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Abkhazia Exposed

President Ardzinba opposes the withdrawal of Russian troops from Abkhazia, and warns against any ideas to impose NATO troops on the territory.
By Erik Batuev

The president of Abkhazia claims his people are ready to "lie down in front of the Russian tanks if necessary" in a bid to stop them leaving the breakaway Georgian republic.

In an exclusive interview with IWPR, Vladislav Ardzinba said that Russian plans to abandon the military base at Gudauta would leave Abkhazia vulnerable to military aggression from Tbilisi.

"We cannot afford to remain unarmed against Georgia which is about to receive military support from all over the world," the president said.

Ardzinba's comments came just days after Russia began to withdraw troops and armour from the Vaziani military base near Tbilisi. The move is part of a deal signed last year at the Istanbul summit of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and financed by America and Britain.

Georgia is impatient for Moscow to vacate all four of its bases in the former Soviet republic where around 10,000 Russian soldiers and several hundred armoured vehicles are stationed. As soon as Vaziani and Gudauta are abandoned, Tbilisi will push for a similar withdrawal from Batumi and Akhalkalaki.

But President Ardzinba fears that Georgia will subsequently allow NATO troops to occupy the Russian bases - a move which, he says, will torpedo any hopes of a solution to the ongoing conflict between Tbilisi and Sukhumi.

"It's vital for the Russian peacekeepers to stay here in order to keep a lid on the conflict," said Ardzinba. "Changing them for NATO peacekeepers will do nothing to speed up the peace process.

"Bringing NATO troops into the republic requires the agreement of both Georgia and Abkhazia, but the Abkhazian government will never sanction this," he said.

The president went on to say that the Abkhazian people would do everything in their power to stop the Russians leaving the Gudauta base. "They will simply not allow Russia or Georgia to withdraw Russian troops from Abkhazian territory - they will lie down on the road in front of the Russian tanks if necessary."

Ardzinba's stance has ruffled feathers in the Kremlin - not least because the republic of 300,000 people boasts a well-equipped standing army with air, artillery and tank units. By Abkhazian law, every citizen has the right to bear arms - although only military personnel can carry them in public.

The memories of the 1992-93 conflict are still fresh - when the ranks of the Abkhazian military were swelled by hundreds of Russian volunteers (including the Chechen general Shamil Basaev, then an obscure mercenary). More than 7,000 people are thought to have died during the fighting.

As a result, the Russian interior ministry was quick to hold talks with Ardzinba in Sukhumi in an attempt to defuse the situation. The results of these talks remain unclear - Ardzinba went on holiday abroad shortly afterwards - but it seems likely the withdrawal of Russian troops from Gudauta will be postponed until the autumn.

Meanwhile, the Abkhazian people appear to stand firmly behind their president. One Sukhumi resident said, "If the NATO peacekeepers come here, then we'll take up arms against them. They'll support the Georgians and occupy our country. We want to be independent or at least part of the Russian Federation."

Ardzinba himself said he was well aware that any resistance to the Istanbul agreement could herald a worsening of relations with Moscow and perhaps even an economic blockade. For this reason, he said, he was committed to finding a peaceful solution.

Meanwhile, Russian armour has been leaving Georgia through the Black Sea port of Batumi, with the first phase of the withdrawal due to finish by July next year. The process is being financed by Western governments under the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty. America has provided around $10 million with another $150,000 coming from Great Britain.

The Georgian foreign minister, Irakli Menagarishvili, assured Moscow in April that the Russian bases would never be manned by foreign troops although other officials have since admitted that this option is being considered.

Erik Batuev is a correspondent for Moskovskie Novosti and a regular contributor to IWPR.