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Fighting in Georgia Redraws Twisted Alliances Armenian News Network / Groong December 1, 2001 By Groong Research & Analysis Group Introduction The war in Afghanistan and related events have put the flare-up of fighting in Georgia in early October very much at the "low priority" end of international concerns. Moreover, the Georgian President's sacking of his government in early November, and the current strains within the political elite in the capital, have shifted the focus of many experts from the "on the ground" tensions in and around Abkhazia to power politics in Tbilisi. However, the causes of the fighting in October at the Kodori Gorge in the breakaway region of Abkhazia must be analyzed. Although unlikely to escalate, such a bloody confrontation could, nevertheless, reoccur. The Kodori Gorge was never a calm region, but the fighting that erupted there in October 1st was extraordinary. The gorge is administratively situated inside Abkhazia, which has not been under de facto Georgian jurisdiction since the 1992-1993 war. The Kodori Gorge, however, is also outside the control of the Abkhaz authorities. It is inhabited by the Svans, a mountainous people ethnically related to Georgians, who are officially loyal to Tbilisi. Yet, the Svans do not submit to authority easily. The events in early October were spectacular. A group of armed people, reportedly Georgian guerillas belonging to the "Forest Brothers" and Chechen fighters under the command of Ruslan Gelayev, attacked villages east of Sukhumi, the capital of Abkhazia. They entered the villages Georgiyevskoye and Naa, where they left behind 14 dead among the local inhabitants. The situation worsened further when, on October 8, a missile hit a helicopter belonging to a UN Observer Forces, killing 9 people, including a Swiss officer. The helicopter was flying over the Kodori region on an observation mission. The military escalation followed a meeting between the Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze and Abkhaz prime minister Anri Djergenia on September 26, just after Shevardnadze's four day visit to Washington. In a time of war against "global terror," the escalation of the situation in Abkhazia by Georgian paramilitaries and Chechen fighters is a clear embarrassment for the Georgian leader. The question is whether this was a desperate attempt by the Georgian leadership to increase pressure on the deadlocked issue of Abkhazia, or a first act in the preparation of Shevardnadze's successor? Or, should we look for the "hidden Russian hand"? The Chechen Factor The "sensational" element in this flare-up is the Chechen participation in the fighting, on the Georgian side. Chechens have in the past fought in Abkhazia, notably in 1992-93, but on the Abkhaz side. At that time, the Chechen battalion was led by the now famous Shamil Basayev, with several thousand other North Caucasian volunteers. Various nationalist groups from the North Caucasus had formed an alliance called the Caucasian Peoples Confederation. Its aim was to create an independent "mountain republic" state stretching from the Caspian to the Black Sea. Although the movement in its nature was anti-Russian, it was successfully instrumentalized by the Russian leadership as a weapon against Georgia. Both the movement and the idea of the Mountain Republic collapsed when the Russian troops invaded Chechnya, and no major solidarity movement came to their aid. Since then, however, Chechens have come to develop better relations with their southern neighbors, Azerbaijan and notably Georgia. During a visit to Tbilisi in 1998, Chechen president Aslan Maskhadov apologized to the Georgians for Chechen participation in the Abkhaz war. The Chechens needed logistic support, and a route out of the Russian blockade for which Georgia could provide some limited alternative. Tbilisi, in return, wanted to use its newly established relations with the Chechens as a leverage to counter Russian influence in Abkhazia, as well as in numerous other Georgian regions outside the authority of Tbilisi. As a result, while during the first Chechnya war Azerbaijan was the logistic safe haven for Chechen fighters, since 1999 Georgia has become the place where wounded fighters received hospitalization; money supporting Chechen resistance is also channeled through Georgia. The 15,000 Chechen refugees in the Pankisi Valley of Georgia, inhabited by ethnic Chechens, provided the necessary cover for the movements of Chechen fighters. It was in Pankisi where Ruslan Gelayev, along with several hundred of his fighters, were located for over a year, according to news reports. What their motivation was to move from