The Russian military incursion into Georgia’s upper Kodori Gorge represents the most serious encroachment on Georgian territory since the 1993 intervention in Abkhazia. Last year, Russia both threatened to intervene militarily in the Pankisi Gorge and bombed the Kodori Gorge several times from the air. It did not, however, send in Russian troops. Nor did it ask Georgia to withdraw border guards and police from any part of Georgian territory. The Russian military did both in the Kodori Gorge over the past weekend (April 12-13), with the declared intention of evicting the Georgians and stationing a Russian unit there. Its convenient rationale: keeping the peace in the CIS.
The Russian landing near Azhara appeared designed to secure the grounds for a possible deployment of additional Russian troops. That intent could be deduced from the landing unit’s disproportionate load of combat equipment, as well as from radio intercepts of its communications with the Sukhumi headquarters and the Gudauta base, where additional troops awaited on stand-by alert.
Russian President Vladimir Putin watched the developments for some 36 hours–during which he ignored Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze’s telephone calls–before ordering the Russian “peacekeepers” to return to their Abkhaz base. Addressing his country on April 15, Shevardnadze generously and astutely credited Putin for interceding personally to end the incursion before it became a full-blown crisis. But there is no doubt that Georgia’s resolute and well organized response, at both the political and the military level, was the decisive factor.
Discreet Western intercession with Moscow, as Shevardnadze hinted in his address, must also have been a factor. For its part, the Georgian parliament issued an emergency appeal to the United Nations, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the European Parliament and other international organizations for their support.
The two UN representatives in the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict theater condemned the Russian action promptly and publicly. The UN Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG) Pakistani chief, Brigadier-General Anis Bajwa, officially announced that he had cautioned the Russians in advance against any possible attempt at seizing the Kodori Gorge. “It is to my total surprise, therefore, that the CIS [force acted] in an aggressive, combat mode which is against the norms of peacekeeping. I strongly urge the CIS leadership to immediately withdraw [that force] and act only in a manner mutually agreed by, and acceptable to, all parties.”
The UN Secretary General’s special envoy, German diplomat Dieter Boden, deplored the Russian move in remarks carried by Georgian and Russian media: “This is a unilateral action. We expect at least to be given notice. We did not receive any about plans to carry out such a military action. This is a serious incident.” Noting that “the Russian troops’ move into Kodori has no justification in any of the existing agreements,” he stated that he is taking steps to obtain the pullback of the troops. Boden’s influence seems, however, limited: He is now completing his term as envoy, and spoke from Berlin while the search is on for his successor.
In light of those statements and of what subsequently transpired, Moscow’s own account looked yet again like a tissue of calculated lies. Initially, Russia’s Defense Ministry and the Russian-headed CIS military headquarters simply denied that Russian troops had launched any operation in the upper Kodori. Within hours, the Defense and Foreign Affairs Ministries claimed that it was a routine patrol, cleared by Georgia. After that, Foreign Affairs Ministry chief spokesman Aleksandr Yakovenko declared that a military operation was in fact in progress, using troops and helicopters from the Gudauta military base. Yakovenko claimed that the force was acting “by agreement with the UN Observer Mission” and “under existing agreements,” in order to station a Russian military unit there permanently, “ensure the safe return of refugees” and supply humanitarian relief to the local population.
That same day, April 12, the Russian “peacekeeping” commander, Major General Aleksandr Yevteyev, declared to Russian media that his troops were well along in establishing a permanent position in upper Kodori, and were receiving a friendly welcome from the local population. On April 13, after Boden and Bajwa had already refuted Moscow’s assertions, the claims were nevertheless reiterated by Duma Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Dmitry Rogozin and Deputy Chief of the General Staff Lieutenant-General Valery Yevnevich, who has the overall responsibility for “peacekeeping” operations and who oversaw this particular action from the Sukhumi headquarters.
Rogozin, moreover, reiterated Yakovenko’s thesis about assisting and protecting the local population. In fact, that population–the Svan Georgian highlanders–has remained loyal to Tbilisi ever since its 1993 loss of Abkhazia, armed itself against Abkhaz and/or Russian intrusion, and is being supplied with vital necessities by Tbilisi. On April 12-13, the Svans welcomed–and hundreds of them joined with their weapons–the Georgian troops that came to evict the Russian unit.
Although the UN representatives condemned the Russian incursion swiftly and unambiguously, the UN itself may through its built-in weakness have unwittingly emboldened the Russian military to risk this action. The UN Secretary General’s office has for years been going along with Moscow’s fiction of “CIS peacekeeping” in Abkhazia. Even Bajwa’s statement, criticizing the Russian thrust, had to adhere to the charade of urging “CIS leaders” to order a pullback, as if twelve CIS member countries were responsible for the Russian action. For his part, Boden has–especially during the latter years of his now ending mandate–displayed more visible concern for accommodating Moscow and the Abkhaz, than for internationalizing the Russian peacekeeping operation or reversing the Russian-Abkhaz ethnic cleansing of the Georgians. On January 31, the UN Security Council even accepted a Russian-prepared resolution ordering Georgia to apply to the CIS for prolonging the Russian “peacekeeping.” Shevardnadze accepted the prolongation de facto, but avoided any semblance of legitimizing it.
While refusing to bestow a UN mandate on the Russian operation, the UN seems unwilling and is certainly unable–because of Moscow’s veto power–to initiate genuine peacekeeping or promote a political settlement in Abkhazia. It is unable even to dissuade the Russian force from using UN-type blue helmets, of which misuse the UN disapproves tacitly. For its part, the OSCE–similarly hamstrung by its consensus rules–keeps silent over Russia’s retention of the Gudauta base, in spite of OSCE decisions that the base be closed under OSCE supervision. Such passivity can only expose these two organizations to embarrassment, and Georgia to constant risk (Tbilisi Radio, Georgian Television, Rustavi 2-TV, Itar-Tass, Interfax, ORT Television, April 12-16).
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