The incident on October 30 is the latest crest in a wave of rising tensions between Moscow and Tbilisi. It sparked a furious reaction from Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who in recent years has angered Russia by steering Georgia away from its sphere of influence and toward the West, including possible NATO membership.
“If such an incident occurs again, you will draw Russia and Georgia into an enormous provocation," the U.S.-educated Saakashvili said.
Today, Georgian parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze announced that the government had decided to formally declare an "end to the Russian peacekeepers' mandate" and "de-legitimize their presence," RFE/RL's Georgian Service reported. Burjanadze -- who spoke after meeting with legislative leaders and the defense, interior, and foreign ministers -- added that Georgia would also ask the United Nations to provide a peacekeeping force to replace the Russian troops.
Pro-Moscow Abkhazia declared independence from Georgia after fierce fighting in the aftermath of the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. About 2,000 Russian peacekeepers are deployed in the area under a 1994 cease-fire agreement.
Giga Bokeria, an influential legislator close to Saakashvili, said the Russian troops “will virtually have occupant status” if they don’t leave Abkhazia. “Not a single military force has the right to be on Georgia's territory without Georgia's consent,” Bokeria told RFE/RL. “This is a basic principle of international law -- preconditioned by the principle of sovereignty."
Confrontation Near Abkhazia
On October 30, Saakashvili flew by helicopter to Ganmukhuri, a Georgian-controlled village near the Abkhaz administrative border, following reports that Russian peacekeepers in Abkhazia had illegally crossed into the village, detained, and beat the police officers. In scenes carried on both Russian and Georgian television, Saakashvili was shown escorted by Georgian security forces, who occasionally scuffled with the Russian troops.
"Our patience is running out,” the president told the Russian troops. “Also, tell your General Chaban that I declare him an undesirable person in Georgia. He should leave the territory of Georgia within the next few days. I am telling you that Sukhumi [the capital of breakaway Abkhazia] is part of Georgia -- just like Ganmukhuri, Zugdidi, and Tbilisi. He should leave immediately. And you should immediately put everything in order here, according to the norms outlined under your mandate."
Russian news agencies quoted Russian Major General Sergei Chaban, the peacekeepers’ commander, as saying that he is "not accountable to President Saakashvili" and has no intention of leaving the region. And in remarks reported on Russia's Channel One, Chaban also said that his troops were trying to fulfill their duties and detained the police officers in self-defense.
"A group of representatives of the Georgian Interior Ministry approached the [peacekeepers'] patrol and threatened to burn their armored personnel carrier down and shoot the peacekeepers,” Chaban said. “This was followed by an attempt to physically prevent the patrol commander from carrying out his duties. As a result, the patrol commander gave an order to detain and disarm the Interior Ministry representatives."
Georgian television footage on October 30 showed Russian troops firing shots into the air as they confronted Georgian troops and locals, who were demanding the police officers' release.
A 'Violated Mandate'
Speaking to RFE/RL's Georgian Service, Givi Targamadze, chairman of the Defense and Security Committee in Georgia's parliament, said the Russian peacekeepers were not impartial between Tbilisi and the separatist region, whose leadership is pro-Moscow.
"They violated their mandate -- they left the area where they are allowed to operate,” Targamadze said. “They have violated all norms of decent behavior. They have lost all semblance of being peacekeepers."
Speaking to reporters in Sukhumi, Abkhazia's leader, Sergei Bagapsh, said he would oppose any attempt to make the Russian troops leave. “The Abkhaz side has stated many times, and I would like to reiterate, that we are strongly opposed to replacing the peacekeeping troops with any other force," Bagapsh said.
Abkhazia's separatist government also accused Saakashvili of using the incident to deflect attention from his domestic troubles. Georgian opposition parties are planning massive antigovernment rallies in Tbilisi on November 2.
The Ganmukhuri incident is likely to further aggravate relations between Georgia and Russia.
Tensions have risen steadly since the 2003 "Rose Revolution" brought Saakashvili to power, but they hit a new high in autumn 2006. Georgia detained four Russian officers on spying charges and Russia responded with strengthening economic sanctions against Georgia, cutting transport ties, and expelling hundreds of Georgians from Russia.
In August, Georgia said a military jet illegally entered its airspace from Russia and dropped a missile before flying back to Russia. The missile landed in a field near Georgia's border with its breakaway region of South Ossetia, but did not explode. Russia denied playing any part in the incident.