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Abkhazia as the Theatre of Georgia’s Terrorist Activities and Sabotage, by Sergey Markedonov

Strategic Culture Foundation

The renewed attempts to destabilise the situation in Abkhazia against the background of the unquiet life in South Ossetia and Georgia’s territory adjacent to it, need consideration and assessment of these new threats to the security of South Caucasian states recognised by Russia and to Russia itself as a guarantor of their statehood and the right of self-determination.

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On October 15, 2008 a group of unidentified persons opened fire in the village of Bargyab, Abkhazia’s Gala district, heavily wounding Beslan Chkonia, the chief of the local police department.

Since the end of the first Georgian-Abkhazian conflict in 1993, the lower zone of the Ghali district has been regarded the most dangerous territory of this republic. Abkhazian law enforcement agencies regard it as the most probable theatre of sabotage and acts of terror Georgia can undertake.

On October 23, 2008 the body of Eduard Emin-zade, the chief of the reconnaissance department of Abkhazia’s Defence Ministry was found in the town of Ghali. He was killed after a previous attempt on the life of this man, a key figure of Abkhazia’s intelligence agency. Last June his car was fired at (Emin-zade was then the chief of counter-intelligence department at Abkhazia’s Ministry of Security. That same day another two dead bodies were found near the checkpoint “Ingur”. They were Eldar Shamutia, the owner of the house where the body of the chief of reconnaissance of Abkhazia’s Defence Ministry, and Zaur Kvekveskiri who had lived in the republic’s Ochamchir district, were found. The very next day, October 24, the official of administration of the village of Kokhora in Tkvarchal district Roman Ashuba was killed. The chief of the police department of the Ghalki district Lorik Kogonia reported that unidentified persons stopped Ashuba’s car. They forced the people in the car out, and shot Ashuba dead; his succeeded in fleeing. The survivors were unanimously stating that the crime was committed by Georgian saboteurs, Kogonia said.

Before the completion of the investigation and knowing that the culprits of the crimes are still at large, it is hard to create the genuine picture of those developments. However, if “qui bono?” question is asked, the picture is almost clear, all the more so that almost simultaneously with the series of murders in eastern Abkhazia, officer of Georgia’s Interior Ministry Shota Utiashvili said on October 22 that “provocations” could be staged by Russians. Late on October 23 Georgia’s parliament made a declaration, calling the world community to demand that Russia “stick to the ceasefire agreement, annul its recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and eradicate the aftermath of ethnic cleansing.” The Georgian MPs demanded that Russia withdraw its troops from South Ossetia’s Akhalgor district (that was part of the South Ossetian autonomous region that Tbilisi controlled after the first break of hostilities between Georgia and Ossetia in 1991-1992), and from the Kodore Gorge heights.

Meanwhile, it is no secret that Georgia continues to amass military formations in the territories adjacent to South Ossetia and Abkhazia. It does it absolutely openly near the Akhalgor district. Moreover, Georgia can count on its considerable expertise in official sabotage and terrorist activities. Guerilla units “White Legion” and “Forest Brothers” acted in Abkhazia in the 1990s and many of them were officers of Georgia’s Interior Ministry. Their activities helped Georgia solve both its internal and external problems. In late 1997 - early 1998 “White Legion” and “Forest Brothers” became active in the zone of control of Russian peacekeepers, committing acts of terror against Russian military officers and troops and Abkhazian police officers. In May of 1998 those turned into armed clashes (“the little Georgia-Abbkhazia war”). As a follow-up of the hostilities in Ghali district there were both a second wave of the refugee flight to Georgia, and, according to Georgian media, a second after the developments of 1993 ethnic cleansing in Abkhazia. It was exactly after that, Eduard Shevardnadze began to re-orient his foreign policies towards the West (and when David Tevzade the first high-rankong officer to get his education in the USA became Georgia’s defence minister).

Virtually immediately after “the little war” Tbilisi made an official statement to the effect that it wanted to engage Ukrainian “blue helmets” in the peace keeping operation in Abkhazia. In June of 1998 Eduard Shevardadze and Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma negotiated the issue in Yalta. Kuchma was prepared to send Ukrainian peace keepers into the conflict zone, stipulating Ukrainian participation in the operation by serious terms (the UN support of the operation). And it was exactly the summer of 1998 when orientation towards NATO became the Georgian leadership’s official line.

A little more than three years later, in October of 2001 Tbilisi made an attempt to settle “the Abkhazian issue” with the help of Chechen field commander Ruslan Gelaev. The Georgian authorities allowed him to get to Kodore Gorge in Abkhazia from Georgia’s eastern part (Pankisi Gorge). Thanks to Japanese journalist Kosuke Tsuneoka the world then learnt about the involvement of Georgia’s special services in the sabotage by Chechen militants. The Japanese journalist spent five months in Gelaev’s camp. His description of the events was as follows:”We left the eastern part of Pankisi Gorge. I was inside a Georgian military car. Soon I learnt about Gelaev’s clandestine agreement with Georgians about supplying his militants with arms and foodstuffs in the event of their crossing the Abkhazian border.” Incidentally, Tsuneoka also stated that along with Chechens, there were in Gelaev’s unit volunteers from Ukraine and Azerbaijan.

