Friday, 12 October 2001

Rumors of War in Abkhazia

In Tbilisi in autumn 2001, I wrote this for TIME magazine, which ran it on 12 October.

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The outbreak of war is on everyone's mind here in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia. But it's not the Afghan bombing just across the Caspian Sea that people are worried about. Georgians have their own rapidly escalating local war to deal with: the Abkhaz problem is flaring up again.

Abkhazia, the Russian-supported strip of land around the eastern edge of the Black Sea, has been a constant thorn in Tbilisi?s side ever since Georgian government forces lost the 1992-1993 civil war with the breakaway region. With the Abkhaz capital, Sukhumi, claiming independence and Tbilisi still hoping Abkhazia will remain within Georgia, years of U.N.-brokered peace talks have failed to bring resolution to this conflict. Abkhazia's international status remains up in the air. Which is more than can be said for a U.N. helicopter shot down over Abkhazia on Oct. 8th. The helicopter was downed over the infamous Kodori Valley, killing all nine a board, including five U.N. observers. Attacks against U.N. officials are sadly nothing new here; they have been the victims of numerous kidnappings in the Kodori area since 1998.

No one knows who fired the missile that hit the helicopter. The Kodori Valley in Abkhazia is not under the control of the Abkhaz authorities in Sukhumi, but Tbilisi claimed not to have any of its forces in the area at the time. With all the different factions in the area, there's no shortage of suspects and accusations.

Some Georgians blame the Abkhaz, claiming the separatists were aiming to scuttle U.N. attempts to broker a peace that kept Abkhazia within Georgia. Some Georgians also blame the Russians, saying Moscow is looking to foster instability here t o us e as an excuse to maintain its military bases in Georgia. Abkhaz authorities blame nationalist Georgian paramilitaries, operating beyond the control of the weak government in Tbilisi, working alongside Chechens in the area. And Moscow is keen to stress the Chechen factor too. There are 7,000 Chechen refugees in the Pankisi Valley area, a part of northeastern Georgia bordering Chechnya and a few hundred kilometers east of Kodori. Moscow has long claimed that Chechen rebels are using Pankisi as a training ground and staging area for their offensives in Chechnya. It is also widely suspected that Russia will use the international "war on terrorism" and its newfound friendship with the U.S. to intensify its operations in Chechnya and, worryingly, across the border into Pankisi.

Now, some Georgian MPs are openly agreeing with Moscow, and even Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, who has repeatedly denied the existence of Chechen fighters in Georgia, admitted on October 8th that some Chechen rebels might be mixed in Pankisi's refugees. Some say this admission has come under U.S. pressure; on Oct 5th, just days before the current crisis erupted, Shevardnadze met in Washington with U.S. President Bush, and the between-the-press-release-lines message to Georgia was clear: deal with the Chechens.

Chechens fought alongside the Abkhaz in the 1992-93 civil war, but now Sukhumi blames Chechens and Georgian paramilitaries for a spate of attacks in Abkhaz villages this week. Tbilisi rejected that allegation and claimed Russian planes bombed three Georgian villages on that day. With such a breakdown of control over its own territory, many here in Tbilisi talk of Georgia as a "failed state." But there is also a strong feeling that Moscow has been encouraging this failure. "The problem is no one controls that Kodori territory," says Jaba Devdariani, director of the United Nations Association of Georgia. "It's in Abkhazia's proclaimed turf, but Sukhumi claims Georgian and Chechen gueril las control that ground."

Tbilisi is now moving troops into Kodori in an effort to take control of the situation. It's a strong move from such a weak government: the Abkhaz say it?s the equivalent of a declaration of all-out war. Sources in Sukhumi report some people fleeing the city as clashes between Abkhaz forces and Georgians/Chechens continue. The Georgian Parliament has passed a motion calling on Commonwealth of Independent States peacekeepers to leave Abkhazia, but it now seems that the Georgian force attempting to enter the Kodori Valley has been turned back by Russian peacekeepers. There are some reports of fighting between those two sides, but it's impossible to confirm.

Panic has not reached Tbilisi thus far, but the fear is visible on the faces of people in this sunny, cosmopolitan capital. A repeat of the 1992-93 war, which left the country with a crippling 250,000 internally displaced persons, is on everyone's mind. Tbilisi is running on rumours now, and they are rumours of war.

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