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Caucasus Report: October 12, 2001

12 October 2001, Volume 4, Number 34

WHO ATTACKED ABKHAZIA, AND WHY? The past 10 days' developments in Abkhazia have not only cost the lives of up to 40 people, including five UN observers; they have precipitated possibly the worst crisis in Russian-Georgian relations since 1993, when Moscow coerced Georgia into joining the CIS.

Analyzing the course of developments is extraordinarily difficult because so many of the statements given contradict one another and in any case often are made to advance a particular political point of view. Nonetheless, several hypotheses are worth considering, although none can be said to be proven.

According to one hypothesis, an influential group in the Georgian capital is seeking to use Chechen fighters to launch a new campaign to win back Abkhazia at a time when Abkhaz President Vladislav Ardzinba is rumored to be incapacitated by illness. Or, acting at the behest of as-yet-unidentified Russian patrons, such a group incited the attacks in a bid to discredit the present Georgian leadership. But other hypotheses may become more plausible as additional evidence appears.

Prior to the 4 October attack on the village of Giorgievskoe in Abkhazia's Kodori gorge by a group of several hundred fighters said to be Chechens and Georgian guerrillas, similar attacks were twice rumored to have been imminent but to have been defused as a result of intensive consultations between Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze and Abkhaz Prime Minister Anri Djergenia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 September and 1 October 2001). It may therefore be significant that the most recent attack took place when Shevardnadze had just begun an official visit to the U.S. and was thus not in a position to intervene.

The Chechen fighters were initially identified in late August by the Russian Defense Ministry as belonging to the force led by field commander Ruslan Gelaev, who for almost one year has been rumored to have left Chechnya and made his base in the Pankisi gorge in northeastern Georgia (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 20 October 2000). Georgian officials, however, have consistently denied that Gelaev was in Georgia. The August reports that he and his men were on the Abkhaz border were, moreover, rejected by both Chechen representative in Georgia Khizri Aldamov and Chechen Deputy Premier Akhmed Zakaev, who told Georgian journalists on 24 and 26 August, respectively, that Gelaev and his men were not on Georgian territory but fighting in Chechnya.

"Kommersant-Daily," however, on 25 August claimed that the Chechen detachment was indeed headed by Gelaev, who, the paper claimed, was planning to emulate field commander Shamil Basaev's 1995 raid of the South Russian town of Budennovsk and seize a town in southern Russia in a bid to force the Russian leadership to begin talks with President Aslan Maskhadov on ending the Chechen war.

In late September, too, Russian media continued to identify Gelaev as head of the Chechen component of the putative combined Georgian/Chechen force, despite repeated Georgian denials that Gelaev was on Georgian territory. At the same time, Russian media claimed that the U.S. was pressuring the Georgian leadership to induce Gelaev to leave Georgia. Dato Shengelia, the leader of the Forest Brothers Georgian guerrilla formation, said in late September that the Georgian guerrillas and the Chechen fighters had held talks for two months on joining forces. But they finally failed to reach an agreement, media reported, because the Chechens wanted to open a second front by attacking the Russian military base at Gudauta, while the Georgian guerrillas were interested only in overthrowing the present Abkhaz leadership (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 October 2001).

On 5 October, after the Abkhaz said they had taken at least one Chechen captive in the fighting in Giorgievskoe, Interfax quoted Djergenia as saying: first, that the Chechen force was indeed commanded by Gelavev; second, that Gelaev planned either to attack the Russian military base at Gudauta or to move north to Sochi; and third, that the Georgian fighters included some members of the Georgian police. Djergenia also raised perhaps the most relevant unanswered question, and one that has been puzzling this writer since the first reports of a Chechen band in western Georgia surfaced. How, Interfax quoted Djergenia as asking, could hundreds of Chechen militants travel undetected 500 kilometers through Georgian territory without help from the Georgian authorities? The former chairman of the Georgian parliamentary commission for relations with North Caucasus republics claimed that they were transported in trucks with Georgian Interior Ministry license plates (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 September 2001).

But whether or not Gelaev is in command of the Chechen fighters, whether they also include (as Abkhaz Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba claimed on 10 October) Arabs and some Azerbaijanis, or whether the force is entirely composed of Georgian guerrillas, is rapidly becoming irrelevant. What is far more significant is who precisely conceived and mounted the raids on Abkhazia: some group in Russia intent on discrediting Georgia by demonstrating that Tbilisi harbors and connives with "terrorists," the Georgian leadership in a bid either to bring Abkhazia finally back under its control or to embarrass Moscow, or both? Or some other powerful interest group in Tbilisi, possibly acting at Moscow's behest?

