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Caucasus: Violent Incidents In Abkhazia Point To Strains In Russian-Georgian Relations

Officials in Georgia's separatist region of Abkhazia said yesterday that a group of Chechen and Georgian fighters had raided a village in the province, killing 14 people. Officials also blamed Georgia for using helicopters and planes to launch bombing raids on three villages. But Georgia is arguing that the aircraft entered Abkhazia from Russia. RFE/RL Moscow correspondent Francesca Mereu looks at Russia's interests in the breakaway region.

Moscow, 10 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Tensions are at a new high this week between Russia and Georgia. A UN helicopter was shot down on 8 October during a routine inspection flight over Abkhazia's Kodor gorge region, killing all nine passengers on board. Abkhaz officials blamed Chechen and Georgian fighters, who they claim had invaded the area.

Yesterday, the Abkhaz village of Naa was raided and 14 residents killed. Abkhazian officials blamed Chechen and Georgian fighters for the attack. Hours later, unidentified helicopters and planes launched bombing raids on an additional three villages in the region.

Georgian authorities say the aircraft came from Russian territory, but Abkhaz officials say it was Georgia that launched the strikes, in support of Georgian and Chechen militants they say are fighting in the area.

Russia denied responsibility for bombing raids, saying Georgia was to blame for granting free reign to "bandits" and "terrorists." Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov accused the Georgian government of being "unprepared" to cooperate in the fight against terrorism.

In remarks quoted by AFP, Ivanov said: "Now it's becoming clear that the Georgian government either has no control over its own territory or it is manipulating the terrorists for its own end."

No injuries were reported in the bombing raids. But Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze promised a "severe reaction" to the perpetrators of the raids. He, like other Georgian officials, said the planes had entered Abkhazia from Russia.

The violent string of incidents has highlighted the uncertainty of the situation in Abkhazia. Yury Vachednadze, a political observer from Tbilisi, says the current conflict in the Black Sea province is linked to continued poor relations between Russia and Georgia.

"Georgian-Abkhaz, Georgian-Chechen, and Abkhaz-Chechen problems are just a part of a more major problem: the Russian-Georgian relationship. Over the last years, neither party -- [Russian nor Georgian] -- was an example of good behavior. Russia backed separatists in the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict and [at the same time] turned a blind eye to Chechen and other Northern Caucasus fighters that [helped] the Abkhaz people [in their fight for independence]. Then [Moscow] played the role of a mediator between the center Tbilisi and the breakaway republic."

Vachednadze says Georgia, on the other hand, has caused difficulties by adopting a pro-American foreign policy, which he says it hopes to use to receive loans and investments to boost its weak economy. He says Georgia should remember that it is still economically dependant on Russia.

"[Georgia] failed to take into consideration two factors: its complete economic dependence on Russia -- for example, it has to use Russian gas -- and the cultural links [between the two countries]."

Georgia accused Russia of supporting Abkhaz separatists with troops and arms during their 1992-93 war of independence in which Georgian forces and some 250,000 Georgian civilians were driven from the territory. Abkhazia declared de facto independence from Georgia in 1993.

Now around 3,000 Russian troops are stationed in Abkhazia as part of a peacekeeping force sent by the Commonwealth of Independent States. Russia also maintains a military base in the city of Gudauta. UN observers also are deployed on the separation line between Georgia and Abkhazia.

Valeri Batuev, a commentator with the "Vremya MN" Russian daily, called Russia's interest in Abkhazia -- a strip of land sandwiched between the Black Sea and the Caucasus Mountains -- a territorial issue. He said, "For Russia it represents a further exit to the Black Sea." He believes this is why Russia does not want to lose control of the area:

"It isn't advantageous for Russia to give Abkhazia [to Georgia], since it [is located] along the Black Sea. [For that reason, Russia] accused Georgia [of providing save haven for Chechen fighters] and imposed a visa regime, but it continues to back the separatism in Abkhazia. Shevardnadze is right when he says that Russia uses double standards."

Shevardnadze has said Russia backs separatists in Abkhazia on the one hand but fights against its own domestic separatists in Chechnya. Russia in return accuses Georgia of permitting Chechen separatists to take refuge in the Pankisi gorge, an area along Georgia's border with the breakaway Russian republic.

Gregory Yavlinsky, the head of the liberal Yabloko Party, told RFE/RL's Russian Service there are similarities between the situations in Chechnya and Abkhazia. He says that Georgia also is playing a strange game:

"[The situation in Abkhazia] is linked to Chechnya. In other words, we have this problem: Georgia indirectly says, 'Don't interfere in the Abkhaz situation and we won't interfere in the Chechen situation.' This is the dilemma that Russia has to face and this is a really complex situation."

Yavlinsky says that Russia would like to have a stable situation along its borders.

"Russia's national interest lies in stability. We want a stable situation on our borders and [we want] the situation in the northern Caucasus, in general, and Chechnya, in particular, to return to normal."

Yavlinsky said that only talks between Russia and Georgia could help to find a solution to the Abkhaz problem and prevent further bloodshed in the area. But Yavlinsky believes that neither Russian nor Georgian leaders are able to come up with a solution of this kind.