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Uncertainty surrounds Abkhazia future Friday, 15 August, 2008

Posted by Farbod in Features.
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Thu, 14 Aug 2008 06:30:42 GMT
By Yousef Fernandez, Press TV, Madrid

After it laid siege to South Ossetia, the Georgian government warned the independence-seeking region of Abkhazia not to enter the conflict. “We hope that the Abkhaz separatists will not undertake any steps that may compound the situation,” Interfax news agency quoted Georgian Reintegration Minister Temur Lakobashvili as saying. Georgia, indeed, had no intention of fighting on two fronts.

Abkhazia and Georgia both enjoyed the status of Socialist Soviet Republics (SSR) in the Soviet Union for a decade until Stalin demoted Abkhazia against its will into an Autonomous SSR within Georgia.

Abkhazia and South Ossetia attempted to break away in the early 1990s after fighting wars against Georgian forces. These regions seek more than Georgian offers of wide autonomy. They both want to either achieve independence or unite with Russia. In the past decade, Abkhazia has developed closer relations with Russia. With the ruble widely used in Abkhazia, trade relies heavily on Moscow.

Shortly after Kosovo declared independence this year, the Abkhazian parliament, located in the capital, Sukhumi, called for international recognition. “After the recognition of Kosovo by many Western states, the geopolitical situation has significantly changed,” read a parliament statement. “Any legal decision has a universal character… All people have the same rights to freedom and independence.”

Abkhazian newspapers have been running headlines about the West pursuing “double standards” by recognizing Kosovo but not Abkhazia. Western countries claim that Kosovo is unique -without explaining why- and have voiced support for Georgia’s “territorial integrity”. They advocate a resolution to the Abkhazian and South Ossetian conflicts that will not alter Georgia’s official borders. Abkhazia and South Ossetia, however, do not want to be regions inside Georgia.

Abkhazians saw with horror and revulsion the almost complete destruction of the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali by Georgian forces. Abkhazian President Sergey Bagapsh responded by quickly signing an order to mobilize the army, reserves and volunteers. Sukhumi believed it would be the next target of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili if Tbilisi managed to wrest control over South Ossetia.

On June 4, Reuters reported the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) as saying that powerful figures in Georgia’s leadership were seriously considering a military campaign against Abkhazia. “Hawks in Tbilisi are seriously considering a military option,” reads the ICG report. “A number of powerful advisers and structures around President Saakashvili appear increasingly convinced a military operation in Abkhazia is feasible and necessary.”

The report reads that Georgia had been building up its forces at its Senaki military base near Abkhazia and establishing military infra-structure in the Kodori Gorge, the only part of Abkhazia under Tbilisi’s control and an ideal route for any invasion of Abkhazia.

On June 20, six people were injured in two bombing attacks in the central market of Sukhumi. Two other bombs exploded the previous day in the Black Sea holiday resort of Gagra. An Abkhazian official told the BBC that he believed that the bombers intended to stop tourists from visiting Abkhazia and blamed the Georgian government for the bombings.

In June, four Russian peacekeepers in Abkhazia were detained by Georgian troops. The Georgian government accused Russian soldiers of transporting weapons. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev responded by saying that Moscow would not tolerate more Georgian “provocations” against its peacekeepers in Abkhazia.

In the four days following the Georgian attack on South Ossetia, Tbilisi increased its troops on the Abkhaz border, according to Ruslam Kishmaria, an aide to Abkhazian President Sergei Bagapsh. Kishmaria says the number of Georgian troops on the border was increased by up to four times the number at the beginning of the crisis. The increase was widely ignored by Western mainstream media outlets and governments that largely blamed Moscow for “increasing tensions” in the Caucasus.

Abkhazia then deployed its troops to its border with Georgia. Abkhazia, a much larger region than South Ossetia, sent over 1,000 volunteers to fight against Georgia. They joined Chechens, North Ossetians and Kossacks, traveling to South Ossetia and fought against Georgian forces.

On August 10, Abkhazian soldiers -supported by their artillery and warplanes- launched an operation to take over the Kodori Gorge. “Abkhazian forces, in response to the Georgian aggression against South Ossetia and in accordance with our alliance obligations to that republic, have started a military operation the Kodori Gorge to clear it from illegal Georgian troops,” Sergei Shamba, an Abkhaz minister, told Reuters.

After some hours of fighting, Abkhazian forces dislodged Georgian armed formations out of the area of the Kodori Gorge, “where they have been located since 2006 in violation of the 1994 agreement on the disengagement of the sides and ceasefire,” Shamba told Russian daily Kommersant.

He added that Abkhazia had repeatedly demanded that Georgian authorities “withdraw all armed formations from the upper part of Kodori Gorge, including border forces”. Abkhazians later took up positions on the border with Georgia along the Inguri River and denied having plans to cross into Georgian territory.

An unnamed officer in Sukhumi told Interfax that on August 10 Russia deployed 9,000 servicemen and 350 armed vehicles and tanks to Abkhazia. The Russian troops attacked Georgian military targets in Senaki and took control of another town, Zugdidi. From these positions, Russian forces could easily cut key transport links between Tbilisi and Georgia’s Black Sea ports and prevent Georgia from receiving arms from other countries by sea.

In Sukhumi, there is hope that Moscow will formally recognize Abkhazia’s independence. Vladimir Putin has hinted on several occasions that if the West recognized Kosovo, Russia may recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent.

After the Georgian attack on South Ossetia, Putin said that he could no longer imagine how the two independence-seeking republics could remain in Georgia. It is therefore likely that Abkhazia and South Ossetia will leave Georgia. Such an outcome may undermine Georgia’s position in the region as well as that of the United States, which has already been accused of encouraging its ally Georgia to confront Russia.

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