Moscow at this juncture would seem to face extraordinary obstacles in recruiting Chechens, but the Russian authorities have done so in the past and may have done so now. Moreover, as noted above, it has not yet been definitively proven that any of the attackers in Abkhazia are Chechens. And Moscow has certainly made every effort to reap propaganda benefits from the outbreak of hostilities. Russian officials, first and foremost Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, were swift to argue that either the Georgian leaders do not control the situation on their own territory or they are manipulating the Chechens in order to further their own aims.

And Konstantin Kosachev, deputy chairman of the Russian State Duma International Affairs Committee, commented to ITAR-TASS that, "It seems beneficial to someone in Tbilisi to reanimate the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict." He added that "an international scandal will start" if incontrovertible evidence emerges that the Georgians facilitated the transport of Chechen fighters across Georgia to the Kodori gorge.

The fact that the Georgian leadership was in a position to persuade the mysterious force to withdraw on two occasions suggests that it had some leverage over them. On 9 October, after the Georgian/Chechen force had shot down a UN helicopter, Interfax quoted an unnamed Russian source as saying that it was not the Georgian guerrillas but unnamed Georgian officials who coopted Gelaev but that "the situation has slipped out of the Tbilisi puppeteers' hands and Gelaev, who refuses to play the role of a puppet, has started his own game."

"Rossiiskaya gazeta" on 12 October quoted what it said were Chechens captured by the Abkhaz the previous week as claiming that the attack on the Kodori gorge had been agreed at a meeting in September between Gelaev and Shevardnadze, and that Gelaev's objective was to capture an airfield in southern Russia in order to force the Russian leadership to agree to peace talks with Maskhadov. But all other considerations aside, would the Georgian leadership have contributed to a peace process between Moscow and Maskhadov that could have resulted in a greater degree of independence than Tbilisi is prepared to grant Abkhazia, and would thus have set what in the Georgian leadership's view would be an unfortunate precedent?

However badly Georgia wants to solve the Abkhaz conflict, it is not certain whether, in light of the Abkhaz rout of a Georgian guerrilla attack on Abkhazia's Gali Raion in May 1998, the cash-strapped Georgian military is keen to be drawn into a new conflict that might highlight its weaknesses at a time when the Georgian leadership is desperate to ensure that the country will be considered as a candidate for NATO membership in the foreseeable future.

So who in Tbilisi might have made common ground with Russia to discredit the present Georgian leadership, possibly with the intent of replacing it? The figure named most frequently by the Georgian press is the powerful interior minister, Kakha Targamadze, whom Shevardnadze has repeatedly defended against charges of corruption and who could have been in a position to arrange the transportation to the Abkhaz border of the mysterious group of fighters. Following a recent visit to Moscow, Targamadze affirmed in a Georgian television interview that the government would soon restore control over Abkhazia, using force if necessary. Many Georgian observers are convinced Targamadze is "Moscow's man." Calling him "the Georgian Putin," "Akhali versia" suggested on 1 October that Russian intelligence is planning to install Targamadze as the next Georgian president.

Georgian Foreign Minister Irakli Menagharishvili said on 9 October that weaponry from the Russian military base at Gudauta is already being channeled to the Abkhaz forces facing off with the intruders in the Kodori gorge. Tamaz Nadareishvili, chairman of the Tbilisi-based Abkhaz parliament-in-exile, said on 11 October that five helicopters have been transferred from Gudauta to the Abkhaz forces in Kodori. But the most spectacular allegation came from Georgian parliament Defense and Security Committee Chairman Giorgi Baramidze, who claimed on 10 October that former Georgian Security Service chief Igor Giorgadze, wanted in Georgia on suspicion of orchestrating the August 1995 car-bomb attack and subsequent attempts to kill Shevardnadze, recently visited Sukhum with the consent of Russian President Vladimir Putin to meet there with Ardzinba, Djergenia, and the Russian commander of the Gudauta base.

If those claims are true, it would suggest that not only did some group in Tbilisi mobilize the band of fighters that attacked Kodori, but also that Moscow got wind of those plans before they were set in motion and set about coordinating the Abkhaz response.

The outcome of the ongoing hostilities is likely to hinge on whether and how much military help Russia provides to the Abkhaz. On 11 October, Ardzinba appealed to President Putin to take measures to prevent the conflict in Kodori escalating. But whatever the outcome, the true identity of the attacking force and who coopted them may never be established with any degree of certainty.