Georgian Army Pursues Dissident Commander

Abkhazia watches anxiously as Tbilisi sends hundreds of soldiers to subdue rebel militia.

Georgian Army Pursues Dissident Commander

Abkhazia watches anxiously as Tbilisi sends hundreds of soldiers to subdue rebel militia.

The Georgian government has declared success in its operation to disarm rebel commander Emzar Kvitsiani high in the mountains of the Kodori Gorge in western Georgia, although Kvitsiani himself has so far eluded capture.

“The second phase of the anti-criminal operation has begun,” said defence minister Irakly Okruashvili on July 27, saying his forces were now focused on pursuing the rebel leader. “All the villages in the gorge are under control, and weapons which have been stockpiled in large quantities here are being confiscated.”

Okruashvili said there had been shooting incidents during the operation - an elderly woman had died accidentally in the village of Chkhalta and two soldiers had been wounded. Kvitsiani and his nephew Bacho Argvliani were reported to have escaped into the forests.

Georgian special forces are trying to block escape routes into both Georgian-controlled territory and territory controlled by the unrecognised republic of Abkhazia lower down the gorge. The Tbilisi government has announced a reward of 100,000 lari (55,000 US dollars) for information leading to Kvitsiani’s capture.

Georgian troops were sent in to disarm Kvitsiani’s Monadire (Hunter) militia after he refused orders to surrender to the authorities in Tbilisi and called for the resignation of the president and government. Kvitsiani also complained that the government was ignoring the problems of his remote and poor region.

The upper Kodori Gorge is the only area of Abkhazia under the de facto jurisdiction of the Georgian government and is populated by ethnic Svans, closely related to Georgians.

The armed forces of the unrecognised republic of Abkhazia have been on alert and watching developments, but are under orders from their government not to intervene.

Kvitsiani, the former representative of ex-president Eduard Shevardnadze in the region, formed what was basically a parallel system of local government, supported by an armed militia of around 350 men, most of them ex-combatants from the war in Abkhazia. The Georgian defence ministry allowed the militia to continue as a line of defence against the Abkhaz forces on the other side – even though this contravened the 1994 ceasefire agreement.

The new Georgian government of Mikheil Saakashvili ordered the group to be disbanded in 2004.

In the last few months, Kvitsiani has upped the stakes in his dispute with Tbilisi, calling for the resignation of the Okruashvili and Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili, whom he termed “devils”.

“The future of Georgia is at stake,” he said.

The two ministers led the operation against the rebels, while President Saakashvili said that the only issue about which he was prepared to negotiate with Kvitsiani and his supporters was “what kind of cells they will have in Tbilisi’s Prison no. 5”.

Journalists have not been allowed in to observe the operation. Georgian radio correspondent Rati Mujiri, one of many journalists based in the village of Khaishi in the next valley, told IWPR that reporters could only get first-hand information by calling villagers in the Kodori Gorge by satellite telephone.

Mujiri said that local Svans on the whole condemned Kvitsiani and what they called his criminal activities, but were anxious that no blood should be spilled.

The de facto authorities in Abkhazia said they would not provide refuge for Kvitsiani, who they have described as a “war criminal” for the part he played on the Georgian side of the 1992-93 conflict.

Most Georgians agree with the aim of the operation, if not necessarily with its tactics. Georgian military expert Irakli Aladashvili said, “There were serious problems with discipline in the militia. You couldn’t leave it in that form. You had to change something – but abolishing it in this way was also unacceptable.

“If it is a police operation that is being conducted. Then it should stay within those bounds.”

If the operation is judged to be of a military nature, then it would break the terms of the 1994 Georgian-Abkhaz ceasefire agreement.

Abkhazia has been watching developments with alarm and its Security Council met for two days in a row. A decision was taken to put the Abkhaz armed forces on high alert and to move army units into the lower part of the gorge.

However, the Abkhaz authorities stress that they have no intention of intervening in what they say as an internal Georgian dispute. “Only if the so-called special operation moves outside that part of the Kodori Gorge which is now under the control of Tbilisi and spreads deeper into Abkhazia will we be forced to use force,” presidential spokesman Kristian Bzhania told IWPR.

The Georgian government has blamed both the Russian and Abkhaz governments for fostering the rebels. Givi Targamadze, head of the parliament’s defence and security committee, said the rebellion was an “order from Russia, which is supplying the rebels with weapons”. Targamadze said that Kvitsiani had received visits from Russia’s FSB intelligence service and members of the Abkhaz government.

Mikheil Machavariani, deputy speaker of the Georgian parliament, said he saw the hand of the former leader of Ajaria, Aslan Abashidze, and the former presidential representative in Kvemo Kartli region, Levan Mamaladze – both of them powerful figures under Shevardnadze, and both now in exile - in the rebellion.

The Abkhaz government flatly denied that any of its ministers had visited Kvitsiani. Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba said, “In Tbilisi, they are always looking for the reasons for their problems in Moscow rather than seeking them in Tbilisi itself. It’s completely obvious they want some kind of small, victorious war. They were preparing for a war in South Ossetia and defence minister Okruashvili has already made promises to celebrate the New Year in [the South Ossetian capital] Tskhinval. But now they’ve seen that won’t be so easy to do that, and that’s probably why they’ve decided to impose order on the rebel Svans.”

Political analyst and member of the opposition Republican Party Paata Zakareishvili expressed concerns about the implications of the operation.

“In the final analysis, the situation in the gorge is stabilising,” he said. “But the actions of our authorities are disproportionate. The forces used in the operation were in excess of the threat that existed.

“This is either incompetence or a show of force. Unfortunately, it shows that we have a big strong army which we don’t know how to use.”

Dmitry Avaliani is a reporter with 24 Hours newspaper in Tbilisi. Inal Khashig is co-editor of IWPR’s newspaper Panorama in Abkhazia.

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