Pankisi to the mountains of Svaneti remains a matter of speculation. Some Russian and Georgian news reports suggest that Gelayev aimed at repeating the act of Shamil Basayev, who in 1995 stormed the Russian town of Budyenovsk, taking hundreds of people hostage in the city hospital. This act forced negotiations with the Russians, and eventually led to a cease fire in Chechnya. According to this version, the Chechen fighters wanted to storm a Russian town to the north of the mountains (as far as Sochi perhaps?), or even the Gudauta Russian military base on the shores of Abkhazia. Chechen leader Aslan Maskhadov denied that any fighters under his command are currently fighting in Abkhazia (Radio Free Europe Interview, 11 October). He considered the operation as a provocation: "the main aim of the Russian special services is to provoke a clash between Chechens and Georgians," said Maskhadov. He did not rule out the possibility that "Gelaev or a handful of shortsighted people manipulated by Moscow" might be involved in the current Abkhaz fighting. But how could several hundred Chechen fighters travel over 500 kilometers inside Georgia, unnoticed? Most probably, they received some support from Kakha Targamadze, the all powerful Georgian interior minister at that time. Many foreign observers think that Georgian guerilla groups such as the Forest Brothers have some relationship with the Interior Ministry. Unverified rumors even claim that the Georgian interior ministry has financed, trained, armed and even directs the activities of the resistance groups. "The fact that the Georgian leadership was in a position to persuade the mysterious force to withdraw on two occasions suggests that it had some leverage over them," writes Liz Fuller from Radio Free Europe (RFE/RL Caucasus Report 12 October 2001, Volume 4, Number 34). Targamadze had reinforced his position inside the Georgian political structure after the defeat of the reformist wing of Shevardnadze's Citizen's Union. The resignation of the justice minister Mikhail Saakashvili from the CU in September had put an end to a bitter struggle between him and people close to Targamadze. It also put an end to hopes of fighting corruption and gray economy in the country, largely under the control of the interior minister. The Georgian media has been referring to Targamadze as "the Georgian Putin," and many believe that the on-going military operations in Abkhazia aim to create a power transfer in Tbilisi, ` la Moscow. Although Targamadze was sacked from his position on 1 November (along with the rest of the Georgian government), and there is much popular opposition to him, he nevertheless remains a powerful figure in the shadowy world of Georgian politics, and close to the President. Shevardnadze's Dilemma in Abkhazia It is not clear whether the Georgian president was informed -- and in command -- of the "first" Georgian-Abkhaz war when it erupted. Shevardnadze at the time claimed that his defence minister did not inform him about the operation. But there are signs that Shevardnadze agrees to the military operations in the Kodori Gorge. On 11 October, in front of a crowd of 1,000 Georgian refugees from Abkhazia who were demonstrating at his office, Shevardnadze declared: "I am sure we will return to Abkhazia and it will happen very shortly. I will go ahead with you. We have more resources now and international support.... We are closer to victory than any time before." Tbilisi had tried in the past to bring Abkhazia back in line by military means. Following the collapse of the USSR, rising Georgian nationalism fueled a similar reaction among the various minorities of the country, which composed 30% of the population. On the one hand, this pluralistic land -- ethnically, linguistically and in terms of regional differences -- was not suitable for a centralizing and nationalizing nation-state. On the other hand, some sort of a state structure had to replace the collapsing Soviet system; but Georgia had neither the means, nor the political culture to reach compromises. Soon, tensions turned into violence in South Ossetia, where Georgian irregulars lost control over Tskhinvali, the regional center. In August 1992, the forces of Tenguiz Kitovani - then minister of defence - entered Abkhazia, under the pretext of fighting supporters of the former president Gamsakhurdia. The ill-armed and undisciplined Georgian forces occupied the Abkhaz coast from the south up to Sukhumi, and in the north from Gagra to the border. After that, the military initiative was on the side of the Abkhaz and their north Caucasian supporters. The Georgian positions were undefensible, and they were thrown out of Abkhazia the following September. The