Georgia: Kodori attack - fresh cause for conflict

Molly Corso

A reported air attack on a remote, Georgian-controlled section of the breakaway territory of Abkhazia has escalated tensions in the region less than a month before the United Nations Security Council is scheduled to review its resolution on the territory’s Russian-led peacekeeping structure.

Georgian officials claim that three Mi-24 helicopters on the night of March 11 flew from Russia’s Republic of Karachaevo-Cherkessia into the Georgia-controlled upper Kodori Gorge in neighboring Abkhazia, and attacked the village of Chkhalta, the area’s main population center. Chkhalta houses the Georgian-backed Abkhaz government-in-exile, whose headquarters were damaged in the attack. No injuries were reported. Russia and the separatist government in Abkhazia have both denied involvement in the attacks.

A four-party team -- including Georgian, Abkhaz, Russian and United Nations representatives -- is still investigating the incident. On March 14, Deputy Interior Minister Eka Zghuladze noted that the Western diplomatic corps was impressed by Georgia’s "restrained position" on the incident. However, high-ranking officials in Georgia are already accusing Moscow of having masterminded the attack. In an interview with EurasiaNet, Lt. Col. Giga Tatishvili, deputy chief of the Georgian Armed Forces General Staff, said that the quality of the equipment -- and the use of helicopter pilots in the attack -- automatically ruled out any possibility that the incident was caused by either the Abkhaz separatist government, or was related to local clan disputes.

"It is impossible for separatists to have attack helicopters, Mi24, and, second of all, to have that good [a] pilot to fly at night at that low range," Tatishvili said. "It is impossible even for us." he added.

The helicopters managed to fly under Georgia’s radar, Tatishvili added. "The pilots were very good; to fly at those ranges in those mountains at night without any devices?because we could not detect them. ?My personal opinion is they came from Russia."

Public displays of physical evidence from the attacks have so far been limited to televised images of shell fragments and of damaged buildings in Chkhalta. Malkhaz Akishbaia, the head of the Tbilisi-backed Abkhaz government-in-exile, has stated that fragments from over 25 rounds of shells were found at the site. The information could not be independently confirmed.

The General Prosecutor’s Office is overseeing the official investigation into the bombing, with the Defense Ministry acting in an advisory capacity, Tatishvili explained. The General Prosecutor’s Office could not be reached for comment.

In a statement to the press on March 12, Parliamentary Speaker Nino Burjanadze noted that while the government will "check everything," there was already evidence that the helicopters came from Russia. "We are waiting for an explanation of what happened in Upper Abkhazia from our northern neighbors," she is quoted as saying by the Russian newspaper Vremya Novestei.

In a televised statement to an emergency session of the National Security Council that same day, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili denounced the attack as "a very dangerous provocation" designed to disrupt stability in Georgia and the South Caucasus. Saakashvili himself paid a two-hour visit to Chkhalta and the government-in-exile’s headquarters there on March 14, three days after the attack, according to officials.

According to Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin, Tbilisi and the Georgian-backed authorities in the upper Kodori Gorge are themselves to blame for the attack. In a March 15 interview with the Russian daily newspaper Izvestiya, Karasin called the bombing a "very clear signal" for those who are creating "turmoil" in the Abkhazian conflict zone. He added that the incident is a "logical corollary" of Georgia’s decision to send troops to the gorge last summer. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

Karasin insisted that the present situation only strengthens Moscow’s position prior to the UN Security Council’s planned April 15 review of peacekeeping activities in the Abkhaz conflict zone, specifically concerning the Kodori Gorge. In October 2006, the Security Council passed a Russian-sponsored resolution that called on Tbilisi to abstain from provocations in the Abkhaz conflict zone. Georgian officials saw the resolution as the direct result of alleged Russian influence in the UN. [For details, see the Eurasia Insight archive].

At the time, local analysts saw the vote as a setback for Georgia in its campaign to reclaim Abkhazia. The Kodori Gorge attack, however, could prove quite different, they say. The bombings could, in fact, help Georgia’s campaign to replace the Russian-led Commonwealth of Independent States peacekeepers with a more international contingent, argued Mamuka Areshidze, chairman of Tbilisi’s Caucasian Centre of Strategic Research.

"If the UN is logical, then they should see everything, and that Georgia is the victim [in this situation]," Areshidze said. "If the UN leadership tries to ignore [the] facts, then [it is likely] Russia will be willing to try this again. ?Because often Russia tries to prove who is [the] boss in the Caucasus."

Archil Gegeshidze, a senior fellow at the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies, however, noted that it is too early to judge what impact the bombing will have on the UN Security Council’s decision. Much will depend on the results of the UN-led investigation, he explained.

"I think that recent events?really should influence the format of the Security Council resolution, but, in fact, to what extent it will influence it is another question," Gegeshidze said. Though if Russia is blamed "indirectly or directly" for the attack, he added, Moscow will find it difficult to exercise the same degree of influence on the Security Council as with the earlier resolution.

In the meantime, Georgian officials are confident that their point of view will prevail. In his March 14 State of the Nation speech to parliament, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili called the existing peacekeeping structure "discredited and ineffective." "[E]veryone understands," he concluded, that preserving the status quo is "virtually impossible."

Editor’s Note: Molly Corso is a freelance reporter and photojournalist based in Tbilisi.


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