Prior to the Russian-Georgian conflict in August, the Upper Kodori Gorge was the sole part of Abkhazia that still answered to Tbilisi. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. However, the three-kilometer-wide, 50-kilometer-long region fell to Abkhaz forces on August 12. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Tbilisi had promoted the Upper Kodori Gorge as a symbol for what Abkhaz residents could expect if the entire territory opted to return to Georgian control. For many, its loss signaled a new era in Abkhazia's interactions with Georgia.
In a September 29 interview with American reporters in Sukhumi, de facto Abkhaz Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba stated that Georgia had been given a chance to retain its outpost, if it withdrew its forces from the gorge -- a longstanding Abkhaz demand. "Three times in August, I spoke to [Georgian State Minister on Reintegration Temur] Iakobashvili through intermediaries," Shamba said. "I asked that they take away the [troops]. Our intention isn't to take the territory. Our only condition is that you remove your troops because Georgian troops contradict our written agreement." [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
In an interview with EurasiaNet, Iakobashvili confirmed that "Shamba's representatives contacted me several times in August, and they were offering to strike a deal." He went on to state that Abkhaz representatives were insisting on the withdrawal of "Georgian police officers. "
"Of course, we could not agree," he continued. "We just could not find grounds why we should do it. It was just kind of an ultimatum that if you don't then we will move militarily. Our response was an appeal to the Abkhazian nation."
In that August 10 address, Iakobashvili called for the Abkhaz people and government in Sukhumi "to show expediency and ? common sense." Later, he urged Abkhaz citizens not to get caught up in "yet another dirty game of Russia."
The Abkhaz, however, have a different take. "The Kodor Gorge is our own territory, and we'll control it," affirmed Foreign Minister Shamba. (The Abkhaz refer to the gorge as "Kodor," while Georgians use "Kodori," which is the standard international name.)
Within Abkhazia, ordinary citizens often describe the Kodori Gorge operation as a long-overdue move to push back against a neighborhood bully, a perception fueled by still-red-hot resentment over the 1931 decision by Georgian-born Soviet leader Joseph Stalin to make Abkhazia part of Georgia. "Georgia has 4 million people. To us, it's like China," explained one Abkhaz businessman in Sukhumi. "And wouldn't you get worried if China started moving weapons into territory that is yours?"
The Abkhaz government's newly appointed representative to the Upper Kodori Gorge, Sergei Dzhonua, claims that Abkhaz forces found a stockpile of weapons in the territory large enough to last "for three to four years." An inventory is ongoing, he added. The claim could not be independently verified.
"The Abkhaz army didn't have American weapons before. And now we've got American machine guns, American automatic rifles, all of that weaponry that the US transferred has been left there," he said, smiling.
Dzhonua scoffed at Tbilisi's assertions that Georgian forces stationed in the Upper Kodori Gorge had been acting in a law-enforcement capacity, rather than as regular soldiers. "Police don't need bunkers, grenade launchers [and] howitzer batteries," Dzhonua said. "Do your police in America need this? ? Everything that was needed to start a war, it was all there."
Georgian officials were in Geneva for the October 15 talks with Russia and were not immediately available to respond to Abkhaz allegations. Abkhaz officials say that a ban has been put on media visits to the Upper Kodori Gorge so long as unexploded ordnance remains in the area.
"There're a lot of mines, unexploded ammunition, explosive devices, so we stopped journalists from visiting," de facto Deputy Defense Minister Maj. Gen. Gari Kupalba told Western reporters on September 30.
Photos obtained by EurasiaNet and reportedly taken on August 12, the day Abkhaz forces took over the Upper Kodori Gorge, show smoldering piles of unidentifiable ordnance. Dzhonua stated that some alleged stockpiles were bombed in the initial attack; others, he claimed, were destroyed by retreating Georgians.
One Abkhaz reservist commander alleged to EurasiaNet that the weapon were in clear view of the United Nations monitoring mission's headquarters in Adjara, the Upper Kodori Gorge's government seat. "It's interesting what kind of monitoring they were doing," the commander said. "The whole road [through the Upper Kodori Gorge] was marked with these depots."
In its last report before fighting broke out between Georgia and Russia, the mission wrote on July 9 that it "did not observe signs of a large-scale induction of security forces," but noted that the Georgian Interior Ministry had "not allowed access to some areas ? which made it impossible to verify the official figures." No mention was made of weaponry.
