Wednesday, 30 January 2002

GEORGIAN LEADERS DISAGREE WITH UN ON ABKHAZIA

Published in Field Reports

By Irakly Areshidze (1/30/2002 issue of the CACI Analyst)

The decision regarding the presence of 350 Georgian troops in the Kodori Valley, the one part of Abkhazia still controlled by the authorities in Tbilisi, has the potential of turning into a serious crisis for Georgian President Eduard Shevadnadze.  The situation in Kodori has been tense ever since October of last year, when Georgia dispatched troops to the Valley to protect the local population, after Russian SU-25 aircraft bombed the area. Ostensibly, the presence of Georgian troops in Kodori is in violation of the May 1994 agreement signed in Moscow by the Georgian authorities and Abkhaz separatists which ended the armed conflict in the region.

The decision regarding the presence of 350 Georgian troops in the Kodori Valley, the one part of Abkhazia still controlled by the authorities in Tbilisi, has the potential of turning into a serious crisis for Georgian President Eduard Shevadnadze.  The situation in Kodori has been tense ever since October of last year, when Georgia dispatched troops to the Valley to protect the local population, after Russian SU-25 aircraft bombed the area. Ostensibly, the presence of Georgian troops in Kodori is in violation of the May 1994 agreement signed in Moscow by the Georgian authorities and Abkhaz separatists which ended the armed conflict in the region.  As a result, UN special envoy to Georgia Dieter Boden has repeatedly demanded that Georgia withdraw its forces.  Pressure to withdraw the troops grew when UN Secretary General Kofi Annan stated that the troops should be withdrawn, first through private conversations in December and then in public at the UN Security Council on 23 January 2001. 

When word spread in Georgia that the government was being pressured by Annan and the Group of Friends of the Secretary General to remove its forces from Kodori, reaction from politicians of all stripes was swift.  Radio Free Europe reported on 19 December 2001 that several Parliamentarians, including Speaker Nino Birjanadze, demanded that Boden appear in front of the legislative body to explain his request that Georgia remove its forces from Kodori.  Meanwhile, the New Rights Party went so far as to charge that Boden was misinforming the international community on the situation in Kodori, and hence hurting Georgia’s interests.  It accused Boden of openly siding with Russian and Abkhaz separatist interests.  Part leader Gamkrelidze repudiated Boden’s remark by claiming that the agreement had already been broken by the Abkhaz and Russian forces who attacked Kodori last autumn.  This view was echoed by Georgian Presidential Advisor Levan Aleksadze, who stated that demanding the withdrawal of the Georgian forces from Kodori was tantamount to supporting the Abkhaz separatist regime.

The Georgian population, especially the 200,000 refugees from Abkhazia, have been rapidly losing faith in the UN Representative. His public image has been significantly damaged by charges of improprieties levied by Georgian media sources. As of early January, all Georgian political factions were united in their opposition to the removal of Georgian troops from Kodori. Georgian Deputy Defense Minister Gela Bezhuashvili told Caucasus Press on December 26 that his office would advise against the removal of Georgian forces.  On January 21, President Shevardnadze said in his weekly radio address that the Georgian presence must be maintained to protect the population. However, some government representatives acted dramatically different from the leadership’s rhetoric.  According to RFE, Georgian military representatives agreed with Abkhaz, UN, and Russian counterparts on January 17 to withdraw the 350 troops it has deployed in the Kodori Gorge. Malkhaz Kakabadze, Georgia’s Minister for Special Assignments, stated that the safety of the local population would be guaranteed by joint patrols of UN observers and CIS peacekeepers, starting from February. Government sources have not denied the report, though Shevardnadze has reiterated that Georgian troops must remain in Kodori. Georgian political leaders immediately criticized the possibility of a Georgian withdrawal. Parliamentarian Irakli Batiashvili, a co-signatory of the letter to the UN Secretary General requesting the recall of Boden, told the author that such a move runs “counter to the national interests of Georgia and represents a colossal failure of the Georgian government to work with the international community in defense of its interests.”  

The future of Georgian troops in Kodori is just one of the major immediate challenges facing Shevardnadze regarding Abkhazia. On January 1, the mandate for the presence of Russian (CIS) forces in Abkhazia expired. In October 2001, the Georgian Parliament had with Shevardnadze’s support passed a resolution demanding the speedy withdrawal of Russian forces. However, the Georgian President has not been successful in finding a replacement for the Russian forces, even though discussions have been underway with Ukraine for several months. Furthermore, during a November meeting, Russian President Vladimir Putin warned Shevardnadze that should Russian withdraw its peacekeepers, security in the region would become Georgia’s responsibility. In effect, Putin was suggesting that a provocation from the Abkhaz separatist side should be expected in case Georgia demands that Russian forces, which openly side with Abkhaz separatists, are withdrawn. As if to further threaten Georgia, on 24 January Itar-Tass quoted Russia’s Deputy UN Ambassador Andrei Granovskii as warning that Russia may withdraw forces from the conflict zone if Georgia continues to delay a decision about their mandate. Meanwhile, for the last week, Georgian refugees have continued to protest in Tbilisi, initially demanding Russian troop checkpoints to be moved to the Ghalidzga river, which would bring the Gali district of Abkhazeti back to Tbilisi’s jurisdiction, and later expanding their demands and asking for complete withdrawal of the peacekeeping troops. As the debate moves forward, Shevardnadze is caught between a rock and a hard place, with Russians pressuring him to extend the mandate, while the Georgian population and political leaders demand their withdrawal.  

Irakly Areshidze

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