On October 27, 28 and 29, “unidentified” Russian Sukhoi fighter-bombers and Mi-24 attack helicopters bombed and strafed the Kodori Gorge in Svanetia, northwestern Georgia. They targeted the Georgian side of the Georgian-Abkhaz demarcation line, striking hills adjacent to Svan-inhabited villages that are loyal to Tbilisi. No human casualties were reported, though several houses were set on fire. Up to ten aircraft took part in the daily bombing runs. Some of the aircraft were seen coming from across the Russian border, others from the direction of Sukhumi in Abkhazia.
Russia’s command in the North Caucasus Military District, and the Defense Ministry in Moscow, both issued standard disclaimers to the effect that “no Russian combat planes flew over that area during those days.” This wording has often been used by the Russian military in denying responsibility for air attacks on villages in Chechnya.
The Abkhaz command issued contradictory statements. The self-styled first deputy defense minister Givi Agrba denied any Abkhaz involvement and challenged Tbilisi to find out itself who had bombed its territory. Agrba declared that “all Abkhaz military aircraft have been grounded in recent days”–an indirect and perhaps calculated admission that Abkhaz forces have received combat planes from Russia recently. The Abkhaz chief of staff Vladimir Arshba, for his part, admitted that “Abkhaz aviation delivered missile and bomb strikes, involving planes and helicopters,” on October 27, 28 and 29 in Svanetia. He, moreover, described the strikes as living up to Abkhazia’s recent warning to conduct “preventive operations” over the demarcation line in Georgian-controlled territory.
The pretext for such strikes is the purported presence of a “Chechen and Georgian international terrorist group” in the Kodori Gorge. Yet that armed group remains as evanescent as ever, especially after the Abkhaz side claimed last week to have “destroyed” almost the entire group. Those stories in Moscow and Sukhumi were spiced up with claims that the group had included scores of Arabs and other “international terrorists.”
These were the latest in the series of air raids that began in the third week of October and which may well continue in the absence of international reaction. The air raids–like the ground fighting recently orchestrated in that area–appear designed to justify the continuation of Russian “peacekeeping,” discourage its internationalization as demanded with growing insistence by Georgia, supply a fresh rationale for that operation as “antiterrorist,” and in the process retain the Russian military base at Gudauta in Abkhazia. More broadly, these air raids seek to intimidate the Georgian government by exposing its vulnerability to Russian pressure. On October 29, a Russian helicopter intruded seven to eight kilometers into Georgian airspace over Shatili, a border sector watched by observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Georgia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry issued several protests, the latest on October 28, against the air attacks. Russia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry has ignored the notes, leaving it up to the Russian military to respond in their accustomed ways.
President Eduard Shevardnadze on October 29 denounced the violations of Georgia’s territory and called for international condemnation of the attacks. Shevardnadze at the same time appealed to Russia for an end to the air raids and for arranging a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. In Moscow last week, Georgian Parliament Chairman Zurab Zhvania held talks with Russian parliamentary leaders and Foreign Ministry officials in an attempt to defuse the tensions and to arrange a Putin-Shevardnadze meeting. Zhvania brought back to Tbilisi vague Russian reassurances that attacks would stop, but no promises of a summit meeting.
Official Moscow resents Shevardnadze for his former role as the Soviet Foreign Minister who undermined the Soviet bloc. As the Clinton State Department’s top official for the post-Soviet area, Stephen Sestanovich, recently recalled from his own experience, “Mr. Putin seems particularly to enjoy shocking American visitors with his open hatred for the Georgian president” (New York Times, October 5).
On October 29 and 30, Georgia appealed to the United Nations, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and the European Union to issue assessments of the situation created by the air attacks on Georgian territory. Meeting on October 30 in Luxembourg with senior European Union diplomats as part of ongoing consultations, Foreign Affairs Minister Irakli Menagharishvili appealed for intercession “in order to stop a further deterioration of this situation.” Menagharishvili noted with concern that “powerful forces in the Russian leadership” seek to exploit the antiterrorism war in Afghanistan in their own interest in the South Caucasus. The EU’s Belgian presidency responded with a public statement, “expressing grave concern over the violation of Georgian airspace and the air strikes in Georgia. We want these incursions to stop.” The statement, however, stopped short of naming Russia or any perpetrator.
At the OSCE’s headquarters in Vienna, Georgia submitted a statement noting that “bombing of Georgia’s sovereign territory has recently acquired a permanent character,” with “helicopters and jets intruding into Georgian territory from Russian territory.” The statement urged Russia’s government to take the necessary steps to prevent the intrusions.
The statement went on to address “the entire CFE community”–that is, the more than fifty countries signatory to the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe–with the request to secure Russia’s fulfillment of its obligation to close the Gudauta military base. The statement cited Russia’s refusal to inform Georgia about the military materiel recently withdrawn from Gudauta and about the materiel remaining there. It protested against Russia’s “unilateral decision, absolutely unacceptable to Georgia,” to keep part of the Russian garrison at Gudauta. And it repeated Georgia’s call for international inspection at the base in accordance with the CFE treaty. Thus far, Moscow has stonewalled such inspections while the Abkhaz authorities have openly rejected inspections, in spite of the fact that they lack jurisdiction over the territory. On October 29, Abkhazia’s would-be foreign affairs minister Sergei Shamba reaffirmed that refusal, on the grounds that Abkhazia is not a party to the CFE treaty. This situation parallels that in Transdniester, where the unrecognized republic blocks OSCE inspection of Russia’s CFE treaty-limited arsenal. The Russian government seems content to hide behind its two clients’ obstruction.
In an appeal to the United Nations on October 30, Georgia solicited support for its request to the Russian government that it provide explanations for the “permanent intrusion and the air strikes,” investigate the incidents and charge those responsible. Georgia’s request noted that “the Russian side ignores these legitimate demands.” In his October 29 statement, Shevardnadze alluded to the UN Security Council’s record of passivity regarding Abkhazia and, more broadly, Russian pressures on Georgia. Shevardnadze remarked that “in the wake of September 11, the Security Council ought to change its modus operandi. Otherwise it might lose its relevance” (Prime-News, Kavkasia-Press, Tbilisi Radio, Interfax, Russian television, Western news agencies, October 28-30; see the Monitor, September 21, 25, October 3, 12, 23-25, 30; Fortnight in Review, October 26).
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