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Caucasus Report: October 22, 2001

22 October 2001, Volume 4, Number 35

IS GEORGIA PREPARING FOR A NEW WAR WITH ABKHAZIA? The hostilities in the Kodori gorge have subsided, but much about that conflict remains unclear, including both who was directly or indirectly involved and whether this end to the fighting is anything more than a lull before a full-scale Georgian assault.

As of 18 October, Abkhaz Defense Ministry officials claimed their forces were again in full control of the lower, Abkhaz reaches of the Kodori gorge. The majority of the remaining members of what the Abkhaz and Russians have described as an invading Chechen/Georgian force have left Abkhazia, these officials said, presumably making their way back into Georgian-controlled territory. Russian military and border officials have insisted repeatedly that it is impossible for them to penetrate the Georgian-Russian border because of increased security. Moreover, Russian media report that the main pass leading to Kabardino-Balkaria will soon be impassable because of heavy snowfalls.

But precisely who the invaders were and who sent them into Abkhazia and for what purpose remains far from clear. Some developments of the past week suggest, as did last week's "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," that the Chechen contingent involved had been co-opted by the Georgian authorities and that its limited objective was to restore Georgian control over at least part of Abkhazia -- rather than to cross into the Russian Federation to seize strategic facilities there and thereby force Moscow to embark on peace talks with Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov.

Comments by Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze to a crowd of some 1,000 Georgian displaced persons from Abkhazia who staged a protest outside the state chancellery in Tbilisi on 11 October imply that he assumed that the invading force was aiming to oust the present Abkhaz leadership. Shevardnadze said on that occasion: "I am sure we will return to Abkhazia and it will happen very shortly. I will go ahead with you. We have more resources now and international support.... We are closer to victory than any time before," Reuters quoted him as saying.

The same day, Chechen President Maskhadov explicitly denied in an interview with RFE/RL's Russian Service (see below) that Ruslan Gelaev, who has repeatedly been named as commander of the Chechen detachment fighting in Kodori, had invaded Abkhazia on his orders. Moreover, "Kommersant" on 15 October quoted unnamed Abkhaz intelligence officials as saying they are convinced that Gelaev was not aiming to head north up the coast towards Sochi, or even to seize Sukhum, but to capture the strategic bridge across the Kodori River that effectively divides Abkhazia into two parts, north and south, thus depriving the Abkhaz of access to, and control over, the southern half of their unrecognized republic.

As for the composition of the invading force, Georgian officials -- including Minister of State Gia Arsenishvili, Defense Minister Davit Tevzadze, and parliament speaker Zurab Zhvania -- have all referred to them as Chechens, while failing to offer a convincing explanation how they materialized in the Kodori gorge and why. But if Abkhaz statements are to believed, the invading forces included at least some Georgians -- not only members of the various Georgian guerrilla detachments but possibly also Interior Ministry or regular army troops. On 19 October, for example, Abkhaz Vice President Valerii Arshba that the Abkhaz have captured a Georgian army colonel who testified to such involvement.

Russian media -- which have their own interest in depicting Georgia as duplicitous -- have quoted members of the Russian peacekeeping force as saying they have seen truckloads of food, uniforms, sleeping bags, and other military supplies being dispatched to the upper, Georgian reaches of the Kodori gorge. Moreover, Abkhaz Deputy Defense Minister Garri Kupalba claimed on 11 October that the Georgian contingent was under the command of Emzar Kvitsiani, President Shevardnadze's appointed governor in the upper, Georgian-controlled reaches of the Kodori gorge. Tevzadze immediately denied that allegation, but on 12 October, Kupalba claimed to have a videotape on which Kvitsiani was clearly identifiable.

Defense Minister Vladimir Mikanba for his part told Interfax on 17 October that the invading force had spilt into small groups, one of which was intercepted by Abkhaz troops early that day near the village of Ilori in Ochamchira Raion. That village is close to the Black Sea coast south of the Kodori gorge, and is also close to the main road leading southeast through predominantly Georgian-populated territory to the frontier between Abkhazia and the rest of Georgia. For Georgian guerrillas familiar with the terrain from years of hit-and-run operations against first CIS peacekeepers and then Abkhaz police, that path would be the obvious retreat route to take, whereas Chechens might logically be expected to head in the opposite direction, north towards the frontier with Russia.

