Russia Stokes Abkhaz Conflict

Reports of a military build-up on the Abkhaz border send shockwaves through the region.

Russia Stokes Abkhaz Conflict

Reports of a military build-up on the Abkhaz border send shockwaves through the region.

A reported force of 800 Georgian and Chechen fighters, allegedly poised to launch attacks on against Abkhazia, has revived fears of war in the region, although neither side in the long-running conflict knows with certainty if the unit even exists.

The panic began on August 24 when the Russian news agency Interfax, citing military sources, reported that 500 Georgian "partisans" and 300 Chechen fighters, led by the Chechen rebel commander Ruslan Gelaev, had been located in Georgia's Tsalendzhikhi region, near the Abkhaz border. The sources said the fighters might attempt to break through Abkhazia territory and into Russia.

The news triggered an immediate denial from Tbilisi, which called the report a provocation. "Georgia has always supported the principle of a peaceful settlement of the Georgia-Abkhazia conflict," said a spokesperson for President Eduard Shevardnadze.

But Shevardnadze, nevertheless, sent his trouble-shooter, Special Affairs Minister Malkhaz Kakabadze, to Sukhumi, the Abkhaz capital, one day later. Kakabadze later told journalists, "There was a real danger of conflict. Certain movements of armed persons were recently observed in western Georgia." Shevardnadze confirmed that a "spontaneous gathering" of 200 to 300 armed men had been reported near the Abkhaz border.

But the deputy prime minister of the Chechen rebel state, Akhmed Zakaev, said the Russian report was primarily aimed at destabilising the region. Zakaev asserted "Chechen units only carry out military operations on the territory of Ichkeria [Chechnya]".

Georgia has always denied repeated accusations by Russia that Chechen fighters maintain training camps and bases in the Pankisi Gorge, a region in north-eastern Georgia that remains out of the control of the Tbilisi authorities. The largest ethnic group in the gorge are Kists, ethnic Chechens.

David Shengelia, commander of the Georgian guerrilla unit Forest Brothers, said, "[Georgian] partisans would never have anything to do with Chechens."

But Zurab Samushia, head of another such group, White Legion, has claimed there's reliable evidence of Chechen fighters in Abkhazia preparing to launch attacks in the region.

Both the White Legion and the Forest Brothers paramilitary groups were set up after the secession of Abkhazia from Georgia in 1992, to "protect" ethnic Georgians in the Gali district, which straddles the new frontier at the River Inguri.

In response to the Russian news report, Sukhumi, nevertheless, announced a partial mobilisation of army reservists. Defence chief Vladimir Mikamba called on civilians to be prepared to repulse a possible invasion from western Georgia, which "might be supported by Chechens from the Pankisi Gorge". Mikamba is convinced that the armed groups are mainly composed of Mengrelians belonging to Georgian partisan units.

Some politicians and media in Tbilisi link the current scare to the controversy over Russia's continued military presence in the Abkhazian seaside town of Gudauta. At the summit of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe in Istanbul in 1999, Moscow agreed to shut the base by July 1, 2001, but it failed to meet the deadline.

"It is uncivilised of Russia to try to guarantee its presence in the zone of conflict by using such methods," said Kakha Sikharulidze, a senior official in the Georgian foreign ministry. However, he said that Tbilisi had no intention of pressing for the withdrawal from Abkhazia of the largely Russian peacekeeping force (formally under the auspices of the Commonwealth of Independent States), which it considered a "definite stabilising factor" in the region.

The tension in Gali district, meanwhile, is palpable. Despite the presence of 100 UN military observers and the 1,800-strong Russian peacekeeping force, the region has seen deadly skirmishes since early April between armed groups that both Georgia and Abkhazia describe as "uncontrolled elements".

The Tbilisi newspaper Rezonansi recently reported that Megrelians, living in Gali, talk of armed Chechen fighters preparing for military actions. Residents believe they are willing to fight for the Georgian cause because Sukhumi is so closely allied with Moscow.

The deputy speaker of Georgia's parliament, Vakhtang Rcheulishvili, claimed that factions in power might have formed an alliance with Chechens to win back Abkhazia. Whether such theories are true or not, what is clear is that any Chechen involvement in the simmering conflict could have catastrophic consequences.

With the peace talks bogged down between Sukhumi and Tbilisi, there are still influential advocates of a military solution in Georgia. The well-known political scientist Ramaz Klimiashvili still argues in favour of a "blitzkrieg" against Sukhumi. "If Georgia restores its jurisdiction in Abkhazia in 24 hours, the international community will overlook it," he said.

Similar arguments echo through the corridors of power. "When the peace process is delayed," said Kakabadze. "when it brings no result for years, the number of advocates of a military settlement of the Abkhaz problem increases." Interior minister Kakha Targamadze agrees. "Georgia should be prepared for a military solution to the Abkhaz conflict," he said, "because it will not tolerate territorial fragmentation."

Shevardnadze is trying to negotiate a way out of the impasse, saying early this week he would fly to Sukhumi to discuss a settlement of the conflict. He claimed that most Georgians and Abkhazians support the idea of peaceful coexistence within a single state, the situation before the 1992-93 war.

But officials in Sukhumi remain sceptical about Shevardnadze's intentions. "Abkhazia is an independent state," said presidential advisor Astamur Tania. "No suggestion for the division of competences between Tbilisi and Sukhumi will be considered here."

Still, both sides are straining to find a negotiated settlement. Sukhumi has said it will consider resuming its participation in the UN Coordination Council initiative on reconciliation, which it walked out of in April, after accusing Georgian partisans of trying to destabilise the normalisation process.

In the next few days, the UN Security Council will discuss a draft document on the division of authority between Georgia and Abkhazia, prepared by the representatives of the Group of Friends of the UN Secretary-General, including France, Germany, Russia, the UK and the US.

Any diplomacy would be readily overturned if guerrilla fighters are indeed gathering in western Georgia and Abkhazia to seize by force what has eluded negotiation for nearly a decade. Mikhail Vignansky is director of the Georgian Prime News Agency and a regular IWPR contributor.

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