Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 233

On December 10, two officers of the UN Mission of Observers in Georgia (UNOMIG) were abducted Abkhazia within the zone of responsibility of Russian “peacekeeping” troops. The unarmed observers, Lieutenant-Colonel Zbigniew Lehacz of Poland and Captain Evstafios Kokilidis of Greece, were seized while patrolling a sector situated between two Russian military posts at the edge of the Kodori Gorge.

The abductors are Svans, members of a distinct Georgian group inhabiting the high-altitude Kodori Gorge, within the administrative boundaries of Abkhazia. Svans reject Abkhaz jurisdiction while opting for Georgia’s jurisdiction in a nominal sense. Neither the Abkhaz nor the central Georgian authorities have the means to enforce their writ in that area. Most of the Kodori Gorge is to all intents and purposes a no man’s land, unofficially policed by armed Svans themselves and isolated in winter.

Svan brigands had previously abducted for ransom a group of six UNOMIG representatives in October 1999 and another group of four in June 2000. The latter group included two UNOMIG officers and two staffers of the British-based HALO Trust, which is engaged in demining and safe disposal of the landmines in conflict areas. In both cases, Georgian authorities managed to gain the release of the captives through negotiations with the gunmen. It was widely believed that ransom was paid, though both Tbilisi and the UN denied it. Following the June incident, UNOMIG suspended its patrolling, only to resume it in September.

The Georgian president’s representative for Svaneti, Emzar Kvitsiani, made contact with the abductors yesterday and began negotiations with them. In an opposite corner of Georgia, negotiations are also in progress with the Chechen abductors of five Georgian and two Spanish citizens in the Pankisi Gorge. The central government rules out sending in its troops to either area. President Eduard Shevardnadze in his December 11 radio broadcast assured the UN and the country that the authorities would use every peaceful means to resolve both situations.

There is widespread sentiment in Georgia’s political circles that the country must not let itself be provoked into using force in potentially volatile areas on its periphery. That sentiment finds confirmation in Moscow’s entreaties to Tbilisi to use force in Pankisi or else request Russian assistance. Georgian officials as well as independent observers are citing the 1992-93 Abkhaz scenario, wherein the abduction of Georgian officials in Sukhumi provoked the government into sending in the troops. The intervention ended in fiasco and was also used by the Abkhaz to justify their secession.

With rare exceptions, the political forces support the government’s cautious stance and readiness to negotiate with the abductors. One of those exceptions is the Socialist Party’s parliamentary leader, Vakhtang. Rcheulishvili, who argues that Georgia can enhance internal stability through “a moderate foreign policy”–that is, through concessions to Moscow. That kind of argument from the left feeds the sentiment, on the center and most of the right, that Moscow is interested in inflaming the situation, in order–as the parliament’s Defense and Security Committee chairman Giorgi Baramidze stated–“to punish our country once and for all for having chosen to be independent” (Prime-News, Kavkasia-Press, Black Sea Press, Tbilisi Radio, Georgian Television December 10-12; see the Monitor, October 18, 1999, June 6, 2000).