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Abkhaz Open 'Second Front'

Abkhaz seize key valley held by Georgian troops dealing further blow to beleaguered Tbilisi government.
By Inal Khashig
The de facto authorities in Abkhazia have re-captured the mountainous Upper Kodori valley in a lightning operation and welcomed thousands more Russian troops into their territory, as the repercussions of the war over South Ossetia widen.



Abkhaz forces moved unopposed into the valley, which the Georgian government had controlled for two years, after giving the Georgian military stationed there an ultimatum to leave. The Georgians abandoned their positions and hundreds of civilians also fled. United Nations monitors had also left after being warned to do so by the Abkhaz authorities.



For days, the gorge was subjected to artillery and aerial bombardment before a ground offensive began on August 12. By midday, they had hoisted the Abkhaz flag over the former Georgian administrative building in the territory. Abkhaz de facto president Sergei Bagapsh flew into the gorge the next morning by helicopter to declare that the last piece of Georgian-held land in Abkhazia was back under the control of Sukhum.



The only casualty on the Abkhaz side was one soldier mistakenly killed by his own men. They met no resistance and the only inhabitants they found that evening were two old women and four monks. Soldiers said they had discovered a mountain of weapons, from American M-16 rifles to artillery units and mortars, as well as herds of abandoned cattle.



Bagapsh said he would appoint new local administrative heads and was counting on the return of the local Svan population, who speak a language close to Georgian.



The Abkhaz side said that the operation was justified because the Georgians had broken the Moscow ceasefire agreement of 1994 by moving armed men into the gorge two years ago. President Mikhail Saakashvili had renamed the gorge “Upper Abkhazia” and put the headquarters of his Georgian “Abkhaz government in exile” there.



Earlier, Bagapsh had declared a partial mobilisation of the armed forces and the local population and had adopted a resolution introducing a state of war in the eastern part of Abkhazia.



The crisis in South Ossetia triggered alarm in the Black Sea republic, which broke away from Georgia in 1993. Abkhazia and South Ossetia had signed a treaty promising each other mutual military support in case of Georgian aggression. In the words of Bagapsh, “Abkhaz has its obligations to the people of South Ossetia and it is fulfilling them.”



“Maybe in order to achieve our goals we will have to violate certain parts of the Moscow Agreement of May 14, 1994 on a ceasefire but we were not the first to violate them,” Bagapsh told a press conference on August 10. The Abkhaz authorities said that they were effectively opening a “second front” in order to support the South Ossetians.



At the same time, the commanders of Russian peacekeepers stationed in Abkhazia also warned the Georgians, issuing a statement calling for “full demilitarisation in the Security Zone of detachments and units of the defence ministry, interior forces, police, border police and other security structures of Georgia”.



“In the event that armed groups refuse to give up their weapons, all necessary measures will be taken,” said Alexander Novitsky, aide to the commander of peacekeeping forces.



Russia has also sent in an additional 9,000 troops to Abkhazia. On August 10 alone, 40 Russian transport aircraft carrying military equipment arrived at Sukhum airport. Out at sea, ships of the Russian Black Sea fleet are moored to defend Abkhazia from possible Georgian attacks. The Russian military say they have already destroyed a Georgian patrol boat which entered Abkhaz waters.



Everyone in Abkhazia says that the conflict over South Ossetia has changed all calculations about the future of their republic.



“By its actions in South Ossetia, Georgia showed that in reality it wants to see the resolution of both the Georgian-Ossetian and the Georgian-Abkhaz conflicts only by force,” said Tamaz Ketsba, an Abkhaz analyst. “So Sukhum’s actions in the Kodori Gorge is not just about keeping our partnership agreements with Tskhinval, it’s an act of deterrence. Sooner or later, the Georgian military contingent stationed in the Kodori Gorge would have been used against Abkhazia.”



Public opinion has also turned more strongly against the West.



“After the West did not react for several days to the Georgian artillery levelling Tskhinval, it became completely obvious to us that nobody needs either the Abkhaz or the Ossetians,” said political analyst Oleg Damenia. “No one except Russia is planning to defend us. That’s why we are accepting the big increase in the Russian military presence in Abkhazia calmly. They are guaranteeing our security.”



Now the city of Sukhum, a busy holiday resort just a few days ago, looks half-empty. With most of the men under arms, the remaining citizens prefer to watch events unfolding in the region on television.



Strangely enough, the crisis does not seem to have deterred Russian tourists taking their holidays on Abkhazia’s beaches.



“It’s quite a surreal treat, to sunbathe on the beach with Russian warships lined up in the port,” said Andrei, a tourist from the Russian town of Vladimir. “I don’t think any tourist firm would offer that and if they did it would be only for lots of money.”



It was hard to tell if he was joking, as war raged not far away.



Life is beginning to get back to normal in Abkhazia. But August 14, the anniversary of the Georgian military invasion of Abkhazia in 1992, was declared a day of mourning for the victims of the war in South Ossetia.



Inal Khashig is editor of the Chegemskaya Pravda newspaper in Abkhazia.