If in fact the intruders were acting on instructions from someone in Tbilisi, the question nonetheless remains: which specific Georgian official was giving them orders? This writer was initially inclined to identify Georgian Interior Minister Kakha Targamadze, whom many Georgian observers suspect of being on Moscow's payroll, as having made the initial approach to Chechen field commander Gelaev, but also as having informed Moscow of what was afoot. "Nezavisimaya gazeta," however, claimed on 17 October, without revealing either its source or any corroborating evidence, that the operation was directed by Georgian State Security Minister Avtandil Ioseliani.

Regardless of the reliability of the claims, disclaimers, and counter-claims listed above, another and by far the most crucial question remains: does the current lull in the fighting mean that the Georgians have, at least for the moment, abandoned the idea of a new "small victorious war," or are they merely waiting for the most propitious moment to launch a full-fledged attack? On 16 October, Arshba told Interfax that while the Abkhaz leadership believes that the initial Chechen/Georgian invading force has been effectively routed, they do not rule out "a large-scale aggression on the part of Georgia," and for that reason have placed all armed forces at combat readiness. Two days later, Interfax quoted unidentified sources within the Abkhaz Defense Ministry as saying that Georgia has deployed some 500 army and Interior Ministry troops in the villages of Azhara and Sakeni in the upper reaches of the Kodori gorge. "Izvestiya" on 15 October quoted Abkhaz Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba as estimating that the Abkhaz could mobilize a total of 30,000-40,000 men.

There are at least two compelling reasons why Tbilisi would be unlikely to risk a new war now: First of all, it would be taking the risk of having the weakness of its armed forces demonstrated at a time when it is seeking to extract from the West a promise that Georgia will be considered as a possible candidate for a third round of NATO expansion. And second, a country which has just postponed local elections for 11 months on the grounds that it could not raise the $2 million needed to fund them logically cannot afford to embark on what might prove to be an open-ended military commitment. Indeed, cynics may wonder whether the local elections were postponed to free up an additional $2 million to help fund a new war.

Moreover, while the international community is generally more sympathetic to Georgia than to Sukhum, both the EU and the OSCE last week issued statements calling for a swift resumption of talks on a political settlement of the conflict.

Much depends on Moscow. Does Russia now regard the Abkhaz as a long-term asset to be used time and again to bring pressure to bear against Georgia, or is whoever in Moscow is currently calling the shots (both literally and figuratively) prepared to sacrifice the remnants of the Abkhaz people to discredit the Georgian leadership in the eyes of the international community? If Moscow were to call Tbilisi's bluff by agreeing to withdraw immediately the 2,000-strong Russian peacekeeping troops deployed under the CIS aegis along the border between Abkhazia and the rest of Georgia, that would remove all constraints against Georgia launching either a conventional attack from the south, across the River Inguri, as Tengiz Kitovani's National Guard did in August 1992, or a two-pronged simultaneous attack from the south and east.

Abkhazia ultimately won the 1992-1993 war only with logistical help from Russia. But if Russia withholds such assistance this time, then the Georgian government might prove unable to prevent (or might simply decline to intervene to prevent) irregular armed units of displaced Georgians from Abkhazia from implementing the policy of systematic ethnic cleansing of which they have consistently accused the Abkhaz. The Georgian authorities could plead not guilty of such a slaughter perpetrated by irregular units that are not part of the Georgian army, but it would nonetheless substantiate Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov's 9 October allegation that the Georgian leadership cannot control developments on its own territory.

