The Fatal Attraction of Abkhazia

NAA, Georgia -- The most recent armed conflict in Abkhazia began Sept. 24, on the eve of the tangerine harvest. Some 400 well-armed Chechen and Georgian guerrillas entered the breakaway republic of Abkhazia and clashed with local defense forces in Lata, a village on the Kodor River.

In a lightning raid, fighters led by Chechen field commander Ruslan Gelayev seized the villages of Georgiyevskoye and Naa, killing 14 residents. Later, on Oct. 8, the rebels downed a helicopter, killing nine people, including four United Nations observers.

At that point events in the Kodor Gorge became the focus of international media attention. Reserves were mobilized in the Abkhaz capital, Sukhumi, and thousands of Abkhaz militiamen headed into the hills to defend their republic. The Abkhaz forces succeeded in stopping the fighters 40 kilometers from Sukhumi.

At first, Tbilisi denied any ties to the fighters, pointing out that the Kodor Gorge is not under Georgian control. Later, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze suggested that Chechen insurgents from Russia, together with Georgian guerrillas from among the country's internal refugees, had entered Abkhazia without his knowledge or assistance.

According to Abkhaz intelligence, Gelayev's forces were ordered to proceed from the Pankisi Gorge, on Georgia's border with Chechnya, into Abkhazia's Kodor Gorge back in August with backing from the Georgian leadership.

Early on the Kremlin maintained a notable silence but allowed members of Russia's political elite to air their views on the conflict. Led by numerous State Duma deputies and the major mass media outlets, the Moscow establishment expressed its sympathy for the Abkhaz side.

Shevardnadze countered by accusing Moscow of supporting the Abkhaz separatists. The Georgian parliament backed the president, unilaterally ordering the removal of Russian peacekeepers from their posts along the Inguri River, which serves as the border between Abkhazia and the rest of Georgia. Tbilisi also called on Moscow to honor its commitment to the 1999 Istanbul summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and remove its troops from the military base at Gudauta.

Russian President Vladimir Putin met Shevardnadze's challenge with limited concessions. He made a point of recognizing the territorial integrity of Georgia and promised that Russian troops would leave Gudauta in short order. The pullout began a few days later. As for Russia's peacekeepers, Putin insisted that the decision to remove them from their posts must be made by the Commonwealth of Independent States, which sent them there in the first place.

At the same time, Putin sought to cool Shevardnadze's martial ardor, reminding him that Georgia, as a member of the CIS, had long enjoyed a privileged relationship with Russia. Georgia purchases vital gas and electricity from Russia at rock-bottom prices, for instance. Such unambiguous hints about the possibility of economic sanctions against Georgia seemed to sober Shevardnadze. The Georgian softened his rhetoric, and took a more diplomatic approach in his dealings with Moscow.

But Shevardnadze to this day has tried to distance himself from the Kodor Gorge events. Abkhaz Prime Minister Anri Dzhergenia has accused the Georgian leadership of supporting international terrorism, citing as evidence Shevardnadze's positive assessment of Gelayev in a recent interview. Russia has demanded that Georgia hand over Gelayev, for whom an international warrant was issued in September 2000. Shevardnadze has thus far refused to comply.

During the October fighting in the Kodor Gorge, the most violent clashes took place around Sakharnaya Golova Mountain, where the local militia had managed to encircle Gelayev's Chechen and Georgian fighters.

The mostly Armenian village of Naa -- a couple hundred shacks strewn along the right bank of the Kodor River -- was transformed into a fortified outpost, with snipers on the rooftops, sandbag fortifications around the houses and militiamen positioned in the gardens surrounding the village.

But despite the intense fighting in the village, some incidents seemed less like actual warfare and more like scenes from a Hollywood comedy.

"We were shooting at Gelayev's fighters while they were running around the corn fields chasing chickens and turkeys," said Otara Bganba, a police major.

The guerrillas risked life and limb by sneaking into the village in search of food, often dressed in mufti. On occasion they managed to fool the reservists from Sukhumi and pass unimpeded into the village's yards and gardens. But the villagers proved a vigilant bunch.

On one occasion, a pensioner named Valentina Kagrimanyan discovered a suspicious man in her kitchen garden in Naa. Soldiers responded to her shrieks, though not in time to catch the thief. But three days earlier, the reservists had captured two fighters, a Chechen and a Georgian, while they were eating in an abandoned house.

