As Georgia tries to re-establish control over the upper Kodori Gorge in the breakaway territory of Abkhazia, Moscow is warning that Tbilisi's "police operation" could lead to a an armed clash in the region.
Many Russian policymakers and analysts believe that Georgia's Kodori operation is part of a multi-staged plan to bring the breakaway province of Abkhazia back into Tbilisi's fold. In a statement posted July 28 on the Russian Foreign Ministry's website, spokesman Mikhail Kamynin contended that the large-scale Georgian military deployment indicates that Tbilisi is "striving to build a bridgehead for the forceful solution of the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict."
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's announced intention to station the pro-Tbilisi Abkhaz government-in-exile in the Georgia-controlled part of the Kodori Gorge has helped fuel the impression in Moscow that Tbilisi wants to launch future aggressive actions in the area.
Russian analysts say that a distinction must be made between the two sets of measures that Saakashvili said would be taken immediately to pacify the Kodori population. The first group of measures, they argue, is a PR stunt: A promise to provide financial aid to local families, send in food supplies, repair schools and build a local hospital. But the other set of measures has a clearly "strategic and military-political character," a commentary posted July 28 on the Politcom.ru website argues.
Tbilisi's intention to restore the main road running through the gorge and to modernize the Kodori airfield can be regarded as a crucial step toward turning the gorge into an important outpost for the central Georgian government to continue pressuring Abkhazia, analysts contend. According to a commentary posted on the Strana.ru website, the Georgian government will likely use Kodori as a "military-political base" from which it will seek to undermine the separatist regime in Sokhumi.
The uncertainty and contradictions surrounding the deployment of Georgian troops to the gorge has increased Moscow's wariness of Tbilisi's intentions. From the very outset, the Russian side rejected Georgia's argument that it was carrying out a "police operation." The Kremlin instead insisted it was a "military operation" in clear violation of the 1994 Moscow agreement on a Georgian-Abkhaz ceasefire. In that vein, Russian Deputy Ground Forces Commander Lt. Gen. Valery Yevnevich, speaking at a July 27 news conference in the offices of Russian news agency Interfax, bluntly accused Tbilisi of "criminal" actions.
On July 30, Sergei Chaban, the Russian commander of the peacekeeping forces in the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict zone, demanded that Tbilisi immediately start pulling out its troops from the Kodori Gorge. Georgian National Security Council Chairman Konstantin Kemularia countered by saying the withdrawal of what he termed Interior Ministry troops would be completed in the near future. According to Kemularia, after police forces that participated in the "special operation" are pulled out, only "posts necessary to maintain order" will remain, news services reported. Kemularia did not specify how many troops would be stationed at these posts.
According to Georgian and Russian reports, a partial withdrawal of the troops from Kodori did begin over the past weekend. The Russian peacekeepers also confirmed that some Georgian forces pulled out, adding that this process needed to continue.
But on July 31, Igor Konashenkov, an aide to Russian Ground Forces Commander Col. Gen. Alexei Maslov, said that the Georgian government deployed around 500 armed servicemen in 50 vehicles in the Upper Kodori Gorge. According to Konashenkov, two military columns of trucks with Georgian armed forces' license plates passed through the security zone en route from Zugdidi, in the northwestern Georgian region of Samegrelo, to Kodori. Russian military leaders believe this move will aggravate the security situation in Georgian-Abkhaz conflict zone. "The Georgian side's attempts at concentrating armed forces and police [units] in the Upper Kodori Gorge are leading toward escalation and might provoke a resumption of the armed confrontation," Konashenkov was quoted by the Russian ITAR-TASS news agency as saying.
Earlier, Lt. Gen. Yevnevich warned that the Saakashvili government's "brinkmanship" is destabilizing the situation in the "entire Caucasus."
Not all Russian commentators, however, believe that the latest incidents in Kodori dramatically increase the chances of a resumption of hostilities. According to Alexei Malashenko, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, Saakashvili's tactic is likely to continue irritating both Abkhazia and Russia. At the same time, there will not be any serious change in the situation, Malashenko told the Gazeta.ru website on July 28, since Moscow will not allow Sukhumi to engage in any sort of "forceful action."
Other Russian experts even think the Kodori operation might well prove to be a Pyrrhic victory for President Saakashvili. According to Boris Shmelyov, a scholar at the Moscow-based Institute of Economics, the Kodori action, which was sharply criticized by the Georgian opposition, might spark a "domestic political crisis" in Georgia. Political unrest on the home front could hamper Tbilisi's ability to increase the pressure on Abkhaz separatists, Shmelyov told the business daily Vedomosti on July 31.
Igor Torbakov is a freelance journalist and researcher who specializes in CIS political affairs. He holds an MA in history from Moscow State University and a PhD from the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences. He was a Research Scholar at the Institute of Russian History, Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow; a Visiting Scholar at the Kennan Institute, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington DC; a Fulbright Scholar at Columbia University, New York; and a Visiting Fellow at Harvard University. He is now based in Istanbul, Turkey.