MINELRES: Caucasus Reporting Service No. 354: Georgian-Abkhaz Tensions Rise over Kodori Gorge

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WELCOME TO IWPR'S CAUCASUS REPORTING SERVICE, No. 354, August 25, 2006

CAUCASUS NEWS UPDATE AUGUST 25

GEORGIAN-ABKHAZ TENSIONS RISE OVER KODORI GORGE  Tbilisi's move to
reassert control over region bordering Abkahzia enrages separatists.  By
Giorgi Kupatadze in Tbilisi and Inal Khashig in Sukhum

ARMENIANS INURED TO SPIRALLING CRIME  Two random killings of innocents
fail to attract media or public attention.  By Tatul Hakobian in Yerevan

AZERBAIJAN HEALTH SECTOR CLAMPDOWN  What lies behind the health
ministry's move against private clinics?  By Idrak Abbasov in Baku

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GEORGIAN-ABKHAZ TENSIONS RISE OVER KODORI GORGE

Tbilisi's move to reassert control over region bordering Abkahzia
enrages separatists.

By Giorgi Kupatadze in Tbilisi and Inal Khashig in Sukhum

Georgia's decision to move the Abkhaz government-in-exile close to
Abkhazia's border has enraged the secessionist administration in Sukhumi
and further raised tensions.

The end of the 1992-93 conflict left Abkhazia a self-declared but
unrecognised country. The Georgian government, which insists it is still
the legitimate authority, set up its own administration for Abkhazia,
although in reality this exerts no real control over the breakaway
territory. 

Until now, this government-in-exile has been based in Tbilisi. But that
status quo was shaken on July 27, when Georgian president Mikheil
Saakashvili announced that the pro-Tbilisi administration was to be
shifted to the upper Kodori gorge, the only part of Abkhazia not held by
the separatists. 

The gorge's 4,000 people are mostly Svans, an ethnic sub-group of
Georgians, rather than Abkhaz.

The opportunity to make the move appeared in July, when the Georgian
military went into the Kodori gorge to put down an insurrection by a
local warlord, Emzar Kvitsiani.

Kvitsiani, formerly Tbilisi's official representative in this part of
Georgia, had formed what amounted to a parallel system of local
government, supported by an armed militia of around 350 men. Tbilisi
allowed the militia to continue as a line of defence against the Abkhaz
forces on the other side or the border, but after Saakashvili's
administration took over in the "Rose Revolution" of November, it
ordered the group to disband. Kvitsiani baulked at this and began making
hostile statements about some of Saakashvili's ministers, a standoff
resolved by the arrival of Georgian security forces in July. 

Since the lightning military action, which Tbilisi prefers to call a
"police operation" and insists does not violate de-militarisation
agreements with Abkhazia, both Tbilisi and Sukhumi have accused each
other of concentrating military forces in and around the gorge and have
made belligerent threats. 

Tensions have increased further with Saakishvili's designation of Kodori
as the seat of the government-in-exile.

"The legitimate government of Abkhazia has no business being in
Tbilisi," said Saakashvili in a July 27 address. "Now the government is
to have its seat in Kodori. The Kodori gorge will temporarily be the
legitimate administrative centre of Abkhazia." 

Saakashvili immediately ordered large-scale, intensive rebuilding
projects in this remote and long-neglected highland region, including
renovation of schools and hospitals, extending Kodori's lone airstrip,
and building roads and helipads. He suggested the government-in-exile
should make the shift quickly, before deep snows begin to isolate the
area in the autumn. 

"Residents of the Kodori gorge must feel they are part of the civilised
world," said the president. "New mini-towns and thousands of new houses
need to be built here, and the infrastructure should be developed....
The rest of Abkhazia should see from the Kodori example that things they
have failed to do over many years, the Georgian authorities have done in
this strategic part of Abkhaz territory in the space of a month."

If the work is delayed, Saakashvili warned that those responsible will
"pay with their heads". 

The authorities in Sukhumi described the Georgian decision to relocate
the government-in-exile as a "provocation". Although they have never
controlled the upper part of the gorge, they assert that it rightfully
falls within their territory.