When Abkhaz forces reached the upper part of the gorge, American-made weapons "were just lying around on the [main] road" leading through the gorge from the West, the commander claimed.
Some photos purportedly taken August 12 show grinning Abkhaz soldiers holding foreign-made automatic weapons. Georgian officials were not available to comment on the materiel left behind.
While State Minister for Territorial Integration Iakobashvili states that Georgian forces repelled "seven attacks" before withdrawing from the area, former residents say that they saw no sign of combat. "They left all their weapons and ran away," recounted Tristan Chkhetiani, a 52-year-old engineer from the village of Kvabchara who is now living in Kutaisi. "I think it's bad to take off your uniform and run away. If you put on a uniform you should fight."
State Minister Iakobashvili stated that the decision to withdraw came only after continuous bombing of Georgian position. The photos show that the administrative building that housed Abkhazia's government-in-exile and a police headquarters were bombed or heavily shelled. A road leading through Chkhalta and a nearby bridge also suffered extensive damage.
In Tbilisi, the assumption is that Russian planes did the bombing. In an August 12 statement to journalists, President Mikheil Saakashvili affirmed that Russian airborne troops and "several hundred" pieces of heavy military equipment had moved into the Upper Kodori Gorge.
One observer, with no official ties to either side in the conflict said that she had seen only Abkhaz in armored personnel carriers traveling toward the Upper Kodori Gorge. There was no sign of Russian troops, she said. The Abkhaz commander asserted that no Russian forces - peacekeeper or regular military - were in the Gorge when his group arrived. "We had ethnic Russians in our group, sure, but that's not the same thing," he said.
Abkhaz defense officials skirted details about planned troop deployments for the Upper Kodori Gorge, but in a September 10 statement, de facto Abkhaz President Sergei Bagapsh said that one Russian battalion would be "permanently" stationed in the territory since "this is a convenient beachhead for attacking not only Abkhazia," according to a report distributed by the Interfax news agency.
The departure of the United Nations monitoring mission - roughly two hours after planes bombed the Upper Kodori Gorge's airfield - appears to have signaled to the local population that the Georgians would not try to hold the Upper Kodori Gorge. When villagers saw UN representatives getting into cars, "[t]hey were in a panic, actually," the observer related. "Crying, shouting 'Don't leave us alone here! Take us with you!'"
Former residents say a breakdown in communications marked the Georgian government's departure. "The government had already gone" on August 8 when villagers began to depart, recounted 19-year-old Sopo Zarandia, who said she left Chkhalta with two small children, her husband and grandmother in an eight-truck convoy. "They were the first to leave."
Although Georgian government officials have stated that efforts were made to assist in the evacuation of civilians, villagers interviewed in Kutaisi maintain that they were left to their own devices. "People just got out -- thanks to their neighbors or friends," said Zarandia. "The government didn't tell us to leave."
In an August 26 interview with EurasiaNet, Malkhaz Akhishbaia, chairman of Abkhazia's Tbilisi-loyal government-in-exile, said that he did not return to the Upper Kodori Gorge on August 8 "since the road can be seen from planes. The security types advised against us returning."
Figures vary about the number of villagers who have actually returned since in recent weeks. Abkhaz Deputy Defense Minister Kupalba put the number at 300; envoy Dzhonua said 105, as of October 2. Georgian government statistics put the number of full-time residents in 2007 at just over 2,250. "Those who want to live in Abkhazia will be protected," envoy Dzhonua said.
Kupalba described the situation in the gorge as "peaceful," and affirmed that "we're trying to smooth out life there. We'll set up a local government. The military forces will run things until the government is established."
Apart from a looted grocery store in Chkhalta, civilian property shown in the photos obtained by EurasiaNet appears to be untouched.
Abkhaz official representatives state that they plan to open a bakery, a local hospital, and a hydropower station in the Upper Kodori Gorge. A national park - including a ski run opened by Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili - has also been proposed; a 12-member Abkhaz parliamentary commission is currently reviewing possible options.
Schools are currently not running, since no children remain in the gorge, according to Dzhonua. Once classes resume, students will be taught in Abkhazian, with Georgian as an elective, he added, "like it is in Gali [a majority ethnic Georgian region in southern Abkahzia]."
"Residents of Abkhazia should know their own language, Abkhazian," he said.
Elizabeth Owen is EurasiaNets Caucasus news editor in Tbilisi.