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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.

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