With the arrival of Mikhail Saakashvili the new administration made an attempt to play the role of “peacekeepers”. Tbilisi officially refused to back Georgian sabotage and terrorist formations acting in Abkhazia. In 2004 this step was widely touted in both Georgia and elsewhere. Eastern parts of Abkhazia continued to be an unsafe place (especially in the lower extremities of Ghali district. In 2006 in western Georgia Bargiab Fridon Chakabeira, the head of local administration (to mention in passing that he is an ethnic Georgian loyal to Abkhazian authorities) was apprehended when he went to the neighbouring Georgia to purchase some medical equipment. In a framed-up case he was charged with the ownership of drugs and was freed only in late April of 2007 based on a ruling of the Kutaisi Court of Appeals. By and large, the Georgians (or Megrels) who cooperated with Abkhazian authorities were often the victims of “unidentified evil-doers.” In 2007 the head of the district election commission David Sigua disappeared.

In the wake of “the 5-day war” the official Tbilisi shows no sign of giving up its claims to Abkhazia and South Ossetia. As before, instead of conducting a dialogue with Ossetians and Abkhazians Tbilisi prefers to count of force. Destabilisation of the situation in the two new states and the states adjacent to them can be taken advantage of for blaming “the aggressive separatists” and their “supporters in Moscow”, and putting forth argument that a rapid departure of the Russian troops would bring the long-awaited peace to South Caucasus. There should be no doubt that there is an absolute consensus on the issue among Georgian politicians. A glance at the Nino Burdjanadze’s “43 Questions” or Irakli Okruashvili’s critic attacks to realise that the principal thing the Georgian opposition (old and new) blames Saakashvili for is his inability to ensure that the warfare in the “Tzkhinval district” would have been more efficient, rather than his authoritarian ways and refusal to honour the rules of democracy. To put the long story short, “the enemy was not destroyed.” Therefore even the “change of regime” in Tbilisi, so cherished by many in Georgia would not be a change of Georgia’s stance on “territorial integrity.”

From this perspective, the optimistic view shared by many commentators in Russia that the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia signifies something like “an end of the history” of two regional conflicts, is far remote from reality. Russia’s official legal acknowledgement of the statehoods of two former Georgian autonomies means that complex ethno-political problems will acquire a new quality. Tbilisi is unable to mount efficient resistance to Russia in an open military standoff. It does not take the opinion of a military expert to bring home this fact. Evaluation of the military potentials of both sides would require just basic knowledge of arithmetic. Nevertheless the victory in a conflict does not always depend on the overpowering military might, as was proved by the developments in the Balkans and in Chechnya in 1994-1996. The tactic built on the principle “forays and retreats” combined with efficient propaganda and media pressure on diplomats can compensate for what is lost on a battlefield. The stakes are big on both sides. On the one hand, it is the Winter Olympics in Sochi in 2014. The nearer it becomes the stronger the rap that Russia will take for its inability to ensure security in the “hotbeds” in the South Caucasus. On the other, Georgia’s prospects of becoming a North Atlantic Treaty member state that became less certain after the events of “the hot August” would still have to be taken in account. 

It would be expedient to recall that in 1998 Russia was hardly willing to acknowledge Abkhazia’s statehood. Up to that time, starting from late 1994 de facto, and from 1996 de jure – Moscow actually mounted a blockade of then unrecognised republic. Moreover, in 1997 the RF made corrections to its peace-keeping mandate with an eye at being able to exert greater pressure on the Abkhazian side (it sounds odd today, but at the time Sukhumi authorities used to speak about the need of “internalisation” of the peace-keeping process). Nevertheless, Georgia failed to appreciate all the “goodwill” gestures to Tbilisi (and how many good words have been said in the 15 years after the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict!) It was 1997 that marked the beginning of the rise of aggressiveness of sabotage groups in Ghali district. Then it led to “a little war.” At present after “the Tzkhival war” Tbilisi changes its tactic of “bringing back constitutional order” in favour of pinpoint attacks. The new tactic would not only increase the military pressure on Abkhazians and Ossetians, but would also become a weapon in the psychological warfare for Georgia (because Russians are unable to ensure our security!”)

Moscow should be prepared for this, for the “price of the issue” here is potential weakening of Russian positions all over the Greater Caucasus. Hence the urgency of solving the following new problems:

First, providing guarantees of peaceful life in these two former Georgian autonomies.

Second, helping Abkhazia and South Ossetia consolidate their own efficient means of defence, without which no state can exist. As the classic said, “any revolution is only worth something if it can defend itself.”

Third, putting an end to the activities of ”rifle-men” in Abkhazia and especially in South Ossetia. This sort of activities always gets keener during armed conflicts, but under the current circumstances they are potentially dangerous, giving their adversaries a chance to engage in political speculations, thus provoking the currently loyal Georgian population in Abkhazia and South Ossetia to changing their views.

This way, Russia’s recognition of the two new states in the Caucasus does not mean that previous problems are now solved. It rather is an indication of these problems acquiring new qualities at a new level. The solution to these problems should be found within the shortest time possible.

Source: Strategic Culture Foundation

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