A Georgian delegate in Abkhazia and an exiled Abkhazia official in Georgia have escalated a war of words. Vazha Avaliani, chairman of the Kodori Gorge's elder council, told the media his family was assaulted on June 21 and blamed President Eduard Shevardnadze's representative Emzar Kvitsiani. Kvitsiani promptly denied the claim and called it a provocation by Tamaz Nadareishvili, chairman of the Abkhazian government-in-exile.
Kvitsiani and Nadareishvili have been at loggerheads since kidnappers abducted observers from the United Nations during a routine patrol of the Kodori Gorge on June 5. Though the hostages went free five days later with no ransom paid, the affair has festered into a more troubling feud. The most widespread account suggests that the kidnappers were guerrillas who had broken out of jail in April, seeking immunity from Abkhaz officials. This version of events begins in October 2001, when eight Georgians and Chechens carried out a mystery raid in Abkhazia. According to this version of events, Abkhaz authorities sentenced several of these guerrillas to death. Since official Tbilisi will make no comment on who the kidnappers were or how they backed down, parties have been free to spread innuendo for political advantage.
On June 19, Nadareishvili told a live television audience that Kvitsiani had been involved in past ransom kidnappings in the area. Nadareishvili called Kvitsiani a robber and a hooligan and accused him of forging credentials when he joined the Ministry of Defense. With this attack, the Abkhaz politician branded Shevardnadze's delegate a troublemaker and suggested that the president must consider firing him. This was strong language from Nadareishvili, whose term as a sanctioned Georgian official has expired and who claims political clout through extralegal means.
The traded accusations between Kvitsiani and Nadareishvili have made the Abkhaz stalemate more potentially explosive. Kvitsiani said the incident was fabricated by Nadareishvili who "wants me to kill Avaliani [so that he can] get rid of us both." This statement, which might sound like an angry aside, deliberately evokes a long-standing blood feud between the Kvitsiani and Avaliani families. Nadareishvili and Kvitsiani represent powerful interest groups with links to distinct camps of the political elite and substantial armed backing. With the upper Kodori Gorge serving as Georgia's last stronghold in separatist Abkhazia, observers say, a confrontation between the two men quickens a previously latent struggle for control over Kodori.
While Georgia's central government claims to control the territory, things have not been so straightforward. Kodori is a part of Svaneti, a mountainous province traditionally suspicious of central government interference. Even in Soviet times, Svaneti was virtually beyond the bounds of the police and prosecutors. Since outright war ended in the area in 1992, Kodori has been an area of a military standoff, with episodic escalations. While local militia troops have stayed largely independent in decision-making, Kvitsiani has forged links between them and Tbilisi. In 2002, Georgia's National Guard organized these troops under the name "Monadire" ("The Hunter"), with Kvitsiani himself a local resident in charge. When Kvitsiani threatened to sidestep Abhkaz authorities and "consult with" displaced people, as he did on June 19, he implicitly threatened to unify the displaced against Nadareishvili.
Kvitsiani has poised himself to seize political capital in the past. Kodori's militia is largely concerned with protecting the valley, while Kvitsiani has several times called for bilateral negotiations based on "laws of the mountain." Kvitsiani, while basically loyal to the Defense Ministry and its policies, has undermined Tbilisi several times by denying governmental reports of possible escalation in Kodori. Arguing that Georgia should not "shoot first" in the area, he has spun the conflict to suggest that "certain forces" from both sides are obstructing what would otherwise be productive negotiations. Tamaz Nadareishvili, known for a hawkish stance, is clearly one of these "forces." [For background, see the Eurasia Insight archives].
Nadareishvili's foes have alleged that he backed so-called "partisan groups" operating from the Georgian provinces adjacent to Abkhazia, but also in Kodori. Most notably, these groups include David Shengelia's "Forest Brothers" and the "White Legion." Shengelia, who was appointed by Nadareishvili's government as a deputy administrator of Abkhazia's Gali district, stepped down after the kidnapping crisis, saying he no longer believed the government-in-exile could resolve the conflict in Abkhazia.
Journalists say Nadareishvili's irritation with Kvitsiani has grown in the past several months. In August 2002, Kvitsiani's militias were instrumental in surrounding Russian paratroopers that entered the gorge without Georgia's authorization. President Shevardnadze's intercession prevented bloodshed, but the militias drew intense praise from locals. This enriched Kvitsiani's political standing beyond Nadareishvili's comfort level.
Things may have come to a head the day of the kidnapping. Kvitsiani was scheduled for a regular meeting among Georgian, Abkhaz, United Nations and Russian officials. Nadareishvili has said that Kvitsiani was going to make "some vital concessions." According to press reports, some draft proposals on displaced persons' return to Gali district of Abkhazia under joint jurisdiction were reportedly due for review. Displaced citizens, possibly at Nadareishvili's direction, blocked the gorge and the kidnapping canceled the meeting.
While it is very hard to tell whether either camp really sabotaged the meeting for political advantage, the firing of accusations between these top players in Abkhazian affairs is a bad omen for Georgian politics. [See related EurasiaNet story]. Nadareishvili and Kvitsiani are hardly the only parties who might exploit kidnappings and other discord in Abkhazia. The press reports say, for instance, that controversial figure Tariel Oniani, currently residing in Europe, has insinuated himself into the story of the hostages' release. Georgia's Prime-News agency quoted Kvitsiani on June 15 with warm words for Oniani's role in negotiations.
Such confusion can flourish because, despite its long-established crisis, the Abkhaz issue remains mostly off-limits to Georgian partisan politics. Any party gearing up for November elections risks losing votes if it advances settlements that concede any territory. [For background, see the Eurasia Insight archives]. Thus, the Abkhaz issue has become a forum for secret horse-trading among interest groups. The poisoning of relations between these groups could touch off further political instability. It could also portend something more ominous. Since every interest group can mobilize significant amounts of arms within and beyond Abkhazia, a war of words could damage hopes for peace throughout the region.
Jaba Devdariani is a founding director of the United Nations Association of Georgia (www.una.org.ge) and Research Director of its program for applied research.