On April 12, Russia’s “peacekeeping” forces launched out of Abkhazia an operation aimed at occupying the upper part of Georgia’s Kodori Gorge. Georgian state leadership and its fledgling military succeeded in thwarting the Russian operation, after a tense 48-hour standoff which came to the brink of hostilities.
The Russian troops were airlifted from the Gudauta military base, which Russia holds unlawfully in defiance of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Their operation in Kodori defied the United Nations, which exercises a supervisory role in the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict theater through the UN secretary general’s special envoy, German diplomat Dieter Boden, and the UN Observer Mission to Georgia (UNOMIG).
The commander of Russian forces in Abkhazia, Major-General Aleksandr Yevteyev, ordered his troops into action in the presence of Lieutenant-General Valery Yevnevich, who is the Russian Armed Forces’ deputy chief of staff with overall responsibility for “peacekeeping” operations. Yevnevich was officially on a “pre-planned inspection visit” in Abkhazia when he and Yevteyev launched the operation in Kodori–a clear sign that the operation itself had been premeditated.
At dawn on April 12, eight Russian helicopters landed a seventy-eight-strong air assault unit with–as it later turned out–five tons of ammunition near the village of Azhara in the Kodori Gorge, a high-altitude area populated by Georgian Svans. The Russian unit’s heavy armament far exceeded that authorized for peacekeeping troops, and the quantity of ammunition suggested an intent to bring in additional Russian troops. The surprise Russian move stunned Boden and shocked the UNOMIG commander, Pakistani Brigadier-General Anis Bajwa. While neither of them could have stopped the Russian move, the Georgian leadership did.
Within hours of the Russian landing, President Eduard Shevardnadze flew by helicopter to the Azhara village. He did so after Russian President Vladimir Putin seemed for several hours to duck Shevardnadze’s repeated attempts to reach him by telephone. Before flying to Kodori, the Georgian president authorized Defense Minister Davit Tevzadze to take any military measures at his discretion in order to thwart the Russian operation. The parliament’s chairwoman Nino Burjanadze and other parliamentary leaders fully concurred with Shevardnadze’s instructions and with Tevzadze’s subsequent measures.
In Kodori, Shevardnadze found the Russian troops digging themselves in, reinforcing their positions with sandbags and awaiting reinforcements. Meanwhile, some 700 Georgian troops began closing in on the Russian position. These Georgian troops were for the most part Internal Ministry and border troops and national guardsmen, lightly armed and untrained for combat, but they included some 200 battleworthy special troops. Svan Georgian villagers, who traditionally carry arms, joined the Georgian troops.
In that setting, Shevardnadze demanded of Yevteyev that he order an immediate pullout of his troops from the upper Kodori gorge. Shevardnadze warned that, in the event of a refusal, he and the Georgian parliament would immediately exercise their right to terminate the Russian “peacekeeping” operation in Abkhazia. For his part, Tevzadze warned on television that Georgian troops would open fire in the event that Russian troops in Kodori or elsewhere take further actions on Georgian territory without Georgian approval. Deputy Chief of Staff Lieutenant-General Joni Pirtskhalaishvili personally delivered to the Russian command in Abkhazia the demand to withdraw the troops from upper Kodori immediately.
Returning to Tbilisi later that day, Shevardnadze disclosed on television the fact that Putin had not returned his telephone calls. After giving an account of his actions in Kodori, the Georgian president expressed confidence that the Russian command will pull back the troops, adding that he was still “unaware of Putin’s response, but we no longer need any response.” Asked to identify those ultimately responsible for the Russian incursion, Shevardnadze used the well-worn formula, “certain forces.” “I always say this, ‘certain forces,’ because I find it difficult to name the names. However, this general is not heroic enough to have taken such a decision independently, without permission or instructions from Moscow.”
During the night of April 12-13, Georgian soldiers intermittently fired warning shots over the heads of the Russian unit in Azhara. Russian state television networks, overdramatizing the events, depicted the Russian unit as holding out against great odds. On April 13 in Tbilisi, Burjanadze announced that she was prepared to call a special parliamentary session that evening for a vote on terminating the Russian “peacekeeping” and military presence in Georgia.
On April 13, Shevardnadze finally managed to have a telephone conversation with Putin. The Kremlin’s terse official account obliquely suggested that Putin agreed to authorize the pullout of this Russian unit, while reserving the right for Russian “peacekeepers” to patrol the upper part of the Kodori Gorge from now on. On April 14, the Russian unit returned from Azhara to its place of “permanent stationing,” which Russian official announcements identified as Gudauta. The United Nations and the OSCE, both of whose credibility is at stake, have yet to take a stand on Gudauta and on the Kodori events (Prime-News, Kavkasia Press, Georgian Television, Rustavi 2-TV, Interfax, Russian Public Television, NTV, April 12-14; see the Monitor, January 10, 18, February 6, 18, 27-28, March 5, 8, April 2).
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