Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Georgian-Abkhaz Tensions Rise Over Kodori Gorge

Tbilisi’s move to reassert control over region bordering Abkahzia enrages separatists.
By Giorgi Kupatadze
Georgia’s decision to move the Abkhaz government-in-exile close to Abkhazia’s border has enraged the secessionist administration in Sukhumi and further raised tensions.

The end of the 1992-93 conflict left Abkhazia a self-declared but unrecognised country. The Georgian government, which insists it is still the legitimate authority, set up its own administration for Abkhazia, although in reality this exerts no real control over the breakaway territory.

Until now, this government-in-exile has been based in Tbilisi. But that status quo was shaken on July 27, when Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili announced that the pro-Tbilisi administration was to be shifted to the upper Kodori gorge, the only part of Abkhazia not held by the separatists.

The gorge’s 4,000 people are mostly Svans, an ethnic sub-group of Georgians, rather than Abkhaz.

The opportunity to make the move appeared in July, when the Georgian military went into the Kodori gorge to put down an insurrection by a local warlord, Emzar Kvitsiani.

Kvitsiani, formerly Tbilisi’s official representative in this part of Georgia, had formed what amounted to a parallel system of local government, supported by an armed militia of around 350 men. Tbilisi allowed the militia to continue as a line of defence against the Abkhaz forces on the other side or the border, but after Saakashvili’s administration took over in the “Rose Revolution” of November, it ordered the group to disband. Kvitsiani baulked at this and began making hostile statements about some of Saakashvili’s ministers, a standoff resolved by the arrival of Georgian security forces in July.

Since the lightning military action, which Tbilisi prefers to call a “police operation” and insists does not violate de-militarisation agreements with Abkhazia, both Tbilisi and Sukhumi have accused each other of concentrating military forces in and around the gorge and have made belligerent threats.

Tensions have increased further with Saakishvili’s designation of Kodori as the seat of the government-in-exile.

“The legitimate government of Abkhazia has no business being in Tbilisi,” said Saakashvili in a July 27 address. “Now the government is to have its seat in Kodori. The Kodori gorge will temporarily be the legitimate administrative centre of Abkhazia.”

Saakashvili immediately ordered large-scale, intensive rebuilding projects in this remote and long-neglected highland region, including renovation of schools and hospitals, extending Kodori’s lone airstrip, and building roads and helipads. He suggested the government-in-exile should make the shift quickly, before deep snows begin to isolate the area in the autumn.

“Residents of the Kodori gorge must feel they are part of the civilised world,” said the president. “New mini-towns and thousands of new houses need to be built here, and the infrastructure should be developed.… The rest of Abkhazia should see from the Kodori example that things they have failed to do over many years, the Georgian authorities have done in this strategic part of Abkhaz territory in the space of a month.”

If the work is delayed, Saakashvili warned that those responsible will “pay with their heads”.

The authorities in Sukhumi described the Georgian decision to relocate the government-in-exile as a “provocation”. Although they have never controlled the upper part of the gorge, they assert that it rightfully falls within their territory.

“The Kodor gorge is territory belonging to Abkhazia, which reserves the right to resolve the problem whenever it chooses,” said Abkhaz president Sergei Bagapsh.

To a jittery Sukhumi, the concern is that Georgia’s intentions amount to more than a military build-up in Kodori or the relocation of Tbilisi’s Abkhaz government there. The reassertion of control over Kodori is being seen as first step to take the whole of Abkhazia by force.

To many Abkhaz, war now seems inevitable. To repel a possible Georgian offensive, the Abkhaz military is now practicing war-games, drafting in reservists who are mostly veterans of the 1992-93 conflict.

The escalation of tensions in Kodori came as the situation deteriorated in the Gali district, an area controlled by the Sukhumi administration but populated by Georgians.

Georgia’s state minister for conflict resolution, Merab Antadze, said the Abkhaz military had moved extra armed units into Gali, and had forced local civilians to dig trenches and fortifications for them. On August 17, two armoured vehicles belonging to the UNOMIG observers came under fire in the district, but there were no casualties.

Abkhazia insists Tbilisi is already in breach of the 1994 ceasefire agreement by sending defence ministry forces into Kodori, troops which it says are still there. The Georgians counter that the only military unit consists of army engineers doing some infrastructure work, and other forces are police needed to ensure security.

The United Nations observer mission based in and around Abkhazia, UNOMIG, has asked to resume monitoring operations in Kodori, which it suspended about three years ago due to lawlessness which it said threatened the safety of personnel.

“In order to dissipate the anxiety on both sides, an open and transparent inspection of the entire Kodori gorge should be carried out as soon as possible,” said a senior UNOMIG military observer, Major-General Khan Hattak.

However, a monitoring visit due on August 20 did not take place, by some accounts because of the weather.

Some military observers in UNOMIG have publicly stated their view that the Georgians did violate the 1994 peace deal when it deployed units to oust Kvitsiani.

The US Department of State has angered Sukhumi by seeming to back Tbilisi’s actions in the Kodori gorge.

“The measures taken by the Georgian authorities in the Kodori gorge were within the bounds of the law. This was an operation directed against criminals who posed a threat to the region and local population. Georgia can undertake such operations anywhere on its territory.” Deputy Assistant Secretary For European and Eurasian Affairs Matthew Bryza said in Tbilisi, adding that he hoped “all other conflicts on Georgian territory will be resolved as peacefully as the one in Kodori”.

Meanwhile, Georgia has ruled out requests from Moscow that Russian peacekeepers based in Abkhazia should be involved in any monitoring exercise in Kodori.

“It’s Georgia’s sovereign right to allow in observers whom it considers to be objective,” said Georgian deputy defence minister Mamuka Kudava. “Russian peacemakers are not, in our view, objective, so we don’t see any need for them to take part in monitoring in the gorge.”

Some of the ethnic Georgian refugees who fled Abkhazia in the early Nineties believe that the latest moves in Kodori are a sign that Tbilisi is at long last serious about doing something to reclaim the secessionist republic.

But others say shifting the government-in-exile to Kodori will swallow up huge amounts of money that would be better spent on the people cast adrift by the war.

“Millions are being earmarked to relocate the government to Kodori, whereas refugees who are [currently] being evicted from temporary accommodation in hotels are being offered compensation of just 7,000 laris [3,800 US dollars] - far too little to buy housing,” said Mzia, a 42-year-old refugee.

“Since the government has decided that the legitimate authorities should move to the gorge, that is how it will be. So we can only hope that this move will help us to return to our homes in the future.”

Giorgi Kupatadze is a correspondent for the Black Sea Press news agency in Tbilisi. Inal Khashig is based in Abkhazia and is co-editor of IWPR’s newspaper Panorama.