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Georgia’s Steps Echoing in the Caucasus

Times Staff Writer

The upper part of Georgia’s Kodori Gorge is a 25-mile stretch of narrow river valley, with steep slopes rising to snowcapped peaks. It boasts a few scattered villages and a population of about 4,000. In winter, snow cuts off the road to the Georgian capital. So it might seem a strange place for the headquarters of a regional government.

But it is the only part of the breakaway region of Abkhazia controlled by Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who sent forces into the gorge last month and then announced plans to base an Abkhazian government-in-exile there.

Saakashvili’s bid to regain control of pro-Russian separatist regions that spun away from Georgia in wars more than a decade ago has sparked fears serious fighting could erupt again.

The central government in Tbilisi described the recent gun battles in the Kodori Gorge as a police action to subdue a rebellious local militia leader. Authorities insisted -- to some skepticism from critics -- that the action was not intended to establish a military bridgehead for an invasion of Abkhazia, but rather to further a process of peaceful reunification.

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In a televised portion of a mid-August Cabinet meeting, Saakashvili called for construction in the gorge of an enlarged airfield, helicopter landing sites and dozens of houses before the onset of winter. “It will have the kind of infrastructure that will mean no one will try to stage acts of provocation there,” he said.

Earlier in the month, Saakashvili launched an expanded program of military reserve training with the goal of being able to mobilize 100,000 citizens on 48-hour notice. “This is not so we can start a war, but so that no one else will wage war on us,” Saakashvili declared on state-run television.

This move too was viewed by some observers as saber-rattling designed to pressure not only Abkhazia but also the Russian-backed government of South Ossetia, another breakaway region. Over the last decade, Moscow has granted citizenship to most residents of both enclaves, thereby strengthening its influence as their protector.

If fighting were to break out again, observers expect Russian military forces in the breakaway areas and volunteers from the Caucasus republics of southern Russia would swiftly join the conflict on the Abkhazian side.

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Georgia, with a population of 4.5 million, hopes to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as quickly as possible, and it is a transit corridor for a pipeline opened last year that carries oil from the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean. It is also seen as one of the few post-Soviet states besides the Baltic countries that are trying to build a Western-style democracy.

Since his election in 2004 after a nonviolent people’s revolt dubbed the Rose Revolution, Saakashvili has made reasserting central authority over breakaway regions a key goal of his administration. Using military threats and encouragement of local protests, he quickly won back control of the Black Sea region of Adzharia.

Since Saakashvili set his sights on Abkhazia, its leaders have responded with defiance.

“Having received enormous military aid as well as diplomatic support from some Western countries, Georgia is engaged in full-scale preparations for a new aggression,” the region’s president, Sergei Bagapsh, said in a televised address this month. “The people of Abkhazia are confident of one thing: They will defend their land against any enemy.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei V. Lavrov warned that Moscow would not stand idly by if Georgia used force to try to reunify the country. “We will protect our citizens by all means at our disposal,” he said.

A Black Sea enclave of tangerine groves and soaring peaks, Abkhazia was a favored holiday resort during the Soviet era. It had a population of about 525,000 when fighting broke out in August 1992; the territory now has about 250,000 people. The Georgian government says that more than 300,000 people fled the conflict, and most still live in other parts of the country.

Ethnic Abkhazians, who have their own language, are now the largest single group but not a majority. Many Armenians and ethnic Georgians also live in the enclave.

Kristian Bzhania, a spokesman for Bagapsh, said in a telephone interview that Abkhazia had not ruled out using force to prevent establishment of a competing government in the Kodori Gorge.

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Ghia Nodia, chairman of the Caucasian Institute for Peace, Democracy and Development, a think tank in Tbilisi, said in a telephone interview that he thought Saakashvili had far subtler motives than a plan to retake the region by force.

“I am sure these steps are intended to demonstrate to the U.S. and the West in general that they should take a more resolute stand on the issues of Abkhazia and South Ossetia; that they should apply more political pressure on Russia to stay away from those conflicts; and that without resolving those burning issues, Georgia can’t develop properly as a nation,” he said.

The U.S. mission to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe issued a statement this month reaffirming support for Georgia’s territorial integrity and calling for peaceful settlement of both conflicts. The statement stressed “the immediate need for an international civilian police force” to be deployed in Abkhazia and for strengthened international monitoring in South Ossetia.

Under terms of agreements reached after fighting ended in the 1990s, Russian peacekeepers are active in both regions. Georgia complains that they are biased in favor of the separatist authorities and wants the arrangements to be revised. The Georgian parliament passed a resolution in July calling for Russia to withdraw its peacekeeping troops.

Bagapsh, in his speech, declared that Abkhazia would not agree to changes in the peacekeeping operation “that are aimed at sidelining Russia from the conflict settlement process.”

Alexander Rondeli, president of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies, another Tbilisi think tank, said that if Saakashvili wanted to restore Georgia’s national unity, he could not allow the status quo to persist for long.

Rondeli added, however, that it was impossible for Georgia to reassert control simply by force. “I think the Georgian government is trying to improve the military capacity of Georgia, because for diplomatic bargaining you have to look solid,” he said. “No one who is weak can negotiate better conditions. At the same time, they’re trying to attract more international attention to this conflict and internationalize it.”

It is possible that events could spin out of control, resulting in a clash between Russia and Georgia, Rondeli said. He gave as an example a situation in which drunken soldiers might initiate an exchange of fire and conflict could escalate from there. There are places, he said, where Georgian forces are stationed only a couple of miles from checkpoints staffed by Russian peacekeepers.

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At a late-July news conference in Tbilisi, shortly after the Kodori Gorge operation began, Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili said there already had been incidents that could trigger greater conflict if not handled properly.

“Tensions may escalate any minute,” he said. “An incident occurred the day before yesterday in which servicemen at a Russian peacekeeping post opened fire on our unit. But we did not yield to the provocation and did not fire back.”

Rondeli said Moscow might be glad to see Georgia overreact in such a situation, as long as Russian forces came out on top.

“Russians would be happy with a small, quick operation in which they humiliate Georgia, because the Russian military leaders hate the Georgian political leadership,” he said. “But Georgia is not as weak as before.”

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Times staff writer Sergei L. Loiko and Yakov Ryzhak of The Times’ Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.


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