Georgian Defense Official Rules Out Force in Agkhazia
Tensions are running high between Georgia, officials in separatist Abkhazia and Russia. On March 27, amid predictions of violence, a bomb was set off on a commuter train in Abkhazia, killing one and injuring fifteen. Georgia claimed that the bombing was part of a larger plan to prevent US training and equipping of Georgian troops. Abkhazia countered that this was the beginning of a three stage Georgian attempt to invade Abkhazia, and Russia announced that the bombing might delay plans for withdrawals from Russian military bases in Georgia. Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Georgia Forum Director Zeyno Baran interviewed the Deputy Defense Minister of Georgia Irakli Alasania about these issues on March 29, 2002.
EurasiaNet: Defense Minister Tevzadze issued warnings a day before the train bombing that some attacks might be staged in Abkhazia. If he knew about this threat, why was he not able to prevent it? Alasania: Yes, a few days before the train bomb he received intelligence about possible attacks. He then alerted all other law enforcement and international agencies. Because we do not have complete control over the Abkhaz territory we were limited in what we could do to prevent such an attack. He therefore decided to go public the day before the planned attacks in the hope that they would be prevented.
EurasiaNet: Do you think the goal of the attacks was to prevent the US-Georgian military training program from going ahead? Alasania: Our information indicates that the planners wanted to achieve three goals. First was to somehow prevent US-Georgian military cooperation. Second was to stop or create obstacles to the Russian base withdrawal. And third goal was to alert the Adjarian leadership that there might be threats coming from the central government to other regions too. The planners of this attack have achieved their goals and the confirmation can be found in the Russian media and Defense Minister Ivanov's statements. Russians and Abkhaz now blame Georgian special services of having staged the attacks.
EurasiaNet: Can you confirm that the Georgian government is committed to the resolution of the Abkhaz situation through political means only? The events of last fall led many people to believe that Georgian government would wait for the right time to attack Abkhazia. Alasania: President Shevardnadze, the Minister of State Security, and the Minister of Defense have all declared that Georgia is 100 percent committed to a political resolution in Abkhazia. I want to underline our clear position: military force will not be used, not only in Abkhazia, but also in no other autonomous republic in Georgia. Under the train and equip program, there will be solid guarantees and the parliament will have checks and balances. The Minister of State and the National Security Council will also be directly involved in this military program. And even when the train and equip program is over and Georgia has sufficient ability to address Georgian territorial integrity issues, force will not be used in any of the separatist regions. We are committed to a peaceful resolution in Abkhazia and other regions.
EurasiaNet: State Security Minister Valery Khaburdzaniya stated that there are several dozen Wahhabis as well as some terrorists in Abkhazia. Can you confirm this? Alasania: We have clear information that Wahhabis are building mosques and are actively involved in recruiting people in Abkhazia. Georgia is not against any religion, but we are concerned that these groups may have financing coming from terrorists and drug trafficking. We also confirmed that some of the terrorists who in 1996 hijacked the Turkish ship Avrasya, that was carrying Russian passengers, are currently in Abkhazia.
EurasiaNet: How do you plan to clean up Pankisi? Alasania: The Ministries of State Security and Internal Affairs have decided to establish a joint operation center to start law enforcement and special activities in Pankisi. We will deal with local criminals, paramilitary groups that might be in Pankisi, and Arabs who have connections with terrorists in Chechnya and Russia. Our security services recently arrested two people with possible connections to Khattab [a field commander in Chechnya]; one Chechen and one Georgian national [Kist].
EurasiaNet: What do you plan to do about Ruslan Gelaev? [For background see the Eurasia Insight archives].Alasania: We have received Russian request for Gelaev's extradition three days ago (March 26). We cannot confirm or deny that he is in Pankisi now. We are working now to identify the groups in Pankisi who have committed terrorist attacks on Russian soil. But that does not mean we will extradite them immediately; when we have identified these people, we will first ask Russia for evidence of their crimes.
Zeyno Baran, is the Caucasus Project Director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC. Click here to view the CSIS website.