Abkhazia – Path To War
In 2001 Abkhazia stopped holding Coordination Council (CC) meetings, which only resumed on 15 May 2006. The CC held weekly meetings and discussed two proposed Constitutions, one Abkhazian, the other Georgian, both were rejected by the other side. The talks continued until Georgian forces attacked the Kodori Gorge on 2 October 2006. A warlord living in the Kodori Gorge in Easter Abkhazia recanted his allegiance to Georgia. In July 2006 the Georgian military came in to restore the gorge to Georgian control. The warlord was not an Abkhaz, but a Svans, another ethnic minority related to the Georgians.
Peace talks broke off when Tbilisi sent troops into Kodori Gorge in July 2007 and established an alternative Abkhaz administration there.
On 30 October 2007 Russian peacekeepers, reportedly on an inspection mission within their zone of control, detained 5 Georgian police officers. Video shot showed Russian peacekeepers forcefully disarming and restraining the police, until Georgian forces arrived, turning the tables on the Russians, releasing the police officers and preventing the Russians from leaving. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili flew to the scene by helicopter and again on camera, chasitised the Russian commander, accusing him of violating his mandate. Subsequent video showed a mob of Georgian soldiers, police, and other officials, advancing on nervous looking Russian soldiers, and later apparently firing on a Russian helicopter the peacekeepers had called in to support their position. The various video evidence showed the tense nature of conditions on the ground.
Worsening relations between Georgia and Russia stalled the peace process. In an April 2008 video, Georgian authorities claimed to show a Russian MiG-29 or a SU-27 shoot down a Georgian UAV over Georgian airspace. The Russians claimed that the video was not authentic. The Georgians also claimed that Russia provided SA-11 surface-to-air missile batteries to the Abkhazian rebels.
In April 2008, the Russian government took a number of actions which increased tensions with Georgia over its separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. These included the Russian government’s unilateral withdrawal from Commonwealth of Independent States economic and military sanctions; April 16th presidential instructions increasing Russia’s relations with Georgia’s separatist regions; and Russia’s unilateral decision to deploy a large number of Russian forces and equipment to the peacekeeping mission in Abkhazia.
The Georgian side protested strongly what it considered a blatant violation of Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, amounting to legalizing a factual annexation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. It demanded the immediate revocation of both the March decision to withdraw from the 1996 CIS sanctions and the April instruction. With regard to its opposition to the April decree, Georgia received unequivocal support from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union.
On 29 April 2008, citing the possibility of an impending deterioration in the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict, the Russian Federation reinforced the Russian-manned CIS peacekeeping force with a 525-strong airborne battalion stationed in the restricted weapons zone. UNOMIG established regular patrolling in the areas where that battalion was deployed. At the end of May, referring to the presidential decision on the provision of humanitarian assistance to the Abkhaz side, the Government of the Russian Federation also introduced a military railways unit to rehabilitate the railways south of Sukhumi, outside the area of responsibility of UNOMIG and the CIS peacekeeping force.
On 7 June 2008 Russia angered Georgian officials by calling 400 troops into Abkhazia supposedly to help rebuild damaged railroads. The Russians claimed that these troops were there to repair 34 miles of track, and were unarmed. The troops in question were scheduled to leave the area by August 2008. As of 22 May 2008 there were 2,500 Russian troops in Georgia.
The Georgian side considered these Russian measures aggressive in nature, in particular vis-à-vis the upper Kodori Valley, and demanded an immediate withdrawal of all additional Russian forces, including the railways troops. The Georgian side argued that these military steps confirmed that the Russian Federation was a party to the conflict and could no longer serve in either a mediating or a peacekeeping capacity.
By June 2008 both sides were at an uneasy peace more based on the lack of combat operations than of any agreement between the two sides. Georgians demanded that that the refugees of the past wars be allowed to return to their homes and land. Georgia also promised the Abkhazia « the highest level of autonomy » while still remaining a part of the Georgian nation. Abkhaz rebels demanded independence, which they believed was won during the 1992-1993 war. They also remained wary, based on past experience, of allowing Georgian refugees to return to their homes. UNOMIG along with CIS peacekeepers remained stationed on the Inguri River separating the two countries.
