The move into the gorge, which is divided between the Georgian-administered upper area and the Abkhaz-controlled lower part, was also a bold display of military might in the face of some 1,600 Russian peacekeepers deployed in close proximity.
Ironically, the only resistance to the deployment of the Georgian forces came from neither the Abkhaz nor the Russian troops, but from a small paramilitary band led by Emzar Kvitsiani, the area's former Georgian governor.
Kvitsiani, chosen to administer the upper Kodori Gorge by former President Eduard Shevardnadze in 1999, refused an April 2005 order by Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili to disband and disarm his Monadire (Hunter) militia.
Perhaps sensing the futility of the mismatch of forces, Kvitsiani chose flight over fight and eluded either capture or defeat. Okruashvili -- who personally oversaw the Kodori operation -- said on July 28 that Kvitsiani is believed to be either in Sukhum(i) or somewhere in Russia.
By July 27, a triumphant President Mikheil Saakashvili declared the "successful completion" of the "police operation" in a nationally televised address that heralded the relocation of the Abkhaz government in exile from Tbilisi to the Kodori.
Saakashvili was also quick to announce plans to reconstruct the local airport and restore the road linking the gorge to the regional administrative center in Upper Svaneti. More significant than simple aid, such targeted assistance is aimed at extending the strategic links between the Kodori Gorge and Georgia proper.
The seeming success of the Kodori operation meets two specific Georgian goals. The first is the need to both reverse the devolution of power from the central authorities and step up the demonstration of power in the face of challenges to Tbilisi. In this respect, the move to retake the Upper Kodori Gorge and restrain autonomous paramilitary groups is further designed to send a strong message to both breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
The second goal is much broader, and stems from a need to demonstrate a greater resolve and commitment to strengthening Georgian statehood and sovereignty. Within this context, the Kodori operation also relates to Georgia's confrontation with Russia and its aspirations for closer ties to the West.
Since Saakashvili's election as president in January 2004, Georgia has intensified its efforts for integration with Western security institutions, with a strategic drive for NATO membership and for a deeper engagement with the European Union. This westward strategic orientation was further bolstered by the Orange Revolution in Ukraine.
But from this strategic perspective, Georgia appears to have misread the Western response to its overtures. Despite the outward appearance of success, the recent Kodori Gorge operation actually reveals the shortcomings of the Georgian bid for NATO membership. And perhaps most interestingly, it also reveals a mutual misreading of motives by both Georgia and the NATO alliance.
Hurting The Cause?
There are two core issues comprising this dilemma. First, Georgian satisfaction with the effectiveness of its limited campaign in the Kodori does little to allay growing concerns within the NATO alliance over Georgian motivations.
Specifically, the Kodori operation only underscores the danger of a shift by Tbilisi away from a political to a military approach to the unresolved Abkhaz and South Ossetian conflicts.
For Georgia, the Kodori operation affirms its readiness for an intensified dialogue with NATO, representing a graduation in relations and a step closer toward outright membership.
For NATO, however, the process of developing and increasing the professionalism of the Georgian armed forces was never aimed at endowing it with an offensive capability to tempt it to strike against the breakaway republics.
In fact, even before the Kodori operation, there was concern over Georgian military spending, which spiked by some 135 percent in 2005, the largest percentage increase anywhere in the world. But the move into Kodori resembled a preliminary but pronounced move toward more ambitious, and more aggressive, incursions directed against the Abkhaz and/or Ossetians.
The second element of the dilemma of Georgia's courtship of NATO concerns not Georgia, but the future of the NATO alliance itself. NATO has already surpassed, and survived, a significant structural redefinition, based on both a newly defined concept of security and a newly delineated area of responsibility.
But Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer has warned repeatedly in recent months that enlargement is "on hold," and that no further formal invitations to join the alliance will be forthcoming at the NATO summit in Latvia in November.
With regard to Georgia in particular, de Hoop Scheffer said on July 26 after talks in Brussels with Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli that it remains unclear when Georgia will be ready to embark on an Intensified Dialogue -- the next stage after the Individual Partnership Action Plan, and the prelude to a Membership Action Plan.
Moreover, Georgian membership in NATO, given the country's division and unresolved conflicts, may actually weaken the alliance by incorporating insecurity rather than projecting security. Georgian ascension would also undoubtedly affect NATO's already tenuous relationship with Russia, heightening tension to an even greater degree than the two earlier rounds of NATO enlargement.
As the dilemma over Georgia's courtship of NATO is now centered on a level of engagement, the future course of Georgian-NATO relations will hinge on the lessons Tbilisi draws from last week's operation in Kodori, specifically, whether it decides to go one step further and restore its control over either the whole of Abkhazia or South Ossetia, or to abandon further military action and seek a negotiated settlement of the two conflicts.
President Putin at a Kremlin meeting in April (epa)
PUTIN SPEAKS OUT: During a January press conference, Russian President Vladimir Putin said there is a need for "universal principles" to settle "frozen" conflicts in the CIS. His comments came against the background of impending talks on the future status of Kosovo, which many predict will grant it a form of "conditional independence" from Serbia and Montenegro. As an ally of Serbia, Moscow has consistently opposed the idea of Kosovar independence. Putin's remarks suggest he may be shifting his position, but only if the principles applied to Kosovo are also applied to frozen conflicts in the former Soviet Union. If Kosovo can be granted full independence, he asked, why should we deny the same to Abkhazia and South Ossetia? (more)