Despite a public outcry over the brazen murder of a Georgian man by a separatist Abkhaz guard on Georgian-controlled territory, Georgian officials say they will stay their soft-ball course toward the Russian-backed separatists.
Thirty-year-old Giga Otkhozoria was beaten and shot dead on Georgian-controlled territory by Abkhaz border guards in broad daylight and full public view on May 19. The murder was caught on camera.
Otkhozoria, who was displaced from Abkhazia, but, like many in western Georgia, had relatives there, was trying to cross into Abkhazia but was not allowed by separatist border guards, which led to a brawl.
CCTV footage aired on Georgian television showed Otkhozoria pursued by four men into the Georgia-controlled side of Georgia-Abkhaz de-facto border crossing of Nabakevi-Khurcha.
An elderly woman tried to pull them apart, but one man pulled Otkhozoria down and another, uniformed assailant shot him twice, firing the second bullet into his head at near point-blank as people milled about the place. The attackers then scurried off back to the Abkhaz side.
Police on either side of the separatist line have launched investigations. Abkhazia’s de-facto military prosecutors acknowledged the incident took place, and said they would ask the Georgian side to share their own evidence. The Georgian prosecutors identified the shooter as Abkhaz resident Rashid Khajinogli. How they arrived at that conclusion is not clear.
The killing is the worst incident in recent years to occur near Georgia’s tension-fraught conflict areas, but the reactions it touched off were the usual: a diplomatic brushfire between Tbilisi and Moscow, Abkhazia’s protector, and a homegrown polemic on Georgia’s approach toward the Russian-guarded breakaway regions.
Tbilisi placed the blame for the murder at the feet of Moscow, which Georgia says has ultimate control over Abkhazia and its breakaway brother, South Ossetia. Russia has thousands of troops stationed in both territories to prevent any attempt by Tbilisi to reclaim the territories.
Moscow dismissed the accusations. “Tbilisi is perfectly aware that neither border guards nor any other Russian officials had anything to do with this truly regrettable incident,” the Russian foreign ministry said on May 20. The ministry said that the “Georgian side is best advised to drop political speculations” and focus on the upcoming resumption of a European-facilitated incident-control mechanism that was relinquished four years ago.
In response, the Georgian official charged with formulating policy toward the breakaways struck a cautious note. Condemning the violence, Georgian Minister for Reconciliation and Civil Equality Paata Zakareishvili on May 22 asserted that Georgia will not “veer off the course of peaceful policy.”
Critics from opposition parties, chief among them the United National Movement, charged that in its quest to reconcile with Russia, the Georgian authorities are espousing a policy of appeasement that has allowed Russian and separatist troops to act with impunity; moving separatist boundaries deeper into Georgian-controlled territory and arresting scores of Georgian residents who happen to cross the de-facto borders.
In defense of his policies, Zakareishvili underscored that the Khurcha murder was the first case of a fatality involving separatists under the current government. “This is a one-off case and we will do our best to make sure it is the only case,” he said.
Still, opposition parties countered, Georgian police could’ve deterred the attack if they had been stationed at the crossing. The interior ministry keeps police stationed at the main route into Abkhazia, a kilometer-long bridge across the Inguri River. Why they were not at Khurcha was not clarified.
This is not, though, the first time that Khurcha, a village in the midst of the Inguri River, has had to cope with such violence. In 2008, rocket-propelled grenades struck two buses ferrying Georgian voters from Abkhazia across the Inguri into Georgian-controlled territory to vote in Georgia’s presidential election. Two women were hospitalized. An investigation, however, never determined the origin of the grenades, or a subsequent outburst of heavy gunfire.