Georgians Angry at Abkhazia Peacekeepers

A series of confrontations between Georgian locals and Russian peacekeepers raises the temperature near ceasefire line.

Georgians Angry at Abkhazia Peacekeepers

A series of confrontations between Georgian locals and Russian peacekeepers raises the temperature near ceasefire line.

Thursday, 13 September, 2007
The Georgian authorities are stepping up a campaign against Russian peacekeepers on their territory, highlighting a recent series of incidents in which they say the soldiers have abused the local population.

The most recent row has been over South Ossetia, where two Russian soldiers serving in the North Ossetian battalion of the joint peacekeeping force were detained by the Georgians last week.

The two men are still in custody after the Georgian authorities accused them of illegally detaining four Georgian television journalists and three other people.

The Russian foreign ministry called the arrest of the soldiers a “gross violation” of the 1994 protocol that established the joint peacekeeping forces, while the Georgians said it was a “criminal matter”.

Tbilisi is trying to win international approval for its desire to see the Russian-led peacekeeping forces established for Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the early Nineties to be replaced by international contingents. The Georgian government accuses the Russians of being biased towards the separatist administrations of the two territories.

The Georgian parliament voted in March this year to call for the Russians’ withdrawal.

Most of the attention this summer has been on the security zone around Abkhazia, where Russia provide the troops for a peacekeeping force operating under the aegis of the Commonwealth of Independent States that monitors both sides of the ceasefire line.

On September 6, President Mikheil Saakashvili made a defiant speech at the Ganmukhuri youth camp, close to the administrative border with Abkhazia, which United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon had asked to be moved earlier in the summer on the grounds that its presence so near the ceasefire line was “provocative”.

Saakashvili said the camp would not only stay where it was but would increase in size, and made a stinging response to the UN.

“We don’t need feeble and amoral advice and consultations to the effect that we should move this camp away from the borders of Abkhazia,” he said. “The children of refugees expelled from their homes come here, and we will not leave this spot. Let the bandits and separatists leave and give us back what belongs to us.”

He insisted that the camp did not serve a political purpose, adding that “this is why we are neither seeking or heeding advice like this”.

“We are calling on the world community to raise its voice and report on what the UN and other organisations have done to expunge the results of one of the greatest crimes of the 20th century – ethnic cleansing in Abkhazia – and what has been done to allow the people who were expelled to return to their homes.”

Under the peacekeeping force’s mandate, drawn up as part of the Moscow agreement of 1994 which ended hostilities, around 1,700 troops are stationed in a security zone extending about 12 kilometres on either side of the ceasefire line, which corresponds to the boundary border with Abkhazia.

Over the summer, there has been an upsurge of tension between Russian peacekeepers and local Georgians in the Zugdidi region, on the Georgian side of the security zone.

On August 28, Georgian police detained a group of Russian soldiers whose truck ran into a Georgian minibus. All were released the next day. There were no casualties in the incident, in which each side accused the other of reckless driving.

Georgian interior ministry official Shota Khizanishvili accused the Russians of straying outside their zone of operation without prior agreement.

“This journey was not agreed in advance with the Georgian side as is the practice on these occasions,” said Khizanishvili. “We are trying to clarify why the peacekeepers moved outside their controlled zone while carrying weapons.”

Igor Konashenkov, spokesman for the Russian military’s ground forces, said, “We are amazed by the detention of not just the Russian driver but all the passengers in the vehicle. Moreover, not a single person was detained on the Georgian side.”

In July, the Georgian authorities accused Russian peacekeepers of moving a checkpoint in the security zone and allowing two drunken Russian soldiers to roam through the village of Khurcha, stopping and searching civilians.

Alexander Dordiev, spokesman for the Russian peacekeepers, said that two Russian soldiers had been illegally detained by the Georgian side. He said the two were forced to lie on the ground, handcuffed and had alcohol forcibly poured down their throats, after which they were arrested.

The Georgians accused soldiers at another checkpoint of damaging a heritage site, the medieval Anaklia fortress. The Russians acceded to Georgian demands to move this checkpoint at the end of July.

“We are going to establish how the monument should be conserved and how to carry out repairs,” said Paata Gaprindashvili, deputy head of the department of cultural heritage, which is studying the site. “But a superficial survey is enough for us to say that the fortress has been damaged. Stones from the walls were used to build the checkpoint.”

Many locals say they are enraged by the behaviour of peacekeepers, who they say act with impunity. The Georgian interior ministry says there have been at least six traffic accidents involving Russian peacekeepers so far this year.

“For once in my life, I was able to afford to buy an Opel car - and it was crushed by a tank driven by these peacekeepers on the Zugdidi road,” said one local, who asked for his name not to be given. “They have been promising to mend my car for more than a month, but I am still going around on foot.”

Sergei Chaban, Russian commander of the peacekeeping force, called the complaints made against his soldiers over these incidents “acts of provocation”.

“Peacekeeping soldiers will not react to provocations like this,” he said. “They are ready as before to continue carrying out their duties in strict accordance with their mandate.”

A total of 113 Russian peacekeepers have died in the conflict zone since they were despatched there in 1994. The most recent casualty was Senior Sergeant Gleb Gorshkov, who died on July 16 after a reported accident involving a weapon.

Tamuna Shonia is a correspondent with IWPR’s Panorama newspaper. Natia Kuprashvili is editor of Panorama.

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