Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Abkhaz Border Clashes

Moscow is losing patience with Georgia over its reluctance to crackdown on Chechen rebels based in the country.
By Michael Vignanski

Sporadic clashes between Abkhaz troops and groups of Chechen and Georgian fighters in the north-west of the country are sparking fears of renewed violence in the region.


Abkhazia mobilised its army this week after one of its soldiers was killed in fighting around the village of Geogievskoe, in the north of the breakaway region. The Sukhumi authorities told the Tbilisi-based Prime News Agency that its forces had captured one Chechen and one Georgian soldier following the clashes.


The UN has already expressed concern about growing tensions in the area, warning that an "armed group, comprising Georgian partisans and fighters from Russia's North Caucasus republics" threaten renewed military activity there.


The Russian news agency, Interfax, reported at the end of August that 800 Georgian and Chechen fighters, led by Chechen commander Ruslan Gelaev, were "preparing to launch attacks on the (Abkhaz) republic".


If the tensions escalate, Georgia could face the wrath of the Russian military, as Moscow is itching for an excuse to deal with Chechen fighters hiding out on Georgian territory since the resurgence of fighting in Chechnya in 1999.


Anxious not to get involved in the conflict in Chechnya, Georgia has turned a blind eye to the presence of Chechen insurgents on its soil, provoking Russian claims that it is aiding and abetting the rebels.


Having long denied their presence, Tbilisi recently admitted that Chechen rebels are operating in the Pankisi Gorge in the north-east and the Kodori Gorge, which spans the Georgian-Abkhaz border. "If Georgia is wrong, it will admit it and will try to correct the situation," President Shevardnadze said.


Talks due to be held in Tbilisi over the future of the breakaway region are now in jeopardy. Abkhaz foreign minister Sergei Shmba said that a large question mark was hanging over the negotiations, due to be held in Tbilisi on October 9.


The motives of the fighters on the Abkhaz border remain unclear. Some say they are Chechen and Georgian insurgents - possibly backed by elements of the Tbilisi authorities - who are trying to retrieve land lost in the early Nineties. While some of the fighting may be down to this, the most likely theory is that Chechen rebels en route to Chechnya are clashing with Abkhaz troops.


Whatever their motive, Moscow simply sees these armed groups as terrorists. It has already accused Tbilisi of hypocrisy over its attitudes towards terrorism. Russia says Georgia claims to fully support the US-led war on terrorism, yet harbours militants active in Chechnya and other southern Russian republics.


While Tbilisi admits Chechens are active in Kodori Gorge, Giorgi Baramidze, the chairman of Georgia's parliamentary committee for defence and security, said they were "out of the control of official Tbilisi", a reference to the fact that parts of the gorge fall under Abkhaz control.


Many analysts believe Chechen rebels - finding it increasingly difficult to pass through the Pankisi Gorge - are now travelling in a giant loop through Georgia and the southern Russian republics to re-enter Chechnya.


The fighters involved in this week's clashes were supposedly travelling north en route to the border with Karachevo-Cherkessia which would support this hypothesis.


On September 28, Shevardnadze discussed the situation with Abkhaz premier Anri Djergenia, assuring him that the group was there "without the sanction of the Georgian authorities".


But some observers believe Chechen soldiers could not have traversed the country without the knowledge of the interior and state security ministries. Baramidze has called for a full investigation into what he calls "the role played by these ministries".


Then, on Sept 27, opposition deputy Sandro Bregadze implied that senior government officials were being paid off in return for allowing the Chechens to cross. Georgia's interior minister Kakha Targamadze dismissed the allegations as nonesense.


Moscow is stepping up its efforts to get Georgia to crackdown on Chechens operating in the country. Targamadze, who held talks last week in Moscow with his counterpart Boris Grislov, said Tbilisi is interested in closer cooperation with Moscow. "The Georgian interior ministry is ready to cooperate with Russia in searching and extraditing individuals wanted by Russia," he said.


But the talks stopped well short of agreeing to any collaborative anti-terrorism operation. "There was no discussion in Moscow about possible joint operations, because it could involve Georgia in a large-scale Caucasus war," said Targamadze.


Mikhail Vignansky is director of the Georgian Prime News Agency