Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 160

Lt.-General Valery Yevnevich, responsible for “peacekeeping” operations as deputy commander-in-chief of Russia’s Ground Forces, commented on the withdrawal from Georgia, “Russia does not withdraw, it consolidates.” While Yevnevich is posted in Tbilisi to oversee the first phase of that withdrawal, his immediate subordinates in Russia’s “peacekeeping” command in Sukhumi are trying to prove his point by strengthening Russia’s grip on Abkhazia.

On August 15, Russia-armed Abkhaz forces began their largest military exercise since the 1992-93 Russian military intervention against Georgia. The five-day exercise is scheduled to involve 6,000 troops — including “permanent battalions” and reservists — as well as armored vehicles, artillery, patrol boats, helicopters, and a few ostensibly “Abkhaz” Su-25 planes. The exercise will culminate in a combat-practice phase with live fire. Lt.-General Sultan Sosnaliyev and Maj.-General Anatoly Zaitsev, both seconded from Russia to Abkhazia as “defense minister” and “chief of staff,” respectively, oversee the exercise.

The Russian “peacekeeping” command in Abkhazia not only fails to interfere, but actually supports the holding of the exercise. It has allowed the Abkhaz forces to use the shooting range near Ochamchira, which is situated inside the 12-kilometer-wide, restricted-armament zone. Colonel Alexander Kazantsev, chief of staff of the “peacekeeping” troops, claims that the restricted-armament zone, as drawn on the map, is wider than 12 kilometers, and that the error has placed the shooting range inside the zone, when it should have been left outside it. Thus, the “peacekeeping” command argues that Abkhaz forces are entitled to deploy and use live fire on that range.

Apparently as a sop to Tbilisi, the “peacekeeping” command declares that it has no objection to Georgian exercises at a shooting range within the restricted-armament zone on the Georgian side. In practice this entails reducing the distance between opposing forces — an unusual stance on the part of an interposition force. This stance belies Moscow’s and Sukhumi’s claims that a confidence-building agreement between Tbilisi and Sukhumi is urgently necessary, ostensibly to prevent incidents and renewed hostilities. In fact, Moscow and Sukhumi seek such an agreement as a political move that would imply equivalent status for Georgian and Abkhaz forces, paving the way toward a “peace agreement” and political recognition of Sukhumi authorities.

On August 12, Georgian police at the head of the Inguri bridge stopped a Russian “peacekeepers'” vehicle, originating in Sukhumi and headed for Zugdidi, carrying contraband goods into Georgia. The Georgians impounded the cargo of 13,000 packs of cigarettes, more than 20 cases of vodka, a large quantity of beer, and other contraband goods, most of which carried Russian and Abkhaz excise stamps. An armed confrontation ensued when two Russian armored vehicles rushed to the scene and threatened to attack the Georgian police in order to retrieve the cargo. Georgia’s Internal Affairs Ministry then dispatched a superior force to the scene, causing the Russians to withdraw to the other side of the Inguri River.

That same day, Georgian police impounded contraband cargo from a Russian “peacekeeping” vehicle at the Tkviavi checkpoint in South Ossetia. Internal Affairs Minister Vano Merabishvili has decorated the policemen who distinguished themselves in these actions.

(Prime-News, Rustavi-2, Interfax, August 12, 15)