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Russia Defuses Abkhaz Tensions
President Vladimir Putin surprised Tbilisi earlier this week when he announced his forces' withdrawal from their base in Abkhazia would go ahead as planned. It came as Georgia's relations with Russia hit their lowest ebb for years.
When fighting broke out in the breakaway republic two weeks ago between Abkhaz troops and a group of Chechen and Georgian insurgents, Moscow unambiguously pointed the finger of blame at Tbilisi for allowing, even supporting the insurrection, accusing it of supporting "bandits" and "terrorists".
In response to the fighting, Russia reinforced its border with Georgia, fearing Chechen insurgents, holed up with the Georgian partisans in the Kodori gorge, would spill over into its southern republics.
The move was presented as a defensive measure, but there were unconfirmed reports of Russian air strikes in support of their Abkhaz allies. Parliamentary deputies in Tbilisi reacted by voting for the removal of 1600 Russian peacekeepers deployed along the Georgian-Abkhaz border. The dangerous escalation led to fears of a new war breaking out in the south Caucasus republic.
Then, in a completely unexpected move, Putin said he would consider withdrawing some of the peacekeepers and, more significantly, reiterated his intention to pull out of the Gudauta military base on Abkhazia's Black Sea coast by the end of the year, at a stroke defusing tensions in the region.
The Gudauta base should have been vacated back in July. Moscow blamed its failure to pull out on local protestors who blocked the base fearing that they would be open to attack from Georgia if the Russian troops departed.
Moscow's move, it seems, was an attempt to prevent the crisis spiralling out of control. In truth, the Kremlin has no interest in renewed conflict in the Abkhazia, as this would erode its influence in the regional peace processs. In recommitting itself to a withdrawal from Gudauta it effectively offered Tbilisi an olive branch.
Ironically, the alarming events over the last ten days or so could give new impetus to UN attempts to broker a settlement of the Abkhaz conflict. Negotiations have been stalled for months. The escalation in tensions may provide a salutory reminder to participants of the bloodshed and chaos that could ensue if they don't resolve their differences soon.
The peace process has been hamstrung by Abkhazia's refusal to accept autonomous status within Georgia. It wants, instead, to join the Russian federation. Whether this is in Moscow's interests or not is debatable, as supporting a secessionist state might sit awkwardly with its policy towards another aspiring independent republic, Chechnya.
What the eventual settlement will turn out to be remains to be seen but Russia will clearly want to maintain its mediating role in the region.
Moscow's decision to recommit itself to a Gudauta pull-out is likely to have significantly improved its chances of doing so, as Tbilisi, understandably, resents the presence of Russian troops on Georgian territory, particularly because they are believed to be assisting the Abkhaz.
Former Georgian defence minister Giorgi Karkarashvili said that sources of his have told him Abkhaz separatists are employing artillery and rocket launchers, which they've allegedly acquired from the base, to attack Chechen rebel and Georgian partizan positions in the Kodori gorge. A claim Moscow stoutly denies.
In withdrawing its forces from Abkhazia, Moscow risks alienating Sukhumi which fears Georgia would exploit the Gudauta pull-out to try to retake the breakaway republic. But ongoing negotiations between Russian and Abkhaz officials suggest the former are persuading the latter that they are not about to leave them in the lurch.
The withdrawal from Gudauta will leave two other Russian military facilities on Georgian territory. Both are cited in highly sensitive areas. One is in the Adjaria enclave under the control of aspiring separatist Aslan Abashidze. The other is in the predominantly Armenian- populated Akhalkalki region in the south-west of the country.
The former is important to Moscow both as a Black Sea base and as a foothold in the pro-Russian Adjaria, while the latter is unimportant, designed originally as a defence against a possible attack from Turkey.
Moscow wants to hold onto these until 2015 and are supported by the separatist Adjarians and the ethnic Armenians who feel the Russian presence gives them an element of security.
So while Moscow may have lost one trump card, Gudauta, in its bid to continue exerting influence over Georgia, it appears to have two equally valuable ones up its sleeve.
Tina Tskhovrebashvili is a freelance journalist based in Tbilisi
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