President Chooses Middle Way in Abkhazia

Georgia intends to continue CIS peacekeepers deployment, but also maintain the defense ministry detachments’ presence in Kodori.

President Eduard Shevardnadze does seem to favor the demands of protesting displaced persons from Abkhazia concerning withdrawal of the Russian peacekeepers from Georgian-Abkhaz conflict zone.

Shevardnadze stated at the briefing on January 28 that he does not intend to make the final decision on peacekeepers’ withdrawal at this stage.

President’s words have had a cold reception among the protesters. They declined to meet Shevardnadze at Enguri river, claiming that they have no faith in the government.

Protesters intend to launch nation-wide strikes starting on January 29. Protest rally already is being held in Zugdidi, one of the major cities of western Georgia. Protesters say there has been no progress in finding a settlement to the frozen during the eight years of Russian peacekeepers’ deployment.

But Shevardnadze’s position concerning the peacekeepers seems to be final, even as his Russian counterpart President Putin has reportedly stated in a phone conversation that he is ready to pull out the peacekeepers deployed in the conflict zone under the auspices of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in case Georgian government makes such decision.

But some protesters have milder demands. For instance a group “Fighters’ Union of Abkhazia” does not consider the withdrawal of peacekeepers realistic at this stage and demands relocation of the peacekeeper checkpoints further into the territory of Abkhazia, at Ghalidzga River.

Such decision is utterly unacceptable for the Abkhaz, as it would put the largest Gali district out of de facto Abkhaz government’s control. In addition Enguri hydropower station will be under full Georgian control. Currently, the dam of the station is on a Georgian side, while the controls booth remains on the Abkhaz. 

Shevardnadze agrees on such modification of Russian peacekeepers mandate. He hopes the proposal will be supported at the CIS summit scheduled in Alma-Ata on March 1 2002.

“The peacekeepers’ mandate will be prolonged if the decision on modification of mandate will be taken in the nearest future”, President Shevardnadze stated on January 28.

Peacekeepers’ issue will be the main topic on agenda during the visit of Vladimer Rushailo, chairman of Russian Security Council to Tbilisi, on January 29-30. Rushailo plans to discuss this issue with the Georgian President.

Positions of the government and the protesters however seem to coincide regarding necessity of continued Georgian troops presence in Kodori gorge.

Abkhazian side and Russia as well as the UN mission in Georgia demand that Georgia withdraw its troops from the Kodori gorge. Vice-Premier of breakaway Republic of Abkhazia Valeri Arshba claims that Georgian troops in Kodori may trigger re-escalation of the conflict.
Georgian politicians, as well as common citizens, fear that Georgia will lose the only territory it controls in Abkhazia in case troops are pulled out.

The statements of the Georgian officials on this issue remain controversial. The Georgian Special Affairs Minister Malkhaz Kakabadze signed a protocol (“Chuburkhindji protocol”) on January 17 agreeing on Georgian troops’ withdrawal from Kodori. But the Georgian Defense Minister Davit Tevzadze states that Georgian armed forces will not leave the gorge until proper security is guaranteed for the peaceful inhabitants.

The change of status quo can carry a danger of uncontrolled and uncoordinated military escalation. Some vigilante groups are mobilized and claim readiness to enter the Kodori gorge in case troops of the Defense Ministry leave.

The issues of peacekeepers and of Kodori have brought the Abkhazian conflict to yet another standstill. Some developments are expected on March 1, as the Georgian President will raise the issue of peacekeepers at the CIS summit in Alma-Ata.

By Salome Jashi, Civil Georgia

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