"The Kodor gorge is territory belonging to Abkhazia, which reserves the
right to resolve the problem whenever it chooses," said Abkhaz president
Sergei Bagapsh. 

To a jittery Sukhumi, the concern is that Georgia's intentions amount to
more than a military build-up in Kodori or the relocation of Tbilisi's
Abkhaz government there. The reassertion of control over Kodori is being
seen as first step to take the whole of Abkhazia by force. 

To many Abkhaz, war now seems inevitable. To repel a possible Georgian
offensive, the Abkhaz military is now practicing war-games, drafting in
reservists who are mostly veterans of the 1992-93 conflict. 

The escalation of tensions in Kodori came as the situation deteriorated
in the Gali district, an area controlled by the Sukhumi administration
but populated by Georgians. 

Georgia's state minister for conflict resolution, Merab Antadze, said
the Abkhaz military had moved extra armed units into Gali, and had
forced local civilians to dig trenches and fortifications for them. On
August 17, two armoured vehicles belonging to the UNOMIG observers came
under fire in the district, but there were no casualties.

Abkhazia insists Tbilisi is already in breach of the 1994 ceasefire
agreement by sending defence ministry forces into Kodori, troops which
it says are still there. The Georgians counter that the only military
unit consists of army engineers doing some infrastructure work, and
other forces are police needed to ensure security.

The United Nations observer mission based in and around Abkhazia,
UNOMIG, has asked to resume monitoring operations in Kodori, which it
suspended about three years ago due to lawlessness which it said
threatened the safety of personnel.  

"In order to dissipate the anxiety on both sides, an open and
transparent inspection of the entire Kodori gorge should be carried out
as soon as possible," said a senior UNOMIG military observer,
Major-General Khan Hattak.

However, a monitoring visit due on August 20 did not take place, by some
accounts because of the weather.

Some military observers in UNOMIG have publicly stated their view that
the Georgians did violate the 1994 peace deal when it deployed units to
oust Kvitsiani.

The US Department of State has angered Sukhumi by seeming to back
Tbilisi's actions in the Kodori gorge. 

"The measures taken by the Georgian authorities in the Kodori gorge were
within the bounds of the law. This was an operation directed against
criminals who posed a threat to the region and local population. Georgia
can undertake such operations anywhere on its territory." Deputy
Assistant Secretary For European and Eurasian Affairs Matthew Bryza said
in Tbilisi, adding that he hoped "all other conflicts on Georgian
territory will be resolved as peacefully as the one in Kodori".

Meanwhile, Georgia has ruled out requests from Moscow that Russian
peacekeepers based in Abkhazia should be involved in any monitoring
exercise in Kodori.

"It's Georgia's sovereign right to allow in observers whom it considers
to be objective," said Georgian deputy defence minister Mamuka Kudava.
"Russian peacemakers are not, in our view, objective, so we don't see
any need for them to take part in monitoring in the gorge."

Some of the ethnic Georgian refugees who fled Abkhazia in the early
Nineties believe that the latest moves in Kodori are a sign that Tbilisi
is at long last serious about doing something to reclaim the
secessionist republic. 

But others say shifting the government-in-exile to Kodori will swallow
up huge amounts of money that would be better spent on the people cast
adrift by the war. 

"Millions are being earmarked to relocate the government to Kodori,
whereas refugees who are [currently] being evicted from temporary
accommodation in hotels are being offered compensation of just 7,000
laris [3,800 US dollars] - far too little to buy housing," said Mzia, a
42-year-old refugee. 

"Since the government has decided that the legitimate authorities should
move to the gorge, that is how it will be. So we can only hope that this
move will help us to return to our homes in the future."

Giorgi Kupatadze is a correspondent for the Black Sea Press news agency
in Tbilisi. Inal Khashig is based in Abkhazia and is co-editor of IWPR's
newspaper Panorama.

.....................

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ISSN: 1477-7959 Copyright (c) 2006 The Institute for War & Peace
Reporting 

CAUCASUS REPORTING SERVICE No.
354

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