Georgia Demands Russian Exit From Abkhazia

Abkhaz talk of war as Tbilisi calls for end to Russian peacekeeping mission

Georgia Demands Russian Exit From Abkhazia

Abkhaz talk of war as Tbilisi calls for end to Russian peacekeeping mission

Wednesday, 7 November, 2007
The situation in Abkhazia is darkening after the Georgian government demanded that Russian peacekeepers pull out of the conflict zone, following a clash on the border in which the Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili personally intervened.

The Abkhaz authorities have said they fear a new war, while the Russian authorities have accused Tbilisi of destabilising the already fragile situation in the conflict zone. The Georgian opposition, while supporting the pullout of the Russians in principle, questioned the timing of the announcement just ahead of a major opposition rally in the Georgian capital Tbilisi.

The speaker of the Georgian parliament Nino Burjanadze confirmed on October 31 that the government is formally calling for a pullout of Russian peacekeeping troops, who have been stationed near the Abkhaz ceasefire line since 1994. She said that a decision on the timing of the withdrawal would be made after consultations with Tbilisi’s “international partners”.

The Georgian parliament has already passed several resolutions calling for the withdrawal from Abkhazia of the peacekeepers, who operate under a Commonwealth of Independent States mandate, as well as those deployed in South Ossetia. Tbilisi accuses the Russians of being a partisan anti-Georgian force that is hampering the resolution of the conflict.

The Georgians also demanded the removal of the head of the peacekeeping forces, General Sergei Chaban, with Saakashvili declaring him “persona non grata” on Georgian territory.

The Georgians and Russians give different versions of an armed stand-off that occurred at the Georgian youth camp of Ganmukhuri on the administrative border with Abkhazia on October 30.

The Georgians say that around eight Russian armoured vehicles and 100 Russian peacekeepers surrounded the camp, disarmed and detained five Georgian interior ministry soldiers and then blocked a 100-metre section of road leading to the camp.

The Georgian interior ministry announced that its troops were put on a state of high alert after shots were fired.

Georgian television channels showed footage in which Russian soldiers and Georgian interior ministry troops were directing their weapons at one another and the Russians fired in the air. There were no casualties.

The Georgian foreign ministry posted on its website video footage showing the beating of the Georgian policemen which it said had been filmed by the Russian peacekeepers and had been snatched by a Georgian television journalist.

Russian lieutenant-colonel Alexander Diordiev, an aide to the commander of CIS peacekeeping forces, said that the peacekeepers had been carrying out a routine mission and Georgian police officers had threatened them with weapons and verbally abused them.

“A Georgian interior ministry official arrived at the spot where the patrol stopped and, without introducing himself, raised his voice and swore, threatening to burn the peacekeepers’ armoured personnel carrier and to shoot the Russian soldiers,” said Diordiev. “He tried to physically bully the leader of the patrol. The Georgian official and those officers with him were detained and disarmed.”

The Georgian police officers were beaten by the Russians, a fact testified by an IWPR correspondent at the scene and Georgian television footage.

Saakashvili arrived in person at the scene and secured the release of the police officers. He berated the Russian peacekeepers in front of the television cameras.

“Instead of defending the local population, the peacekeepers have dared for many years to kill and kidnap people and extort money from them,” said the president, pointing at the bloody face of a Georgian police officer. “We have set up this youth camp according to all the laws of Georgia. We set up a police post to protect it.

“You attacked the police this morning in violation of your mandate, in violation of all international norms, in violation of the UN observation mission which also did nothing and you beat our police officers who were defending the lives of civilians.”

The Ganmukhuri camp was the subject of criticism by UN secretary general Ban Ki-Moon in July (See “Georgia Angered by UN Abkhaz Report, CRS No. 404 August 2, 2007), who said that its presence on the Abkhaz border was “provocative” and called for it to be moved. However, the Georgian authorities rejected the demand.

A Russian foreign ministry statement on November 1 asserted that the peacekeepers had behaved with restraint and had agreed to hand over the Georgian policemen to the UN - but, after initially agreeing to this, the local governor had changed his mind and waited for the arrival of Saakashvili. The foreign ministry also said the Georgians had fired at a Russian helicopter.

The statement ended by accusing the Georgian president of deliberately provoking a fight because of his domestic difficulties.

“Opposition protests against official policies are growing and the president’s popularity is falling…” said the statement. “In a situation in which mass demonstrations are planned by the Georgian opposition, it cannot be excluded that even more extreme steps to escalate the situation in the Georgian-Abkhaz and Georgian-Ossetian conflict zones and further deterioration in Georgian-Russian relations can be expected from M. Saakashvili.”

The Georgian opposition has supported the official position that the peacekeeping mandate in Abkhazia and South Ossetia must be changed. However, they say that the timing of the Georgian leadership’s demarche, two days before a mass opposition rally planned in Tbilisi on November 2, was suspicious.

Former conflict resolution minister Giorgy Khaindrava, now one of the leaders of the opposition, called the move “elementary populism”.

There are currently around 1,700 Russian peacekeepers serving under a CIS mandate on both sides of the Abkhaz border. They were deployed there in 1994, following the ceasefire agreement that ended the war of 1992-3 and are supported by around 100 unarmed UN monitors.

The UN mission was extended for a further six months in October. However, its monitors are unarmed and as its mandate is to support the peacekeeping force its future must now be in question.

The continuation of the CIS peacekeeping mission is dependent on the agreement of both sides in the conflict. It is unclear what the Abkhaz side, which wants the Russian forces to stay, will do if the CIS mission ends.

In Abkhazia, the call to remove the peacekeepers was met with alarm and talk of a new conflict.

“The withdrawal of Russian peacekeepers from the conflict zone in Abkhazia will provoke a new full-scale war in the Caucasus,” said the de facto foreign minister of Abkhazia Sergei Shamba.

Georgian conflict specialist Paata Zakareishvili confirmed that one of the two sides could unilaterally halt the peacekeeping operation in Abkhazia. He said that a pullout would not necessarily lead to conflict but it could be dangerous.

“There is the example of Nagorny Karabakh where there are no peacekeepers,” said Zakareishvili. “If the parties agree about a ceasefire regime, no peacekeepers are needed. However, if the peacekeepers are withdrawn, Georgia should be careful as provocations are possible. Russia will be glad to show the whole world that after the withdrawal of the peacekeepers, the situation is getting out of control.”

Irakly Lagvilava is a journalist with IWPR’s Panorama newspaper in the Zugdidi region of Georgia. Dmitry Avaliani is a correspondent with 24 Hours newspaper in Tbilisi. Inal Khashig is co-editor of Panorama newspaper in Abkhazia.

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