Observers have called the skirmishes in the Kodor Gorge a strange brand of warfare. There was no clear front, no obvious political goal, and seemingly no battle plan. But there were plenty of off-stage actors and a slew of theories about why the fighting started in this place, at this time.

The appearance of armed Chechens in the Kodor Gorge took the Abkhaz militia completely by surprise. Not so long ago, in 1992 and 1993, fighters under Shamil Basayev and Gelayev fought side by side with the Abkhaz against the Georgian army under the flag of the so-called Confederation of Mountain Peoples of the Caucasus. And now those same Chechens had come as enemies. Strange as it sounds, this fact did not alter the cordial relationship between the Abkhaz and Chechens.

"They've been duped. They were paid to make trouble for Russia," said Sergei Manasyan, a colonel in the Abkhaz police. "Our friendly relations with the Chechens will remain, but we will destroy the fighters who came here and took up arms against us."

According to Manasyan, Gelayev's fighters are well armed and well trained. "It's obvious from how they set the tripwires for land mines and cover their tracks. They are serious foes in the mountains -- strong, hardy guys."

Combat in the forests of Abkhazia is heavy going. Visibility is often no more than two or three meters, reduced by fog and frequent autumn rains, making ambush a constant threat. Hence the Abkhaz defense forces used air power whenever possible during the conflict, regularly bombing Sakharnaya Golova Mountain, and only then sending in ground troops.

The reservists weren't troubled by the question of where the Abkhaz Defense Ministry got its hands on helicopters and airplanes. "They are left over from the Soviet era," was a common refrain. But off the record, many made clear that Russia provided the air power.

When the bombing runs stopped, the artillery kicked in. Then the Abkhaz militia began so-called mopping-up operations, pushing back the insurgent fighters meter by meter and tightening the ring around them. The fighters managed to escape in small groups, however, and made their way back into Georgia. According to news reports, Gelayev's fighters took refuge in the Abkhaz region of Svanetia, where no real authority -- Georgian or Abkhaz -- exists.

At the end of October, when most of the fighters had been pushed back from the Kodor River, the Abkhaz militia released a preliminary report of its casualties. "Sixteen reservists and two dozen civilians died in the Kodor Gorge," said Vladimir Arshba, head of public relations for the Abkhaz Defense Ministry. According to Arshba, Gelayev lost more than 100 fighters.

But war in the Kodor Gorge is not all sorties, shelling and death. It is also abundantly laden tables set up in villages along the so-called front by generous and welcoming reservists. It is endless toasts to the eternal human values of life and peace, glasses raised to fallen comrades, respect for one's elders and, of course, for guests. All of this makes up the uniqueness of the Caucasus, despite war, bloodshed and economic ruin.

Who could have benefitted from sending Chechen and Georgian guerrillas into the Kodor Gorge? This question has perplexed politicians and experts in Russia and the Caucasus.

Sukhumi is rife with competing theories. The most popular holds that the fighters sought to occupy the mountain villages along the Kodor River and draw the main force of Abkhazia's army into combat. That accomplished, a second attack would come by sea from the Georgian port of Poti, landing Georgian marines in Sukhumi itself, where they would proceed to seize strategic installations in the city. Finally, a second contingent of Georgian troops would cross the Inguri River, somehow bypassing the Russian peacekeepers posted on the border, and then launch a blitzkrieg attack on Sukhumi to reinforce the marines.

Not so much a plan, in the end, as a fairy tale. Those who pedal this theory have a weak grasp on what is happening in Georgia itself. The economy is on the verge of collapse, Shevardnadze has seen his power and popularity dwindle at home and abroad, and the army is in disarray.

Manana Gurgulia, a political observer for the Abkhazpress news agency, advances a competing theory. Gurgulia is convinced that Shevardnadze was told during his recent trip to Washington that the presence of armed Chechen separatists in the Pankisi Gorge was making Georgia look bad. Back home, Shevardnadze decided to take decisive action, urging Gelayev and his followers to move into Abkhazia.

"He thought to kill two birds with one stone," Gurgulia said. "To rid himself of his uninvited Chechen guests, and to teach a lesson to the residents of the Svanetia region, who have hewed a rather separatist line in recent years, ignoring political and administrative commands from Tbilisi. Now Gelayev's armed band has fallen in their lap."

Abkhaz Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba also supports this theory, with one correction. The Kodor Gorge, he says, was meant to become a permanent base for the fighters, from which they could make raids on Sukhumi and even Sochi.

