Breakaway States Get Together

The two breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia are strengthening their anti-Georgian alliance.

Breakaway States Get Together

The two breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia are strengthening their anti-Georgian alliance.

Thursday, 12 September, 2002

The leader of the republic of South Ossetia, Eduard Kokoyev, last week visited a fellow breakaway state, Abkhazia, to show solidarity in the face of their common foe, Georgia, and promote the cause of unrecognised states in the region.

Kokoyev's visit was unexpected. His cortege containing practically the entire leadership of South Ossetia arrived in Sukhum accompanied by two traffic police cars with flashing lights, after travelling almost 500 kilometres across Russia.

Following a meeting of only two hours, Kokoyev and Abkhazia's prime minister Anri Djergenia pledged to support each other militarily if fighting resumes in either region.

Behind the new agreement lies the recent flare-up of tension between Russia and Georgia in the Pankisi Gorge, while both sides have used the first anniversary of the September 11 attacks to accuse the other of abetting terrorism.

On the day of the anniversary, President Vladimir Putin issued a stark warning to Georgia, alleging that perpetrators of the Moscow apartment block bombings of 1999 were taking shelter in the Pankisi Gorge and claiming the right to intervene there militarily in "self-defence".

Both Abkhazia and South Ossetia have watched Georgia's own security sweep in the Pankisi with undisguised alarm. Djergenia suggested the operation had a hidden agenda that had nothing to do with Chechen fighters. The Abkhaz worry that it might lead to a repeat of the kind of violence that occurred last October in the Kodori Gorge in Abkhazia, when a group of Chechen fighters moved there from the Pankisi, with the support of the Georgian security forces.

"Where have you seen an operation to drive out terrorists and saboteurs from a gorge being accompanied by a full parade, banners and taking the salute?" asked Djergenia. "What happened in the Pankisi was just a show."

Djergenia said he believed the fighters had been tipped off and left the Pankisi in good time before the Georgian security forces arrived. Some of them had relocated to the border with South Ossetia to the north-west and others had moved to the upper part of the Kodori Gorge, the only part of Abkhazia under Tbilisi's control.

"The forces of international terrorism appearing on the borders with South Ossetia, after moving there from the Pankisi Gorge are a pretext for the resumption of military action in the territory of the republic," Kokoyev said in Sukhum.

Ten years after the conflict that drove them apart, there is still deadlock between Abkhazia and South Ossetia on the one hand and Georgia on the other. The outside world does not recognise them as independent states, so any hand stretched out in friendship, even if it comes from another unrecognised state, is like a breath of fresh air.

So, even though Abkhazia and South Ossetia do not share a common border they both set great store by their cooperation.

"We have the same problems as South Ossetia, the same enemy, who has not given up attempts to use force to solve both the Georgian-Abkhaz and Georgian-Ossetian conflicts, and it would be strange if we didn't get together to sort out these problems," Astamur Tania, aide to the president of Abkhazia on political issues, told IWPR.

"The agreements we made about mutual assistance are not restricted to moral support, which has always existed anyway between our states. We are talking about concrete collaboration in various spheres, including the military one. I assure you, if there is any new aggression from Georgia, neither South Ossetia nor Georgia will remain alone."

These new pledges of military cooperation may also now extend to the former Soviet Union's other two breakaway republics, Nagorny Karabakh and the Transdniestria, which cut loose from Azerbaijan and Moldova respectively.

The four would-be states have sought to formalise their relations in a series of meetings over the last two years.

Back in the wars of 1991-4, warriors from the entities supported each other. An Ossetian battalion of around 300 men fought on the Abkhaz side during the war with Georgia. Around the same number of men from Transdniestria also took part, although they did not have a unit of their own. And a group of Abkhaz formed a company to fight in South Ossetia.

There is virtually no trade relationship between the four breakaway states because of the great distances that separate them and their depressed economic state. However, some activity has begun. A series of hotels in Abkhazia have been leased to the governments of Transdniestria and South Ossetia. And South Ossetia and Abkhazia are working on a project to transmit energy between the two territories across Russia.

It is worth underlining that this new agreement on mutual military support happened as Georgian-Russian relations took a new turn for the worse. And experts in Sukhum believe that the alliance would have no future without support from Moscow. In June around two thirds of the population of both South Ossetia and Abkhazia took Russian citizenship, a new development strengthening their ties.

Gia Nodia, director of the Caucasian Institute for Peace, Democracy and Development in Tbilisi, said the building of alliances was "completely natural", but he doubted it would bring many benefits.

"The current activities of the 'unrecognised' ones towards greater solidarity can evidently be explained by the latest worsening of Georgian-Russian relations, which can play to their advantage," Nodia said. "But it is obvious that this is not a way in which they can solve their unrecognised status."

The leaders involved are keeping quiet about what they intend to do next. "The question of collaboration between the Abkhaz and Ossetian military is a confidential one, but it has already been decided," Djergenia said after the meeting.

Inal Khashig is correspondent for the BBC Caucasus and Central Asia service in Abkhazia. Regional coordinator Margarita Akhvlediani in Tbilisi contributed to this report.

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