Georgian authorities have successfully restored legal order and are starting intensive development work in the hitherto isolated upper part of the Kodori Gorge. Tbilisi-based authorities of the pre-1992 Autonomous Republic of Abkhazia are now relocating to upper Kodori, the only part of Abkhazia not controlled by the secessionist authorities. Practically a no-man’s-land until now, upper Kodori has now become a home base to legitimate authority, puncturing Sukhumi’s claims to control Abkhazia and laying the ground work for political competition between the secessionist and the legitimate authorities within Abkhazia. Moscow’s vehement protests and its threats to unleash Abkhaz forces — Russian-created and Russian-commanded in the first place — confirm Russia’s role as a party to the conflict, rather than “peacekeeper.”
Georgia introduced army and police troops into upper Kodori on July 25 in response to local chieftain Emzar Kvitsiani’s attempts to launch an anti-Tbilisi armed rebellion. Those attempts fell flat with Kodori’s Svan population, despite Russian and Abkhaz propaganda portraying Kvitsiani as a defender of that ethnic subgroup. The Georgian operation was completed effectively and bloodlessly within a few days, before any active Russian or Abkhaz backing could materialize (see EDM, July 25, August 1).
Kvitsiani has fled to Abkhaz-controlled territory and surfaced in Sukhumi, evidently not invisible to Russia’s “peacekeeping” force there. Interviewed in Sukhumi for the current issue of the Moscow weekly Versiya (August 14-20, as cited by Interfax, August 15), Kvitsiani claims to be shuttling between upper Kodori and the Abkhaz-controlled territory and threatens to organize armed resistance against Georgian authorities in upper Kodori.
At the moment, Russian authorities no longer claim that Kvitsiani spoke for the population of upper Kodori. Instead, they acknowledge that he did not and are using this argument in portraying the introduction of Georgian troops as an unprovoked aggressive move. Thus, the Russian ground forces’ deputy chief of staff responsible for “peacekeeping” operations, Lieutenant-General Valery Yevnevich, now says that Kvitsiani had “no supporters or groups on his side, it was all words, simply a pretext for [Georgia] sending in the troops in the guise of a police operation” (NTV, August 15). However, Russian authorities seemed poised to concoct an “ethnic” conflict in late July-early August by casting the rebellious Kvitsiani as leader of upper Kodori’s Svans.
Tbilisi is now pouring social and development aid into the impoverished upper Kodori, where no economic activity has taken place in some 15 years. At the cabinet of ministers’ August 15 meeting, President Mikheil Saakashvili assigned Prime Minister Zurab Nogaideli and Internal Affairs Minister Vano Merabishvili to oversee construction operations in upper Kodori. The first stage of construction needs to be completed already by late October, when winter weather renders the high-altitude approaches to the gorge impassable. At this meeting, the president and cabinet set deadlines ranging from three weeks to two months for rebuilding and expanding the airfield in the gorge, laying helicopter landing pads, and constructing bungalow-type or prefabricated housing for a mini-town to accommodate the personnel of the Tbilisi-backed legislature and government of pre-1992 Abkhazia (Rustavi-2 TV, August 15).
Russia and the Abkhaz secessionist authorities are calling for withdrawal of Georgian armed formations from upper Kodori and monitoring of that area by joint patrols of Russian “peacekeepers” and observers from the United Nations Mission of Observers in Georgia (UNOMIG) (Interfax, Apsnypress, August 11-15).
Georgia takes the position that any monitoring should encompass the entire Kodori Gorge, including the Abkhaz-controlled lower gorge. It also insists that Russia’s military base at Gudauta, also in Abkhaz-controlled territory, must be made accessible to international inspection as part of the procedure of closing it down. Russia was obligated to close Gudauta in 2001 in accordance with the 1999 OSCE Istanbul Commitments, as part of the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe. However, Russia retains and garrisons the base to this day and bars any international inspection — a perennial point of controversy at the OSCE and in arms-control negotiations (see EDM, May 22). Moscow hides behind its Abkhaz protégés by claiming that they do not allow inspection at Gudauta. Thus, according to Yevnevich’s latest statement, any inspections there are up to the Abkhaz authorities, and “this is not our problem” (Interfax, August 15).
Tbilisi is exercising its sovereign right to bar the participation of Russian “peacekeepers” in the monitoring of upper Kodori. It would accept Russian monitors only as part of a multinational UNOMIG team, where Russians would have the status of UN observers among other UN observers. The Georgian government points out — most recently in its August 15 diplomatic note (Kavkasia-Press, August 16) — that Russian “peacekeepers” never fulfilled their mandate and are not impartial, thereby having disqualified themselves from “peacekeeping” status.
Georgia is redoubling diplomatic efforts to have an international peacekeeping mission deployed in the conflict zone (see EDM, July 20, 24). Thus, Tbilisi needs to avoid any step that could be seen as acceptance of Russia’s “peacekeeping” operation, such as tasking them with monitoring upper Kodori. Rather than quibbling over interpretations or renegotiation of the 1994 armistice agreement, Georgia has now the opportunity to discard (not denounce) that agreement, which never had validity in international law and has in any case been massively violated by the Russian and Abkhaz side all along. The restoration of legitimate authority in upper Kodori buttresses Georgia’s case for replacing Russia’s military “peacekeeping” operation with an international mission of civilian police.