Russia says it has the right to take preventive action as Georgian forces continue carrying out their "police operation" against rebellious Kodori Gorge militia chieftain, Emzar Kvitsiani.
Wary of the fighting between Georgian troops and the Monadire (Hunter) militia led by Kvitsiani, Moscow believes it will be within the bounds of international law to take preventive measures against the hostilities spilling over onto its territory, a top Russian lawmaker has said. The exact nature of these measures has not been specified, however.
Commenting on Tbilisi's operations in the Upper Kodori Gorge, a Georgian-administered area located within the breakaway region of Abkhazia, Russian State Duma International Affairs Committee Chairman Konstantin Kosachev stated that Moscow would not ignore the dangerous developments near its southern border. "Any hostilities in the territory of Abkhazia fall under the mandate of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) peacekeeping forces, which are represented by Russian peacekeepers, who cannot allow any hostilities taking place in their zone of responsibility, whatever their cause," Kosachev said in a July 26 interview on the television station TV-Center's program The 25th Hour."
Kosachev forcefully refuted Georgian allegations about Russia orchestrating the Kodori Gorge conflict. This region, Kosachev asserted, has always been under Tbilisi's control, and Russia has never had "any leverage in this zone." Rather, the flare-up is in the Georgian government's interests, he argued, since it is losing popularity and seeking to distract "disillusioned" residents from the failure of its domestic policies. "The Georgian leadership, which is experiencing certain problems with meeting the pledges it had given during the revolutionary days, needs war," argued Kosachev. "Equally, it badly needs a victory which would prop up the current Tbilisi [government]."
Kvitsiani is proving useful for both Moscow and Tbilisi, some independent Russian analysts argue. In Georgia, his revolt has become a good pretext for leveling new accusations against the Kremlin's "aggressive designs." In Russia, the Kodori crisis is touted as yet additional proof that Georgia is a failed state.
Within the Georgian leadership, the idea that Kvitisiani's rebellion has been organized by and is controlled from Moscow appears to have taken the upper hand. Influential parliamentarian Givi Targamadze, chairman of the parliamentary defense and security committee, told the daily newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta on July 26 that he has documentary evidence that Kvitsiani had recently hosted both Russian secret service operatives and leaders of the Abkhaz security agencies.
For their part, Russian policymakers and Kremlin-connected pundits accuse Tbilisi of organizing the Kodori provocation in order to launch an offensive in Abkhazia. Some Russian commentators argue that Georgia's defense and interior ministers, who reportedly personally headed the operation aimed at suppressing the Kodori rebellion, were preoccupied not so much with defense as with offense, seeking to bring the secessionist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia back into Tbilisi's fold.
Georgia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, however, has rejected Moscow's earlier claim that the operation against Kvitisani violates the 1994 cease-fire agreement that ended the war between Georgia and secessionist Abkhazia. In a July 27 statement, the ministry responded that the agreement "does not restrict the presence of police forces in Kodori Gorge and the implementation of measures in this part of Georgia with a view to maintaining order." The troops sent to rout out Kvitsiani, the statement continued, would not venture into territory controlled by Abkhazia.
Some Moscow strategists suggest that the Georgians would have little difficulty in launching an offensive against Sokhumi from Kodori if they manage to build up a significant military grouping in the gorge, located about 60 kilometers from the Abkhaz capital. Their presence would also provide an opportune moment to punish Svan "separatism," these analysts say, while also, according to one commentary posted on the Strana.ru website, test the battle capability of the Russian peacekeepers as well as of the Abkhaz military forces.
Not all Russian analysts buy into such conspiracy theories, however. Some see the Kodori incident as the result of a dual miscalculation: by the Georgian government's "hawks," who made a mistake in trying to disarm the Monadire militia; and by Kvitsiani himself who apparently succumbed to the temptation to launch a venture that would potentially allow him to retain his militia, which had magnified his clout in the region, or to capitalize on discontent among fellow Svans with the central government in Tbilisi.
Giorgi Khaindrava, Georgia's recently sacked minister for conflict resolution, told Noviye Izvestiya newspaper on July 26 that while Kvitsiani is not the enemy of Georgia, he also doubts that the rebellious Svan "is working for the Russians." Nonetheless, Khaindrava added, the militia leader is playing into Russian hands, as the Kremlin is eager to "see a match lit in Georgia's territory." Kvitsiani "is playing a very dangerous game both for Georgia and for himself," Khaindrava concluded.
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.