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Analysis: Georgian Officials Send Mixed Signals Over Abkhazia

  • Liz Fuller

Georgian and Abkhaz officials accused each other last week of planning a new military operation to coincide with the anniversary on 26 May of the 1918 declaration of an independent Georgian republic. An attempt by Georgian guerrilla detachments in May 1998 to restore Georgian control over Abkhazia ended in failure (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 26 May and 9 June 1998).

Today, however, there are signs that Georgia is planning not a military offensive, but a popular uprising in Abkhazia's southernmost Gali Raion, the population of which is predominantly Georgian. Should the local population "spontaneously" demand that the Georgian government take the district under its protection, Tbilisi might deploy troops in a bid to exert psychological pressure on the Abkhaz leadership. But while such tactics against Adjara earlier this month culminated in the ouster of local leader Aslan Abashidze, the Abkhaz are likely to mobilize their entire armed forces to counter any threat to the unrecognized republic's unilaterally proclaimed sovereignty.

On 13 May, a Georgian military official accused the Abkhaz side at the weekly meeting of Georgian and Abkhaz security officials and representatives of the UN Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG) and the CIS peacekeeping force deployed in the Abkhaz conflict zone of preparing a "provocation" to disrupt the planned Independence Day celebrations in Gali. The following day, Apsnipress reported that Abkhaz Defense Minister Vyacheslav Eshba has written to UNOMIG head Major General Kazi Ashfaq Ahmed accusing the Georgian leadership of planning to violate a protocol signed by the two sides two years ago (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 January, 12 February, and 2 and 3 April 2002) by deploying additional troops to the Kodori Gorge, the upper reaches of which are the sole stretch of Abkhaz territory militarily controlled by Georgia. Eshba alleged that the Georgian leadership plans to destabilize the situation in the Abkhaz conflict zone by simulating an uprising in Abkhazia's southernmost Gali Raion and then sending troops to occupy that district. He claimed weapons and portraits of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili are being transported to Gali in preparation for the planned uprising. Interfax on 13 May similarly quoted Abkhaz Security Service head Givi Agrba as saying that Georgia plans to send troops to Kodori and to destabilize Gali on the eve of the 26 May celebrations.

Georgian officials, however, immediately denied either any buildup of Georgian forces or any intent to launch a new offensive. Kodori Governor Emzar Kvitsiani denied on 14 May that any further Georgian troops will be sent to Kodori, Caucasus Press reported. Chief of General Staff Major General Givi Iukuridze and Minister for Conflict Resolution Giorgi Khaindrava likewise denied on 14 and 15 May, respectively, that Tbilisi is planning a new military campaign to bring Abkhazia back under the control of the central government, ITAR-TASS and Caucasus Press reported.

But President Saakashvili hinted on 15 May that while Tbilisi is not contemplating a classic military incursion into Abkhazia, it may hope to mobilize the population of Gali as the first stage of a campaign to bring Abkhazia back under Tbilisi's control. Caucasus Press quoted him as saying while on an official visit to Bucharest that if Georgia needs another revolution, that revolution will occur in Abkhazia.

Any attempt to provoke a "spontaneous" uprising in Gali is fraught with risk, however. As noted above, the Abkhaz are likely to dispatch troops to retain their control over Gali, a move that would endanger the Georgian population and necessitate the deployment of Georgian troops to protect them. Given Georgian officials' mutually contradictory pronouncements on the issue, it is not clear whether or not Georgia is constrained by any commitment that the crack forces trained by the United States over the past two years under the "Train and Equip" program should not be used in any attempt to bring Abkhazia and South Ossetia back under Georgian control. If such a commitment does indeed exist, the less-well-trained Georgian troops might prove no match for the Abkhaz. Nor is it clear why Saakashvili would risk his international reputation at this juncture in an exercise that at best would return only a part of Abkhazia to Georgian control. Abkhazia is scheduled to hold a presidential election in October to select a successor to ailing incumbent Vladislav Ardzinba, and the new president may prove more open to compromise than the current Abkhaz leadership.

True, the Abkhaz have in recent months shown a marked reluctance to consider any concessions to Tbilisi. Two rounds of talks late last month on security and confidence-building measures intended to expedite the return to Abkhazia of the Georgian displaced persons who fled the region during the 1992-93 war yielded no results. The Abkhaz refused at the second of those meetings (in Moscow on 26-27 April) to sign a letter of intent on the repatriation to Gali under the auspices of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees of those former residents of the district who still live in temporary accommodation elsewhere in Georgia. Abkhaz Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba accused Georgia of "politicizing" the issue by insisting on the inclusion in the text of the letter of a phrase stressing that the entire international community recognizes Georgia's territorial integrity.
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