliament, Vakhtang Rcheulishvili,
claimed that factions in power might have formed an alliance with
Chechens to win back Abkhazia. Whether such theories are true or not,
what is clear is that any Chechen involvement in the simmering
conflict could have catastrophic consequences.
With the peace talks bogged down between Sukhumi and Tbilisi, there
are still influential advocates of a military solution in Georgia.
The well-known political scientist Ramaz Klimiashvili still argues in
favour of a "blitzkrieg" against Sukhumi. "If Georgia restores its
jurisdiction in Abkhazia in 24 hours, the international community
will overlook it," he said.
Similar arguments echo through the corridors of power. "When the
peace process is delayed," said Kakabadze. "when it brings no result
for years, the number of advocates of a military settlement of the
Abkhaz problem increases." Interior minister Kakha Targamadze agrees.
"Georgia should be prepared for a military solution to the Abkhaz
conflict," he said, "because it will not tolerate territorial
Shevardnadze is trying to negotiate a way out of the impasse, saying
early this week he would fly to Sukhumi to discuss a settlement of
the conflict. He claimed that most Georgians and Abkhazians support
the idea of peaceful coexistence within a single state, the situation
before the 1992-93 war.
But officials in Sukhumi remain sceptical about Shevardnadze's
intentions. "Abkhazia is an independent state," said presidential
advisor Astamur Tania. "No suggestion for the division of competences
between Tbilisi and Sukhumi will be considered here."
Still, both sides are straining to find a negotiated settlement.
Sukhumi has said it will consider resuming its participation in the
UN Coordination Council initiative on reconciliation, which it walked
out of in April, after accusing Georgian partisans of trying to
destabilise the normalisation process.
In the next few days, the UN Security Council will discuss a draft
document on the division of authority between Georgia and Abkhazia,
prepared by the representatives of the Group of Friends of the UN
Secretary-General, including France, Germany, Russia, the UK and the
Any diplomacy would be readily overturned if guerrilla fighters are
indeed gathering in western Georgia and Abkhazia to seize by force
what has eluded negotiation for nearly a decade. Mikhail Vignansky is
director of the Georgian Prime News Agency and a regular IWPR