The negotiation process remained suspended. The Abkhaz side continued to insist on the withdrawal of the Georgian forces from the upper Kodori Valley and the signing of a document on non-resumption of hostilities as a precondition for re-engaging in negotiations with the Georgian side. The Georgian side focused on President Saakashvili’s peace initiative of 28 March 2008. It developed its various components, in particular the economic part, sought to acquaint the Abkhaz side with it and shared it broadly with the international community. At the same time, the Government of Georgia continued to emphasize the need to change the negotiating formats, including by granting a prominent role to the European Union, as a condition for substantial progress. The Abkhaz side remained opposed to any modification.
In early July 2008 the media reported a series of explosions near and in the separatist region of Abkhazia over the past several days. Abkhaz de facto authorities declared a state of emergency in the region that may last for some time and reportedly closed the administrative boundary between Georgia and the separatist-controlled region on 01 July 2008.
On 21 July 2008 the Government of Georgia blamed Russia for the concentration of forces in Abkhazia and in strategic passes of the Main Caucasus Ridge. Georgia’s Defense Ministry claimed that Russian paratroopers had encroached Mamison (Abkhazia) and Roksky (South Ossetia) passes and were on combat alert to move on Sukhumi and Tbilisi. Russia’s troops were reportedly concentrating in Kodori Gorge, where they were amassing personnel, weapons and equipment. Georgia’s media reported that an echelon of heavy combat vehicles had arrived in Abkhazia from Russia, and the vehicles headed for Kodori Gorge after unloading.
In late July 2008 German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier visited Georgia, Abkhazia, and then had meetings with Russian officials in Moscow. He proposed a three stage plan for a peaceful resolution of the conflict in Abkhazia. The plan envisaged an end to the violence, the return of refugeess, confidence-building measures, economic rehabilitation in Abkhazia, and the eventual determination of the status of Abkhazia.
- The first step of Berlin’s plan would entail an end to violence, confidence-building measures over the next year that could lead to the resumption of direct talks between Georgia and Abkhazia, and the return of about 250,000 Georgian refugees to Abkhazia.
- The second stage would involve developing joint reconstruction projects.
- The third and most difficult step would determine Abkhazia’s future status.
Withdrawal of Georgian troops from upper Kodori Gorge, the only part of Abkhazia that remained under Georgian control, and signing of a treaty on non-use of force is ‘the only way’ to defuse tensions, the Kremlin said after President Dmitry Medvedev met with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier in Moscow on 18 July 2008.
The Georgian Foreign Ministry said in response to the Russia’s position that Moscow’s attempt to separate IDPs return and treaty on non-use of force with making focus on the latter, was an obvious attempt to delay the process of return, which in itself, Tbilisi said, amounted to an attempt ‘to legalize the results of ethnic cleansing’ committed during the armed conflict in the early 90s in Abkhazia. Officials in Tbilisi are opposed to a treaty on the non-use of force without firm guarantees and a detailed timeframe and terms for IDP and refugee return.
Russia pulled out its railroad troops from Georgia’s breakaway republic of Abkhazia on 29-30 July 2008. « Work to repair a 55-km (34-mile) section of the railroad in the area, in cooperation with Russian Railways, had been accomplished, » General Alexander Sobolev, the troops’ deputy commander said, adding that the work had gone smoothly. Around 300 railroad troops arrived in the self-proclaimed republic on May 31 as part of an earlier-announced Russian aid and support program for the region. The deployment sparked a furious reaction from Georgia, which accused Moscow of preparing for military intervention in the Georgia-Abkhaz conflict. During the operation, the Russian troops repaired 50 km of railway tracks, replaced around 12,000 railway ties and crossing ties at sidings. They also repaired some 20 railway bridges and tunnels. The repair work had originally been scheduled to end on August 6.
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