In what might be read as a tacit acknowledgement that a resumption of hostilities is at least a possible scenario, President Shevardnadze observed in an interview published in the 18 October issue of "Obshchaya gazeta" and summarized by Interfax that "sometimes wars start spontaneously." But even if that danger is averted, there seems little doubt that, as Lyudvig Chibirov, president of the unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia, remarked during talks with a visiting OSCE delegation last week, the events in Abkhazia since the beginning of this month have thrown back by several years the process of normalizing relations between the central Georgian authorities and the two breakaway former autonomous formations of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. (Liz Fuller)

BRITISH, GEORGIAN NGOS SAY BOTH SIDES TO BLAME FOR CURRENT CRISIS. The British NGO Links, which has been engaged in conflict resolution in Abkhazia since the late 1990s, and its Tbilisi-based counterpart Caucasus Links released a joint statement in London on 15 October that identified both the Georgian and the Abkhaz leadership and the international community as in some measure to blame for the current crisis in Abkhazia. The statement argued that: "...War and a status quo based on military strength are never going to be the long-term solution to the conflict in Abkhazia. A sustainable solution can only be based on the principle of the peaceful co-existence between Georgians, Abkhaz, and other nationalities in a multiethnic Abkhazia. The present conflict, the activity of armed Georgian combatants, and the intransigent position of the Abkhaz authorities in Sukhumi are therefore not helpful in finding such long-term and sustainable peace in the region.

"The authorities in both Tbilisi and Sukhumi must share some of the blame for the current conflict. Not only have they not engaged actively enough to find a solution, but neither have they provided the appropriate framework for debate within the wider society on the future way forward. This stems from broader failures: a democratic deficit and flawed state-building processes in Georgia and the failure of the Abkhaz authorities to move beyond the Soviet-style mentality and action of the past.

"The international community must understand that it needs to engage more actively in the effort to bring about a long-term peaceful solution in Abkhazia. An urgent and high-profile Security Council initiative is needed to bring about an immediate end to the current hostilities and progress in the negotiations process."

CHECHEN PRESIDENT DENIES LINKS WITH BIN LADEN. Condemning the 11 September terrorist attacks on the U.S. as "truly barbarous" and "madness," Aslan Maskhadov told RFE/RL's Russian Service on 11 October that all attempts by the Russian leadership and Russian intelligence to demonstrate that Osama bin Laden is "the godfather of the Chechen resistance" have failed. He pointed out that the conflict between the Chechen people and Moscow dates back 400 years, long before bin Laden was born, adding that he has no connections either with bin Laden or his Al-Qaeda organization.

Maskhadov also denied that any fighters under his command are currently fighting in Abkhazia. He explained that given that "the main aim of the Russian special services is to provoke a clash between Chechens and Georgians at any cost in order to create a pretext for involving Russian troops and keeping the military base in Vaziani," he had issued specific instructions that no Chechens were to attack Russian military facilities in any of the three South Caucasus states. But at the same time, Maskhadov did not rule out the possibility that "Gelaev or a handful of shortsighted people manipulated by Moscow" might be involved in the current Abkhaz fighting.

Asked whether there has been any progress towards peace talks, Maskhadov confirmed that "contacts have been made" between his representatives and those of the Russian leadership. But he added that for the Chechens, the main conditions for peace talks is that they should be mediated by a third party, although he did not suggest who or what organization might assume that function. At the same time, Maskhadov warned that the Chechens "will never agree to lay down their arms, because today we are being constantly convinced that the weapons in the hands of our fighters...are the sole guarantee of our people's security." And if and when the two sides do come to the negotiating table, Maskhadov said that the first issue on the agenda should be defining relations between the Russian Federation and the Chechen Republic Ichkeria. Only resolving that key problem, Maskhadov said, can ensure that there will not be yet another war. (Liz Fuller)

FORMER PRESIDENT ASSESSES AZERBAIJAN'S FIRST DECADE OF INDEPENDENCE. In an interview with RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service on 18 October, former President Ayaz Mutalibov, who has lived in Moscow since his ouster in May 1992, said he thinks the country has lost more than it has gained in the 10 years since the parliament voted in favor of independence on 18 October 1991.