"The Chechen guerrillas couldn't seize the famous Russian sanatorium itself [Sochi], but three days' march through the mountains [from the Kodor Gorge] and they could reach Adler airport, where they could carry out all sorts of terrorist acts," Shamba said. "And Russia would have yet another hot spot in the Caucasus."

A source in the United Nations contingent in Sukhumi offered a third theory, according to which the operation in the Kodor Gorge resulted from a deal between Russian intelligence and Georgian Interior Minister Kakha Targamadze, who was recently sacked along with the entire government. In certain circles, Targamadze is known as Moscow's man in Georgia.

This theory holds that during Shevardnadze's trip to the United States, Targamadze ordered some 400 Chechen fighters, led by Gelayev, into Abkhazia in order to destabilize the situation throughout Georgia, and to deal a blow to Western business interests in the Caucasus. The principal target was the future Baku-Ceyhan oil pipeline, meant to link production facilities on the Caspian Sea with the Turkish port of Ceyhan on the Mediterranean Sea.

If this theory is to be believed, Moscow has once more flexed its muscles in the Caucasus. Despite warming relations with the U.S. and Europe, Russia would seem to be unwilling to sacrifice its economic interests in the Caucasus even in the name of its anti-terrorist alliance with Washington.

A telling detail of the Kodor Gorge events seems to support this theory. The fighters eluded Russian peacekeepers as they entered Abkhazia, although they passed right by them. For some reason, not a shot was fired.

One final theory. Gleb Pavlovsky, head of the Moscow-based Effective Policy Foundation, has suggested that the Kodor Gorge operation was just one more of Shevardnadze's election-year stunts. But given the situation in Georgia today, this theory doesn't seem to hold much water. Almost everyone involved -- in Sukhumi, Tbilisi and Moscow -- understands that Russia will have the final word. The proof of this can be found in recent Abkhaz history.

The history of Georgian-Abkhaz relations over the last 100 years is a matter of contention. Many Georgians believe that the autonomous Abkhaz region has existed within the Georgian state since 1918. The Abkhaz, on the other hand, contend that Abkhazia was absorbed by Georgia only in 1931, when it was declared an autonomous region of the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic.

The ethnic makeup of Abkhazia is also a matter of dispute. Before the civil war of 1992-93, about 500,000 people lived in the region: 230,000 Georgians, some 100,000 Abkhaz, and nearly as many Armenians. Russians and Greeks were the minority groups. Georgian historians argue that Georgians were always the majority group in Abkhazia, accounting for 40 percent of the population in 1918. But in Sukhumi they say that the Georgians only became the majority people in the late 1940s, when tens of thousands of ethnic Greeks were deported, and replaced by Georgians.

In the Soviet era the Georgians in Abkhazia complained that the Abkhaz, who made up only 17 percent of the population, received up to 40 percent of government jobs. Moscow pursued a policy of parity. If the first party secretary was Abkhaz, the prime minister would be Georgian. The Armenians were given a few plums, and Russians rarely held any positions of power.

The Abkhaz always resisted the artificial "Georgianization" of the republic. In 1945, for example, the Georgian leadership for all intents and purposes destroyed the Abkhaz national school system, eliminating instruction in the Abkhaz language and creating a conflict between the Georgian and Abkhaz cultures. The first stirrings of unrest followed Stalin's death in 1953. In 1957 representatives of the Abkhaz intelligentsia called for independence from the Georgian republic. Similar protests occurred in 1967 and 1978. Sixteen people died in July 1989, during a bloody clash between Abkhaz and Georgians.

The turning point came in 1990. Over the protests of its Georgian deputies, the Supreme Soviet of Abkhazia approved a declaration of sovereignty. The situation might still have been salvaged, were it not for the armed supporters of then Georgian President Zviad Gamsakhurdia in the Gali region of Abkhazia.

In 1992 the right bank of the Inguri River resembled Chechnya in the late 1990s -- kidnapping, theft, murder, extortion on the roadways, attacks on passenger trains. The Abkhaz authorities slipped out of Georgia's control.

Under the pretext of restoring order to the Gali region, Shevardnadze ordered his army into Abkhazia. In response, the head of the Abkhaz parliament at the time, Vladislav Ardzinba, called for the formation of armed militias. But even at this point, simple Abkhaz and Georgians continued to live next door to one another in peace.

The politicians, and nationalist extremists, were responsible for the bloodshed that ensued.

