"We want to go that way," said an ethnic Georgian woman, brusquely pointing at a dirt road leading from the Georgian-controlled Upper Kodori Gorge into separatist-controlled Abkhazia. "Why can’t we go back?"
The Upper Kodori Gorge, the only part of breakaway Abkhazia still governed by Georgia, has emerged in recent weeks as a flashpoint in relations between Tbilisi and Moscow. To Abkhaz separatists, it is the launch pad for a potential attack. To Georgians, it is a symbol of their intentions to regain Abkhazia without conflict.
At first glance, it might seem a bucolic mountain get-away. But this is no Switzerland.
Russian officials say that a supposedly massive buildup of Georgian army units in Kodori, along with the alleged introduction of heavy equipment there, serves to justify Moscow’s recent increase in the number of Commonwealth of Independent States peacekeeping forces within Abkhazia -- a situation that Georgian officials claim has brought them to the brink of war with Russia. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
A May 18 trip organized for foreign journalists by the Georgian government to the region, however, revealed no sign of a substantial Georgian military presence -- apart from a handful of armed Interior Ministry troops guarding checkpoints at an airfield and security zone. Nor did residents mention their presence.
United Nations monitors and other Western news organizations have reached similar conclusions, but such reports have done little to stem official assumptions in Moscow and Sukhumi, the separatist-controlled Abkhaz capital. On May 19, separatist Abkhaz leader Sergei Bagapsh stated that he would not sign any agreement about the non-resumption of hostilities with Georgia unless Tbilisi first withdraws its troops from the Upper Kodori Gorge, Interfax reported.[For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Talks between the two sides stopped in 2006 after Georgian forces moved into the area to oust rebel militia leader Emzar Kvitsiani. [For background, see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Malkhaz Akishbaia, the 36-year-old, English-speaking chairman of the pro-Tbilisi Abkhaz government-in-exile, says that a 500-strong Georgian police force stationed in the gorge should not be view as an offensive threat. The police officers are deployed solely to promote law-and-order in the area. "We want to build this region so that we can attract them, so that they will reintegrate into our society," Akishbaia said in reference to Abkhaz living within bordering separatist-controlled areas. On May 15, the United Nations reinforced the immediacy of that mission by adopting a resolution calling for the return of thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs) to Abkhazia.
Akishbaia, a native of Abkhazia’s Gali region, says that he will propose that Tbilisi use the Upper Kodori Gorge, known officially as Upper Abkhazia, as a conduit for returning IDPs to Abkhazia. "We could take about 10 to 15 families, give them cottages, give them cash to set up their businesses … whatever they want," he said in response to a question from EurasiaNet at a May 18 briefing in Chkhalta, the exiled Abkhaz government’s seat in Kodori.
Chances for an immediate resolution to Tbilisi’s disputes with separatist Abkhazia on the issue may be slim, but within this cotton-candy pink government building, lined with photos of Soviet-era Sukhumi, the mood is resolutely upbeat. According to Akishbaia, since 2006 the central government has put "dozens of millions of laris" into improvements ranging from school repairs to construction of a 2.3-megawatt power station and provision of a 24-hour healthcare service.
Official pride of place is given to the 2007 completion of an 8-million lari (about $5 million) road that now reportedly links the Upper Kodori Gorge year-round with Georgia proper. An outdoor entertainment-sports area, ATM, movie theater, and chain drugstore are also on hand. Georgian cell phone services are already operational; "full" Internet access has been promised for 2009, residents say.
"Dozens of families are coming back here," stressed Akishbaia. "People feel more secure than they used to." Official statistics put the area’s 2007 population at just over its 1989 level of 2,250. That number can dwindle to roughly 1,500 in winter, officials say. Residents interviewed generally echoed Akishbaia’s positive appraisal of local conditions, describing the gorge’s atmosphere as "peaceful" and "calm" despite heightened tensions with Sukhumi and Moscow.
"We don’t know what will happen, but we don’t feel that we have any reason to get alarmed," commented Guram Gurchiani, a 47-year-old schoolteacher in Ajara. Residents are broadly supportive of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who handily won the January 2008 presidential election here.
Aside from a Christian Democratic Movement flag and posters at one roadside stand, there were few signs of opposition support, or voter expressions of dissatisfaction with Saakashvili’s administration. "He may not have done everything right, but he’s changed things for the better," commented village salesperson Irina. Saakashvili’s National Movement Party will seek to retain a dominating legislative majority in parliamentary elections on May 21. [For background, see the Eurasia Insight archive.]
Integration with Abkhazia, the most frequent complaint among Kodori residents -- apart from winter snowfall levels and rutted village roads -- may pose Saakashvili’s biggest challenge here. But in this verdant setting, official optimism dies hard. "Georgia will be whole," proclaims a huge billboard in one Kodori village. "The target is very close."
Elizabeth Owen is the Tbilisi-based Caucasus news editor for EurasiaNet.org. Alexander Klimchuk is a freelance photographer in Tbilisi.