Tensions Rise in Georgia Over Kodori Gorge

ReutersA lawmaker yawning Monday during a session that approved a new Cabinet.
TBILISI, Georgia -- A former Georgian presidential envoy who threatened to forcibly resist any central government attempts to assert control over his independent-minded district said Monday that he was ready to negotiate.

Emzar Kvitsiani said Sunday that he would reactivate the local militia if the government tried to use force in the high-altitude Kodori Gorge district of the breakaway Abkhazia region.

It was the latest headache for Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who is dealing with rising tensions in Abkhazia and another breakaway region, South Ossetia, deteriorating relations with Russia and increasing impatience among Georgian voters.

Kodori Gorge, which is home to about 4,000 members of a local mountain tribe, is the only Abkhaz district officially under Tbilisi's control. Abkhazia broke away from central government control during a war in the 1990s.

In a televised interview Monday, Kvitsiani again suggested his militia, which he claims has 300 members, was prepared to fight, but said "we have decided we're ready to negotiate."

Kvitsiani said three high-ranking Georgian officials had to travel to Kodori for the negotiations to take place: Prime Minister Zurab Nogaideli; pro-government parliamentary leader Giga Bokeriya; and Kakha Bendukidze, the minister overseeing economic reforms.

Abkhazia and South Ossetia have resisted Saakashvili's efforts to bring them under central control.

The standoff has strained relations between Georgia and Russia, which has lent support to the separatist regions.

Kvitsiani claimed Sunday that Defense Minister Irakly Okruashvili had plans to storm the gorge this week. "Any force that enters here with weapons will be met with a response in kind," he said.

Defense Ministry officials refused to comment, but parliament speaker Nino Burdzhanadze -- a Saakashvili ally -- called Kvitsiani's statements "treasonous" and warned that force might be used to oust him. She suggested he may have been acting in the interests of Russian intelligence services.

Kvitsiani's announcement appeared to be connected to Saakashvili's decision to overhaul his Cabinet.

He said he and his supporters would not submit to Tbilisi's control if the parliament reconfirmed the hawkish Okruashvili.

The parliament did so, however, voting as expected Monday to approve a new government in which the only changes were replacing Minister for Conflict Resolution Georgy Khaindrava with Merab Antadze, a former deputy foreign minister, and Natural Resources Protection Minister Georgy Papushvili, whom Saakashvili has nominated for a Constitutional Court seat, with a lawmaker, David Tkeshelashvili.

Addressing the parliament before the vote, Prime Minister Zurab Nogaideli said the government's top priorities over the next four years were to restore Georgia's territorial integrity through the peaceful resolution of disputes with the separatists and to join NATO.