On July 23, 1992, the Abkhaz parliament voted to repeal the 1978 Abkhaz Constitution, and to restore the 1925 constitution of independent Abkhazia. The separatists' action proved more than Tbilisi could stand. On Aug. 14, 1992, the Georgian State Council ordered troops into the rebellious region. And so the war began. It lasted a year, ending on Sept. 30, 1993. By then, more than 200,000 Georgians had fled Abkhazia and become refugees in their own country. Some 10,000 people were dead.

Russia's role in the war was decisive. According to Abkhaz historian Stanislav Lakoba, the key to the war was a June 1992 meeting between Shevardnadze and Boris Yeltsin in Dagomys. On that day Moscow and Tbilisi concluded a historic deal. Russia provided arms and its blessing for Georgia to use force in Abkhazia. In exchange, Georgia agreed to join the CIS.

In a matter of days, Shevardnadze received enough ammunition and armor from the Russian base at Akhaltsikhe to equip two motorized divisions. Within a month, Georgian forces entered Abkhazia. On the eve of military action, July 31, 1992, Georgia became the 179th member of the United Nations with Russian support.

Shevardnadze, however, delayed Georgia's entry into the CIS. The Kremlin decided to bide its time, and allowed Georgian troops to enter Abkhazia. Even after taking Sukhumi, Shevardnadze proved reluctant to fulfill his promise. Dzhaba Ioseliani, a well-known figure in Georgian organized crime and head of the armed group Mkhedrioni, cautioned Shevardnadze against his double game with Russia, and made the famous statement: "If they sneeze in Moscow, Tbilisi will get double pneumonia." His words proved prophetic.

Moscow's patience ran out when Shevardnadze's battle plans faltered. Rather than break and flee before the invader, Abkhaz separatists managed to pull off several successful military operations, and captured a quantity of armor and artillery. Blood soaked the Black Sea shore, but Shevardnadze could no longer call off his supporters. Russia's position changed radically to scarcely concealed political -- and military -- support for the Abkhaz resistance. The Abkhaz forces no longer wanted for supplies. It was reported that Russian planes openly bombed Georgian positions.

The outcome is well known. The Georgian army suffered a crushing defeat, and Shevardnadze was evacuated from Sukhumi on a Russian helicopter. In September 1993 Georgia at last joined the CIS. And in 1994 Russian peacekeepers appeared along the Inguri River.

Abkhazia has enjoyed something of a tourism boom this year. According to Tourism and Sport Minister Albert Topolyan, more than 150,000 sun-seekers hit the beaches at Gagra and Pitsunda. But the locals hoped for more. Most hotels, campsites and resorts are empty or abandoned. Some of the buildings were destroyed during the war, others were looted later on. But the private sector here has set to work, preparing the way for a return of Russian tourists -- just about the only tourists on the beaches of Abkhazia these days.

During the Soviet era Abkhazia welcomed up to 1 million tourists each summer. The locals recall those days with nostalgia. Now the local budget depends on the tangerine and orange farms, which sell their produce in the neighboring Krasnodar region of Russia.

Government employees in Abkhazia earn 500 to 600 rubles per month. Retirees receive a pension of 30 rubles a month -- just over $1. The best jobs in Sukhumi are found at two large sanatoriums, one owned by the Moscow military district, the other by Russia's strategic rocket forces. The sanatoriums work year-round, and can accommodate up to 1,000 visitors at a time. Landing a job in the sanatorium is nearly impossible: Its employees earn no less than 1,000 rubles a month.

The service is strictly Soviet, but the prices are two or three times lower than in Sochi or Moscow. And tourists enjoy total safety. Paratroopers from the Russian peacekeeping contingent guard both sanatoriums. Armored personnel carriers watch over the beaches. In the evenings visitors dance to Russian pop music and indulge in resort romances. The Soviet Union remains in many details, especially the hotel rooms, which have no telephones, televisions or refrigerators, and the furniture hasn't been changed since the Brezhnev era.

But the staff does its best to ensure that the patrons -- Russian military personnel -- are comfortable. These patrons are the locals' only hope. It's perfectly clear to everyone in Sukhumi and Tbilisi that Russia will not let Abkhazia return to Georgia without some serious reimbursement.

It might seem strange, but nearly the entire Abkhaz elite -- including the president, prime minister, foreign minister and the heads of its armed forces -- hold Russian passports. By some estimates, about half of Abkhazia's residents are Russian citizens.

Russia is in Abkhazia for a long time to come.

Maybe forever.

Mumin Shakirov is a reporter for Radio Liberty in Moscow.