The leadership of Georgia’s separatist region Abkhazia is beefing up its military potential, while the Georgian armed forces are continuing their military exercise. Televised reports about the Georgian exercises began with title cards reading “Sukhumi” (capital of Abkhazia) and “Tskhinvali” (capital of breakaway South Ossetia). Images of military demonstrations were accompanied by interviews with Georgia’s hawkish defense minister, Irakli Okruashvili, who told the Week’s Palette (April 25-May 1) that his main goal is the restoration of Georgian territorial integrity “as soon as possible.”
Sukhumi responded by announcing its readiness to conduct additional military exercises that would be “unprecedented in Abkhazian history.” Anatoly Zaitsev, a retired Russian general recruited as deputy defense minister of Abkhazia, said that the upcoming military exercise would be far larger-scale than those held April 18-21. However, he did not specify the reasons for or the dates of the next maneuvers (Caucasus Press, Inter-Press, April 28).
The move from peaceful discussions to saber rattling is undermining the fragile progress reportedly achieved at the Georgian-Abkhaz talks in Geneva on April 7-8 under the auspices of the UN Secretary-General’s Group of Friends of Georgia (Russia, United States, France, Great Britain, and Germany). The final document produced at those talks again emphasized the need to avoid military force, activate confidence-building measures, and work toward refugee return and economic cooperation between Tbilisi and Sukhumi. Sergei Shamba, Abkhaz minister of foreign affairs and head of the Abkhaz delegation in Geneva, even traveled to Italy’s autonomous South Tyrol region together with the Georgians to consider using that region as a possible model for future Georgian-Abkhaz relations. “The opportunity to start a serious dialogue has appeared. We have not had a better chance to come to an agreement since the war,” said Irakli Alasania, head of the Tbilisi-based Abkhaz government in-exile and a participant in the talks. According to him, Georgia has already prepared a package of proposals for developing trans-border economic cooperation with Abkhazia, including micro-credit projects allowing joint Georgian-Abkhaz ventures as a first step for building trust (Nezavisimaya gazeta, April 11).
Prior to the Geneva talks, Sergei Bagapsh, president of Abkhazia, had expressed his readiness to meet Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, but he later changed his mind and said such a meeting would only be possible outside of Georgia. Saakashvili, in turn, stated that he would meet Bagapsh only in Tbilisi (Imedi TV, April 14; gazeta.ru March 30; Nezavisimaya gazeta, April 11).
Following sharp criticism by Abkhaz Security Council secretary Stanislav Lakoba, Shamba was forced to explain his participation in the trip to South Tyrol. Lakoba argued that South Tyrol couldn’t be an example for Sukhumi, because Abkhazia is an independent state (Regnum.ru, April 18; Resonance, April 19).
Meanwhile, the United States has turned its attention toward Abkhazia, as U.S. President George W. Bush plans to visit Georgia on May 10. On April 11, a U.S. delegation that included the State Department’s Senior Advisor for Caspian Basin Energy Diplomacy, Ambassador Steven Mann, and U.S. Ambassador to Georgia Richard Miles visited Sukhumi. Yet after talks with the U.S. delegation, Bagapsh continued to insist that Abkhazia would not give up its independence. Bagapsh denied that the U.S. diplomats had invited him to Tbilisi to hold talks with Saakashvili during Bush’s visit (Regnum, Rosbalt, April 11-12). He also stressed that Russia remains a major mediator in the conflict.
After the talks Bagapsh promptly visited Moscow April 12-13, and on April 18-21 the Abkhaz army, likely at Moscow’s suggestion, conducted large-scale military exercises as if responding to the visit by the U.S. diplomats. The military exercise aimed at repelling an imaginary invasion by Georgian troops. The exercise deployed Abkhaz troops backed by modern jetfighters, with Russian personnel training the Abkhaz pilots.
Simultaneously Abkhaz separatists are actively courting Russian and Turkish investment in hopes of improving the economic situation in the region. More than 50 Russian construction companies participated in an April 10-11 exhibition in Sukhumi, and 13 more Turkish firms have joined Abkhazia’s Chamber of Industry and Commerce. However, heavy crime hinders the inflow of investments. On April 26, Bagapsh expressed concern about the dire criminal situation in Abkhazia and took direct control over the investigation into an assault on a busload of Russian tourists on April 23 (Caucasus Press, April 28; Rosbalt, April 11; Interfax, April 26). On May 28, the foreign ministers of Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Karabakh, and Transnistria gathered in Sukhumi to prepare for a “presidential summit” in May.
Meanwhile, the situation in the Kodori Valley, a Georgia-controlled section of Abkhaz territory, is becoming tenser. The Georgian defense ministry has announced plans to disarm the 400-man local paramilitary detachment “Monadire” (Hunter). While the ministry considers the unit to be “ineffective,” it has successfully defended the Valley from multiple Abkhaz attacks since 1994. The detachment refuses to disarm (Resonance, April 27).
The latest round of Georgian policy swings towards Abkhazia suggest that while Tbilisi is seeking to regain Abkhazia by political means, the government has not completely ruled out a military solution.