Georgian Fury at Russia's Abkhaz Moves

Tbilisi takes its row with Moscow to the United Nations.

Georgian Fury at Russia's Abkhaz Moves

Tbilisi takes its row with Moscow to the United Nations.

Just as communications between Georgia and Russia were being restored, their relationship has taken a new downturn, after Tbilisi accused the Russians of shooting down an unmanned plane over Abkhazia.

The Georgian government won approval for the United Nations Security Council to meet in closed session on April 23 to discuss Russia’s recent actions over Abkhazia, which it says amount to annexation.

The Georgians have produced video footage of the incident over Abkhazia on April 20, which they say shows a Russian MiG-29 fighter shooting down an Israeli-produced reconnaissance drone over Abkhazia. The film appears to show a MiG with its distinctive twin tailfins attacking the unmanned craft.

The incident comes in the wake of a number of moves by Moscow to strengthen its relationship with the breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

After western countries recognised Kosovo’s independence in February, Moscow withdrew from Commonwealth of Independent States, CIS, sanctions against Abkhazia, and decided to establish much stronger economic and political links with both territories, while stopping short of recognising their independence. (See Abkhaz Delight at Closer Ties with Russia, CRS No. 441 23-Apr-08.)

The Georgian government is hoping to use the dispute with Moscow to rally public opinion as it moves towards a key parliamentary election on May 21.

The opposition, still smarting from what it says was an unfair presidential election in January, hopes to rout President Mikheil Saakashvili’s National Movement party, gain control of parliament, and then move to abolish the institution of the presidency.

The opposition has been cheered by the announcement by the current speaker of parliament, Nina Burjanadze, that she is stepping down from that role and will not be heading the party list of the National Movement. Burjanadze, who along with Saakashvili played a key role in Georgia’s 2003 Rose Revolution, has twice served as acting president during election periods.

“Burjanadze’s decision is a sign of the complete collapse of the governing elite,” said opposition leader and former conflict resolution minister Georgi Khaindrava.

The National Movement will now be led by David Bakradze, who has just stepped down as foreign minister. He will become speaker of parliament should his party win the election.

Pro-government media have already portrayed the UN Security Council debate as a public relations triumph for Bakradze, in his role as foreign minister.

There has been speculation that Burjanadze may be offered the post of foreign minister, prime minister, or ambassador to the United Nations after the election, but she has said she is taking a break from politics for the time being.

Relations with Russia are again dominating the political agenda in Georgia.

According to Bakradze, “It will be impossible to regularise Georgian-Russian relations unless Russia cancels two of its decisions – the withdrawal from the CIS sanctions regime on Abkhazia and the establishment of close cooperation with the separatist enclaves.”

Former Georgian president Eduard Shevardnadze, in an interview with IWPR, said the significance of the UN meeting should not be overplayed.

“It’s not worth placing great hopes in the Security Council. So many Security Council resolutions have been passed on Abkhazia – and nothing works! All the more so because Russia has a veto which can sink any decision,” he said. “But if the Security Council were to decide to convene a meeting of the General Assembly on Georgian-Russian relations, that would take the discussion of the problem to a different level.”

Ivlian Khaindrava, an opposition member of parliament, sounded a warning note, saying, “Of course Russia has behaved badly in recent times. Everyone in Georgia agrees on that. But I hope the Georgian leadership will be sufficiently intelligent not to escalate the situation. As for the UN Security Council meeting – of course Russia will get a slap, but I don’t think it will go any further than that.”

The Russians say that they will fight to defend their Georgia policy. Their ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, said the Georgians’ behaviour on Abkhazia was “unconstructive and at times provocative”

In a telephone conversation with Saakashvili on April 21, outgoing Russian president Vladimir Putin said Moscow’s recent moves were “within the rule of law” and were more constructive than western governments’ behaviour towards Kosovo.

The Russian foreign ministry said the flight of a Georgia reconnaissance aircraft over Abkhazia was a breach of the 1994 agreement that ended the conflict there.

But the Russians deny shooting the plane down.

“The air force has nothing to do with this – we do absolutely nothing on the territory where this incident occurred,” said General Alexander Zelin, commander of Russia’s air force.

The Russians say that there was no need to use a fighter plane to attack a pilotless drone and that the Abkhaz could have brought it down with one of their own, less sophisticated aircraft.

The de facto defence minister of Abkhazia, Merab Kishmaria, took the same line when he spoke to IWPR by telephone, saying, “I can say categorically that it was our aircraft, from the armed forces of Abkhazia. If they fly in from Georgia again, we will respond just as harshly.”

Abkhaz leader Sergei Bagapsh said the Georgian government was behaving in a way that gave him no incentive to take part in the negotiating process.

Commenting on Tbilisi’s recent offer to grant a high level of autonomy to a reintegrated Abkhazia, Bagapsh said this showed “a complete lack of understanding by the Georgian side of the depth of the problems between our two states, and of the seriousness of the consequences of war. The Georgian political elite still believes that the Abkhaz need some kind of official posts and bogus statehood.”

The latest row comes as Russia has been restoring the communication links that it cut with Georgia at the end of 2006.

Postal services were resumed on April 21, following the restoration of transport links last month. The Russian embassy in Tbilisi is to resume issuing tourist visas, and it will again be possible for people in Russia to extend invitations to visit the country to Georgian nationals other than relatives.

The next step could be the lifting of a ban on sales of Georgian wine and mineral water in Russia.

However, tensions between the two countries are likely to be further aggravated by another event, when the upper house of the Russian parliament, the Federation Council, debates an appeal by Abkhazia and South Ossetia to recognise their sovereignty.

Mikhail Vignansky is the Tbilisi correspondent for the Vremya Novostei newspaper.

Support our journalists