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Abkhaz Braced for New War

New crisis in the Kodori Gorge stokes Abkhazian fears of renewed conflict with Georgia.
By Inal Khashig

Abkhazians fear a resumption of hostilies with Georgia following an escalation in tensions in the Kodori Gorge region of the country.


The latest round of Georgian-Abkhazian negotiations scheduled for April 17 were broken off as a result of the quarrel about the deployment of Russian troops in the gorge. Tensions were further fuelled when the two sides began a new argument on whether Tbilisi had the right to keep border guards in the area


Both developments combined to send the troubled peace talks over the breakaway republic into yet another downward spiral.


The Kodori Gorge is the only part of Abkhazia's territory under Georgian control and therefore has great strategic importance. Its western section extends into the very centre of the republic and could, Sukhum believes, serve as a potential bridgehead for an invasion by Georgian forces.


An unsuccessful attempt to launch just such an incursion was made last October by a group of several hundred men, led by Chechen field commander Ruslan Gelayev. After the raid failed, at the cost of several dozen casualties, Georgia sent 300 troops into the upper part of the gorge, breaking the 1994 agreement, which had defined the area as a demilitarised zone.


A new deal was struck on April 2 for the Georgian soldiers to be withdrawn from the region. However, the two sides disagree on the interpretation of a key plank of the accord, which envisages the withdrawal of all armed formation from the region.


Abkhazia's prime minister, Anri Djergenia, accused Tbilisi of continuing to deploy there. But President Eduard Shevardnadze said the only Georgian military personnel in the region were border guards.


"It makes no difference to us, what these armed groups are called - border guards or just guards - there should be no men with weapons in their hands in the Kodori Gorge," said Djergenia. His position was supported by the head of Russian peacekeepers in Abkhazia, Alexander Yevteev, who accused Tbilisi of failing to adhere to the agreement.


Escalating the rhetoric, Sukhum's vice-president Valery Arshba urged the UN monitoring mission to Abkhazia, UNOMIG, and the Russian peacekeeping force to take active steps to make Georgia remove all its armed men from the gorge. Otherwise, he said, Abkhazia would move its own armed forces into the area.


Many in Abkhazia are convinced that Tbilisi is preparing for a new attempt to resolve the dispute with Sukhum by military means. Abkhazia's authorities say that they are capable of mobilising more than 10,000 experienced fighters, should hostilities break out.


Reserve officers, who fought in the Georgia-Abkhazia war of 1992-3 and who comprise the breakaway republic's main attacking force, are being called up. They also say they can count on possible support from volunteers in the North Caucasus who backed them in the first conflict. Indeed, a delegation of Terek Cossacks visited Sukhum in early April and pledged their support if required.


The latest crisis in the Kodori is already having disastrous effects on Abkhazia's impoverished economy. The troubles have halted the start of the tourist season, which is one of the republic's main sources of income. The manager of Abkhazia's only real-estate business, Beslan Kvitsinia, said that he had not done a single deal in the last two months and his office was on the brink of bankruptcy.


"In order to make ends meet we have been forced to change our profile and deal in activities that are completely new for us, such as organising excursions for children to Sochi," Kvitsinia said.


Another side effect of the crisis has been to increase public support for the idea of Abkhazia becoming part of Russia. The idea was first broached last year by Djergenia, who said that it could have an "associate membership" with the Russian Federation, modelled on the links between the Marshall Islands and the USA.


The leader of the local opposition, Leonid Lakerbaia, has accused Djergenia of playing the Russian card to further his own ambitions. He said the premier lacked the charisma and strength of Abkhazia's president, Vladislav Ardzinba, who is currently unable to govern due to ill health.


Djergenia was, Lakerbaia said, hoping to use Moscow's support to replace Ardzinba as leader of the breakaway republic.


However, the new perceived threat of Georgian aggression could also shake up the internal politics of Abkhazia, consolidate society and bring forth a new wave of leaders, just as it did when Ardzinba himself rose to prominence.


Inal Khashig is correspondent for the BBC Caucasus and Central Asian Service in Abkhazia.


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