The Georgian authorities have shattered a 13-year-old status quo in Abkhazia after stationing its official government representatives in the Tbilisi-controlled high mountainous Kodori Gorge, which is situated in the middle of the unrecognized republic. The move has triggered the concerns of both Sokhumi and Moscow.
Official Tbilisi will be represented in the upper Kodori Gorge by its troops, described as “police forces,” and by the Abkhaz government-in-exile, which has up to now been based in Tbilisi.
Kodori Gorge stretches from the administrative border that seperates breakaway Abkhazia and Georgia’s Svaneti region in the north, down towards the southwest into the middle of the unrecognized republic. The gorge is currently divided by a Russian peacekeeping troops’ checkpoint, which seperates the Georgian-administered upper Kodori and the Abkhaz-controlled lower part of the gorge.
Upper Kodori Gorge, populated with an ethnic Georgian population, was the only part of the breakaway region out of the secessionist authorities’ control after the end of the armed confrontation in Abkhazia in 1993. The Monadire (Hunter) paramilitary group, which was formed by Georgian residents of Kodori Gorge after the armed conflict broke out in 1992, served as the protector of the gorge from a potential Abkhaz offensive. But the Abkhaz side and Kodori-based Monadire unit had a “gentleman’s agreement” not to initiate any offensives against each other. Tbilisi’s authority in the gorge was only nominal throughout these years.
The situation changed on July 25, when the Georgian authorities sent troops to Kodori to crack down on Monadire militiamen, led by the former governor of the gorge Emzar Kvitsiani, who announced his defiance against Tbilisi on July 22.
Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili admitted in an interview with Rustavi 2 television, recorded in Kodori Gorge, that the Georgian authorities planned to restore full control over the gorge even before Kvitsiani made his announcement.
“I told Kvitsiani that we were giving him one week's time to leave the gorge; otherwise, I threatened that this would happen [sending of troops],” Okruashvili, dressed in a military uniform, said in the interview.
It is yet unclear how many police will be deployed in upper Kodori Gorge.
President Saakashvili announced on July 27 that Kodori Gorge will become the “provisional legitimate administrative center of Abkhazia,” with the exiled Abkhaz authorities’ headquarters there.
Based in Tbilisi since 1993, the exiled Abkhaz authorities consist of the Supreme Council, which is the legislative body, and of the executive government. The latter unites four ministries – Finance, Economy, Education and Healthcare, as well as eight departments and eight local governance bodies.
The school in Azhara, the main village of upper Kodori Gorge, will most likely become the headquarters of the exiled Abkhaz authorities.
Sokhumi, Moscow Reaction
The decision to establish official representation in Kodori Gorge has been strongly condemned by Sokhumi, while the Russian Foreign Ministry said on July 28 that Georgia might use Kodori as “a foothold for a forceful solution of the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict.”
“We reserve the right not to allow the establishment of a puppet government in the Kodori Gorge. I am not ruling out the use of any means, including diplomatic and military, to achieve this goal,” Abkhaz leader Sergey Bagapsh said on July 28.
Sokhumi’s protest was expected, as the secessionist authorities in Abkhazia have for a long time been demanding that Tbilisi disband the, as they call it, “so called legitimate Abkhaz government,” or “puppet government.”
In a response, influential Georgian MP Givi Targamadze, who chairs the parliamentary committee for defense and security, condemned the Abkhaz statements as “hysteria” and threatened a “devastating strike” against any aggression towards Kodori.
President Saakashvili said on July 27 that Tbilisi’s recent moves in Abkhazia do not mean that the Georgian side has “aggressive intentions,” reiterating Tbilisi's commitment to solve the conflict through peaceful means.