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Georgia Angered by UN Abkhaz Report

A report critical of “provocative” Georgian camp upsets Tbilisi - but is welcomed in Abkhazia.
By Mikhail Vignansky
The Georgian government, which has been focussing its efforts recently on the dispute with South Ossetia, has been angered by a report on its other breakaway territory, Abkhazia, from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon.

In a report to the Security Council, the secretary-general urged the Georgian and Abkhaz sides to deepen cooperation and resume direct dialogue that has been suspended for a year, since Georgia launched an operation in the mountainous Kodori Gorge area of Abkhazia and then moved its "government-in-exile" there.

Ban also said that a youth sports and patriot camp that Georgia has opened in the village of Ganmukhuri, one kilometre from the Abkhazia conflict zone, should be moved because it might provoke violence. (See following article).

"In order to reduce the possibility of incidents, the United Nations joins the Group of Friends (a quintet of countries mediating in the Abkahzia dispute) in calling on the Government of Georgia to move the camp away from the security zone," said Ban.

Georgian politicians have criticised the UN report and suggested that the UN Secretary-General's group of friends on Georgia is overly influenced by Russia.

A foreign ministry statement drew attention to the mysterious attack on Georgian government buildings in the Kodori Gorge region of Abkhazia in March this year, which it blames on Russian helicopters. Tbilisi now calls the region Upper Abkhazia.

"The Georgian side is ready to cooperate with the Group of Friends of the UN Secretary General and with his Special Representative in order to carry out a fully-fledged investigation of the military aggression in Upper Abkhazia," said the statement. "All suspicious circumstances must be clarified and all questions must be answered."

The statement said that if Moscow refused to cooperate with such an investigation, "the Georgian side will deem unacceptable the further participation of the Russian Federation within the Group of Friends of the UN Secretary-General, as well as its function of a facilitator of the conflict settlement process."

Konstantine Gabashvili, chairman of the Georgian parliament's foreign relations committee, believes that the Ganmukhuri camp was mentioned in the secretary- general's report "on the urging of Russia".

Senior Georgian officials have not reacted directly to the demand to move the camp, but have given the impression that they will not heed the call to shift it.

A Georgian foreign ministry press spokesperson, who asked not to be named, told IWPR there were no plans to move or close the camp.

The head of the Ganmukhuri camp Sulhan Sibashvili told IWPR that he had had no instructions from Tbilisi and was expecting a new influx of 600 young people there on August 9.

The commander of the Russian peacekeepers in the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict zone, Major-General Sergey Chaban told IWPR that "the Ganmukhuri camp is in the security zone one kilometre from the dividing line. This territory is not supposed to be used for opening camps like this".

Chaban said that in order to strengthen security, the peacekeepers have decided to open an additional 24-hour post near Ganmukhuri and also noted that the camp itself is guarded by the Georgian police.

Some Georgian opposition politicians are backing the government. Giorgy Tsagareishvili, a deputy representing the Industrialists Party, said that "it is Georgia's sovereign right to build summer camps on its own territory".

However, former Georgian foreign minister Salome Zourabichvili, who is now the leader of the opposition Georgia's Way party, said, "I am very concerned about the fact that our leadership takes steps that draw criticism instead of reinforcing our positions on the international scene."

The leadership of Abkhazia has welcomed the UN report.

"We are satisfied that all the issues the Abkhazian side raised at the meeting of the Georgian and Abkhazian sides with the UN Secretary General's group of friends in Bonn at the end of June were reflected in this document," said Abkhaz de facto foreign minister Sergei Shamba. "I regard this as another victory by Abkhazian diplomacy."

Ruslan Kishmaria, who is the Abkhaz government's special representative in the southern Gali district, near the border and the controversial camp, said he was glad of the report. "This is quite important, as the only thing that Tbilisi has been doing of late is to try to further destabilise the situation in the conflict zone, resorting to all kinds of provocations," he said.

Georgian political analyst Ramaz Sakvarelidze said he believed it was too early to conclude that the UN had changed its policy on Abkhazia, but it was evident that Russia was trying to play a more assertive role.

"If Kosovo's independence is recognised, Russia, feeling its dignity is at stake, could choose a response where it suggests the territorial integrity of Georgia is not so relevant," he said. "So now is not the best time for Georgia to act tough and demand for example that Russia should leave the Group of Friends."

The UN secretary-general also urged both sides in the dispute to "redouble their efforts to avoid action that could lead to a renewal of hostilities".

Direct talks between Tbilisi and Sukhumi, or Sukhum as the Abkhaz call their capital, have been suspended since the Kodori Gorge operation last July. The Abkhaz are putting specific conditions on a re-start of dialogue.

"We will not resume direct dialogue with Georgia until Georgian armed formations and the so-called government in exile that moved there last year are withdrawn from the Kodori Gorge of Abkhazia," the speaker of the Abkhaz parliament Nugzar Ashuba told IWPR. "There are a lot of Georgian security personnel there and probably a lot of weaponry."

The Georgian government has refused to back down and is further increasing its presence in the gorge. On the first anniversary of the operation to move into the gorge, a NATO information office was opened there and the government has declared that it will open a youth camp, similar to the one at Ganmukhuri, there.

The gorge, which has 23 villages and around two thousand inhabitants, is the only area of Abkhazia under Georgian control.

De facto Abkhaz foreign minister, Sergei Shamba, said his government was still ready to talk to Tbilisi about specific issues.

"We reject political dialogue, but this does not mean that the negotiating process has ended, as in addition to the political dialogue, there are issues that we are ready to discuss," he said. "We are ready to discuss with the Georgian side how to get out of the Kodori crisis and the situation in Gali district. We have specific proposals on all issues, including political ones."

Georgian political analysts believe that Tbilisi is adopting a waiting game in Abkhazia, while it sees how successful its new policies in South Ossetia setting up a pro-Georgian "temporary administration" proves to be.

Russian expert Fyodor Lukyanov, who is editor-in-chief of the magazine Russia in Global Politics, said that Moscow's position was still vitally important. He pointed out that in a Russian government survey of foreign policy, Georgia was almost the only country described as being anti-Russian in its policies.

"Given that, it is highly unlikely that Moscow will take any steps that will work towards the restoration of Georgia's territorial integrity," Lukyanov told IWPR.

Mikhail Vignansky is a correspondent for Vremya Novostei newspaper in Tbilisi. Inal Khashig is editor of Chegemskaya Pravda newspaper and co-editor of IWPR's Panorama newspaper in Abkhazia.

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