WHAT WAS BEHIND THE SEIZURE OF UN OBSERVERS IN GEORGIA?

Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 192

On October 13, well-armed gunmen kidnapped seven members of the United Nations Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG) in the Kodori Gorge, a remote mountainous area situated in Abkhazia but controlled–at least nominally if not effectively–by Tbilisi. The UNOMIG group included a Swede, a German, a Swiss, a Czech, a Greek, an Uruguayan and an Abkhaz-Armenian interpreter. The group was seized after landing from a Russian “peacekeeping” helicopter, whose two pilots avoided seizure by taking off. The captors demanded a ransom of US$250,000 for each hostage. In a special statement, the UN Security Council demanded the instant release of the captives. Officials at UN headquarters in New York and at UNOMIG headquarters in Abkhazia’s capital Sukhumi stated that UN policy ruled out paying ransom in such cases, but in the same breath the officials implied that exceptions are possible depending on circumstances.

Georgia’s Internal Affairs Minister Kakha Targamadze, Defense Minister Davit Tevzadze and Chief of Staff Johnny (“just call me Johnny”) Pirtskhalaishvili rushed to the area for negotiations with the kidnappers by radio. They threatened to use force against the captors but also promised them immunity if they released the hostages unharmed. All seven were indeed released unharmed by October 15. Following the release, Georgian officials are stating that no ransom was paid, UNOMIG officials are expressing themselves slightly less clearly on that subject, and the released officers take the position that “they are not aware” of any ransom having been paid.

UNOMIG, consisting of 100 unarmed military observers, helps monitor the Georgian-Abkhaz ceasefire as second fiddle to Russia’s “peacekeeping force.” Last year, five mission members were kidnapped and held for ransom on the Georgian side of the Georgian-Abkhaz demarcation line. The perpetrators were Zviadist gunmen, opposed to President Eduard Shevardnadze and suspected of involvement in that year’s assassination attempt against him (see the Monitor, February 11, 1998). The president had insisted in that case, as he did in last week’s, that the priority of the authorities must be the avoidance of bloodshed. It is a hallmark of Shevardnadze’s policy, in relation to Georgia’s peripheries, to defuse local incidents before they develop a retaliation-counterretaliation dynamic.

The Kodori Gorge is inhabited by a distinct population group, the Svans. Some Georgian officials–notably Tevzadze and Parliament Chairman Zurab Zhvania–connect the Kodori incident with a recent public statement by the Russian Defense Ministry’s Main Intelligence Directorate, which attempted to create a Svan problem for Georgia. Moscow’s statement claimed that a “Free Svaneti” organization–about which no one had heard previously–would welcome Chechen fighters under Shamil Basaev to spend the winter in the Kodori Gorge. The statement seemed part and parcel of Moscow’s attempts at creating pretexts for enlarging Russia’s military presence in Georgia in the name of antiterrorist vigilance.

Other Georgian officials are concerned that the incident in Kodori may form part of a pattern of incidents on Georgia’s peripheries ahead of the October 31 parliamentary elections, with the purpose of disrupting them. Abkhazia, Ajaria and South Ossetia have in recent days almost ostentatiously challenged Tbilisi’s authority on thin pretexts–or, in Abkhazia’s case, on no pretext at all. These officials scarcely doubt that the provocations are–as Shevardnadze’s chief spokesman Vahtang Abashidze put it–“externally inspired” (Prime-News, Iprinda, Kavkasia-Press, Tbilisi Radio and Television, October 13-17).

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