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Georgia: Tbilisi Launches Political Assault In Abkhazia

Georgian troops in the Kodori Gorge on July 27 (InterPressNews) PRAGUE, July 28, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has ordered the Abkhaz government in exile to move from Tbilisi to the Kodori Gorge. The move is a bold step toward restoring central control over the breakaway province.

The Kodori Gorge, a remote mountain valley in the northeast of Abkhazia, is the only part of the province still controlled by the Georgian authorities. Most of Abkhazia has been ruled independently of Tbilisi since achieving de facto independence in 1993.

Saakashvili Crows About His Triumph

Triumphs, even partial triumphs, have been in short supply in Georgia this year. It's no surprise, then, that Saakashvili grasped at this week's successful military operation in the Kodori Gorge as an opportunity for a national morale-boosting public appearance.

By ridding the Kodori Gorge of Emzar Kvitsiani's rebel militia so quickly and with so little loss, the Georgian authorities had passed an important test, he declared on national television July 27. The operation had been a "huge success."

The strategic significance of the gorge is enormous for Georgia -- it cuts down into the heart of the breakaway province of Abkhazia -- but its use to Tbilisi depends on the loyalty of the local administration.

By turning Kodori into a private fiefdom, Kvitsiani, a former government official, turned a strategic advantage into a strategic liability.

Launching A Political Assault

Saakashvili has been so quick to use this week's military success to seize the political initiative. Today he ordered the Abkhaz government in exile, which is recognized and supported by Georgia, to move its offices from Tbilisi to Kodori.

Anti-Saakashvili graffiti appeared on Tbilisi streets on the night of July 25-26 (InterPressNews)

"We have decided to move the [representatives] of the Abkhaz government to the Kodori Gorge, where they will exercise the full jurisdiction of the Georgian authorities and take full control of the territory, normalize life, and begin reconstruction work," Saakashvili said on national television.

He also signaled to the Abkhaz separatist authorities in Sukhumi that Georgia intends to maintain a much more aggressive presence in Kodori than it has in the past.

"For the first time since 1993, a government emerges -- a government enters the territory of our Abkhazia that will exercise full Georgian jurisdiction and maintain Georgia's constitutional order in the very middle of Abkhazia, on a very important part of Abkhaz territory," he said.

But What Do The Locals Think?

But the critical issue now for Saakashvili is how to win back the trust of a population that feels it has been persistently ignored by the central authorities. The villages of Kodori are remote and mountainous, and they are in a potential conflict zone.

Georgian border guards in the Kodori Gorge in 2003 (RFE/RL)

Gia Nodia, director of the Caucasian Institute for Peace, Democracy and Development in Tbilisi, points out that they have not always seen eye to eye with the Abkhaz government in exile.

"The problem here is not so much juridical or even whether something will change in the work of this body, as what sort of relations it will have with the people of Kodori," Nodia says. "Because we know that in the past the legitimate government of Abkhazia was rather unpopular in Kodori -- at least it was in its previous composition. When representatives of the legitimate government of Abkhazia went to the gorge in [former Georgian leader Eduard] Shevardnadze's time they got beaten up."

No doubt in recognition of this, Saakashvili promised on July 27 to supply emergency aid to Kodori and to start work on the reconstruction of the local airport and the road linking the gorge to the regional administrative center in Upper Svaneti.

Unknown Victims

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