Mutalibov argued that the economy should have been able to emerge from crisis over that time frame provided that conditions were created to encourage private business activity, and that corruption could have been prevented from growing into a major problem. He said that failure to promote economic development is the primary reason for the emigration of so many Azerbaijanis is search of employment elsewhere. He claimed that more of its citizens have left Azerbaijan than any other former Soviet republic, and that the number of Azerbaijanis currently working in Russia, which some analysts have estimated at 2 million (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 2, No. 50, 17 December 1999), is greater that the combined number of Uzbeks, Turkmen, and Kyrgyz now living in the Russian Federation.

Mutalibov added that he nonetheless regards Azerbaijan's future "with optimism," because the country is rich in natural and moral resources. He said the Azerbaijani people should take the initiative, and not entrust its fate to one or two people.

Asked why he remains in exile rather than return to Azerbaijan to engage in national politics, as he has more than once said he is prepared to do under specific conditions (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 2, No. 35, 10 September 1999 and Vol. 3, No. 10, 10 March 2000), Mutalibov said that President Heidar Aliev's "tendentious" attitude towards him is the main obstacle to his return. In that context, he expressed his thanks to all those citizens of Azerbaijan who recently attended the funeral of his father, who died on 12 October. The Social Democratic Party of Azerbaijan appealed unsuccessfully to President Aliyev to allow Mutalibov to return to Azerbaijan to attend the funeral. (Zerkhanim Akhmedli)

ARMENIAN CAFE MURDER PROBE SHROUDED IN SECRECY. Almost four weeks after the murder, widely blamed on President Robert Kocharian's bodyguards, of an Armenian activist from Georgia in a popular Yerevan cafe, law-enforcement officials are unusually tight-lipped about the course of their investigation into the crime. Prosecutors in charge of the politically embarrassing case refuse to divulge details of the probe, saying only that nobody has been arrested or charged yet. One senior prosecutor said on 17 October that there are still "no suspects or detainees" in the case, despite the fact that some 200 staff members and customers were present in the Aragast cafe at the time of the confrontation that immediately preceded, and presumably served as the motive for, the killing.

The prosecutor's office launched criminal proceedings after the 43-year-old resident of Georgia's Armenian-populated Ninotsminda district, Poghos Poghosian, was found dead in the cafe's toilet during the early morning of 26 September, minutes after Kocharian left the premises. By most witness accounts, Poghosian was beaten to death by presidential bodyguards for making remarks which they found offensive to Kocharian. But it is still not clear under which articles of the Armenian Criminal Code the criminal case is being pursued.

Several of the bodyguards were suspended from duty pending the inquiry, according to the presidential administration. Kocharian told reporters earlier this month that Poghosian had apparently died as a result of a "tussle" with his security men. He expressed regret over Poghosian's death, but stopped short of criticizing the conduct of his security service, saying that the prosecutors will clarify all circumstances of the incident.

Poghosian was a member of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun) party, which has vowed to ensure that his murderers are brought to justice. Leaders of the influential nationalist party, which largely backs Kocharian, have so far refrained from commenting on the course of the inquiry. But opposition parties have already accused the authorities of trying to cover up the killing.

Meanwhile, the lawyer representing interests of the victim's family, Ruben Sahakian, told RFE/RL on 17 October that he is still awaiting results of the official medical examination of Poghosian's body. Officials at a Yerevan mortuary who examined it on 26 September reportedly concluded that he died of severe head and abdominal injuries. (Karine Kalantarian)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK. "The Georgians have won considerable support by presenting themselves as a plucky small state struggling to escape the Russian bear. But Georgia would do better now to tone down the rhetoric and focus on starting talks with Abkhazia." The "Financial Times," (15 October).

"We have always said that a political solution is needed in Chechnya. We like President Putin's statements now. It seems he really wants to initiate negotiations with the Chechen leaders. We also maintain -- the way we maintained it -- that human rights are an important issue in Chechnya. We know that there are terrorists in and around Chechnya and we urge Chechen leaders to disassociate themselves from the criminals who might be found in their ranks. We cannot fight international terrorism in Afghanistan and welcome it in Chechnya." -- U.S. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, in an interview with "Izvestiya" (16 October).