cost of the war was horrible: 9,000 were killed from an original population of 538,000, and more than half of the population became refugees. Most of the 250,000 ethnic Georgians had to find refuge elsewhere. The defeat in Abkhazia led Georgia to approach Russia. It joined the CIS in 1993, and Russian peacekeepers were deployed in 1994. Since then, some 60,000 Georgian refugees have returned to the southern Gali district. Negotiations have been taking place between the two parties under the UN umbrella, but no concrete results have yet been reached. Part of the problem is that the nearly bankrupt Georgian state does not, and perhaps cannot, offer any incentives for the Abkhaz to seek a compromise. The periodic attempts to put pressure by military means reinforces Abkhaz suspicions towards the real intentions of Tbilisi. In May 1998, Georgian guerillas tried to launch a major offensive, provoking a violent Abkhaz response. Hundreds were killed, the population of Gali was once again expelled and their villages destroyed. The fact that the Georgian guerillas chose Kodori as the theater of their operations in October seems to be based on their desire to avoid the repetition of the 1998 expulsions. However, Abkhaz officials have threatened that in the case of a major offensive against them, they will attack the villages in Gali district once again. The Georgian leadership, and a part of public opinion, believe that the problem in Abkhazia is fabricated by Moscow to weaken Georgia. It was not surprising that at the height of the fighting, on October 11, the Georgian parliament voted for the "immediate withdrawal" of Russian peacekeeping troops. The government then issued a three-month deadline, warning that if the troops stayed they would be violating Georgian law. The Russian peacekeepers are positioned on the border between Abkhazia and Georgia, on the two banks of the Inguri river, far from the recent battlefields. Moscow's Mild Reaction The Russian reaction first underlined the fact that Chechen fighters were present and active on Georgian soil - a fact that the Georgian side had rejected in the past couple of years. "It is becoming absolutely clear that either the Georgian leadership is not in control of the situation or they are manipulating the terrorists in pursuit of their own aims," Russian Defense Minister Sergey Ivanov said on 9 October (AFP). Meanwhile, Georgian sources have reported that the Russian base at Gudauta had provided five helicopters, plus unspecified quantities of ammunition, to the Abkhaz fighters. And yet, the reaction of the Russian President Vladimir Putin was milder than expected. He stressed that Russia's priority was to guard the poorly controlled mountainous border with Georgia and Abkhazia, which has become an important transit route for Chechen fighters. "We must fortify our entire border," Itar-Tass quoted him as saying. Putin also added his readiness to withdraw the 1,700 strong Russian forces from Abkhazia. Russian-Georgian relations have been tenser recently. Georgia demands the removal of the last three Russian military bases, agreed upon under Yeltsin's presidency. But since the most recent Russian invasion of Chechnya, the bases in Georgia have become important for the Russian military which wants to maintain them. Russia is critical of Georgia's intentions regarding NATO, and, crucially, of its sheltering of Chechen fighters. Conclusion Georgia today does not have the means to solve conflicts by military means. Its army of 15,000 men is under-paid, disorganized, and often in mutiny over late wages. The growing instability and corruption have put an end to the hope that there would be major western investments in the country which would bring - so it was believed - the republic's economy back to life. Its parliament voted (before the latest wave of power struggles over the chairmanship of the assembly) to cut the current budget by 79 million dollars - that is a fifth of the total budget. It looks like Georgia will be unable to pay for the gas imported from Russia. This means yet another winter in the cold and the dark. In light of such major problems, the recent fighting in Abkhazia looks like a tragic diversion, and not the start of a major military campaign. Perhaps the October conflict in the Kodori Gorge was the precursor to the major political crisis that engulfed Tbilisi in November - and is still unsettled. It remains to be seen if the "new" government in Georgia - which is not too different from the old - will manage to improve the economic situation within the country. This is a big "if." It is even more doubtful, however, that Tbilisi's policies and attitudes towards Abkhazia will change anytime soon.