Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 194

Following last week’s armed clashes in northwestern Georgia, an uneasy lull has set in. The confrontations pitted Russian-backed Abkhaz forces against that elusive grouping of Chechens and Georgians who had since August wreaked havoc on an area straddling the Georgian-Abkhaz demarcation line, close to the border with Russia. They have wreaked havoc also on the internationally mediated Georgian-Abkhaz negotiating process and added to preexisting problems between Georgia and Russia.

Few have actually seen these Chechen and Georgian fighters in action. They are undoubtedly scant in number, lightly armed and incapable of any real offensive action. Russian military and intelligence officials, using the mass media as conduits, have greatly exaggerated the scope and intensity of the fighting.

The situation and its dramatization has served to justify massive deliveries of Russian weaponry–including items restricted by the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE)–to the Abkhaz forces last week. It will probably be invoked next month, at the annual ministerial meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), to excuse Russia’s retention of the Gudauta military base, in violation of OSCE decisions. It will serve as an argument for perpetuating the Russian “peacekeeping” operation in Abkhazia and for discouraging its internationalization, if clashes continue to be orchestrated. In the worst case, new clashes can supply the pretext for fresh pressures on Georgia to authorize “antiterrorist special operations” by Russian troops on Georgian territory.

In an interview broadcast yesterday (October 22), Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze blamed the recent clashes on an uncontrolled group of Chechens–including refugees from Russia and Kist Chechen natives of Georgia–who had somehow made their way from northeastern Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge to northwestern Georgia’s Kodori Gorge, there to be joined by a handful of armed Georgian refugees from Abkhazia. As Shevardnadze seemed to imply, and as top Georgian officials admit, the government is not sure how those Chechens managed to infiltrate Kodori, which is divided between the central Georgian authorities and Abkhaz authorities. For their part, Russian officials allege that the Chechen commander Ruslan Gelaev might be with this group.

According to the latest Georgian intelligence reports, the Russian military in mid-October supplied the Abkhaz forces with armored personnel carriers and combat vehicles, artillery pieces including some of 150 mm caliber, Mi-24 “Crocodile” combat helicopters, two Sukhoi-25 fighter-bombers and small arms for infantry. The deliveries were made partly from the Gudauta base, which is located inside Abkhazia, and partly by railroad across the Russian-Georgian border, the Georgian side of which is controlled by Abkhaz forces on that sector. Inasmuch as the Abkhaz do not have pilots, the planes and helicopters handed over to them may be assumed to be flown by Russians.

Last week, Crocodile helicopters flying in from the direction of Sukhumi, and Sukhoi jets flying in from Russia, staged repeated bombing sorties in Georgian-controlled areas near northern Abkhazia and near the Russian border. Up to eight aircraft were involved in several of these bombing raids. Russia alternated between denying the facts and disclaiming responsibility for them. The Abkhaz, who also used artillery in these actions, claimed to be targeting the “Chechen and Georgian” fighters and to be “destroying” dozens of them. The Georgian government issued official protests to Russia for bombing Georgian territory, but also seemed relieved to note that only uninhabited areas were hit and no one was killed.

The tenor of Abkhaz statements has changed markedly in recent days. The would-be prime minister Anri Jergenia, as well as politicized officials of the Abkhaz “defense ministry,” are now publicly calling for some sort of “association” or “confederative” agreement between Abkhazia and the Russian Federation. While the Kremlin can only turn a deaf ear to such calls, they appear designed to dramatize the deadlock in the negotiating process and Moscow’s capacity to influence that process. The Abkhaz, moreover, are now threatening to stage “preventive strikes” across the demarcation line, into Georgian territory, against any “Chechen and Georgian” armed groups there. This is a far cry from the statements made from August through early October, when Abkhaz leaders were anxious to avoid another armed conflict, and actively consulted with Tbilisi on how to de-escalate the situation. The new tone in Sukhumi may well be the result of Russian arms deliveries and perhaps of some political reassurances from Moscow.

The presence of this “Chechen-Georgian” force in Kodori makes no military or even logical sense. Three possible rationales have been variously cited by a number of parties involved and by the mass media. According to one rationale, the fighters may intend to make a dash for Sukhumi, capture and hold it however briefly, and draw Georgia into intervening militarily. The second rationale holds that the Chechen and Kists in that force intend to cross from Kodori into Russia and make their way eastward across the Kabardino-Balkar, Karachaevo-Cherkess and Ingush republics to Chechnya in order to join the fighting against Russian forces. The third rationale has it that Georgia’s internal security officials have facilitated the exit of Chechen and Kist fighters from Pankisi, where the mere presence of that small and inactive group was causing problems between Georgia and Russia.

The first rationale fails because this small rag-tag group lacks the means for any serious offensive operation. The second also fails because this group has done so much to draw attention to itself, rather than trying to infiltrate quietly into Russia. The third is equally implausible, because the group has only begun causing real problems after leaving Pankisi, where it had been quiet. Whoever may have allowed or dumped this group into Kodori seems to have pursued the political goal of exacerbating Georgian-Abkhaz and Georgian-Russian problems (Prime-News, Kavkasia-Press, Interfax, Russian Television, October 15-22; Tbilisi Radio, October 22; see the Monitor, September 21, 25, October 3, 11).