While the Abkhaz secessionist authorities were celebrating the 13th anniversary of the ousting of Georgian troops from Sokhumi on September 27, the Georgian leadership was inaugurating the headquarters of the Abkhaz government-in-exile in the Tbilisi-controlled upper Kodori Gorge.
President Saakashvili, Parliamentary Chairperson Nino Burjanadze, Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili, Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili, Patriarch of the Georgian Orthodox Church Ilia II and Tbilisi Mayor Gigi Ugulava were among the officials in upper Kodori Gorge on September 27.
Kodori Gorge stretches from the administrative border that separates 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 troop checkpoint, which separates the Georgian-administered upper Kodori and the Abkhaz-controlled lower part of the gorge.
“We are here – Upper Abkhazia, very close to Sokhumi - and we are not going to leave this place. We will return to Abkhazia very soon, but only through peaceful means,” Saakashvili told local residents in the gorge.
“This is Upper Abkhazia... which is free and which is controlled by the Georgian authorities. It represents more than one third of Abkhaz territory, where Georgian sovereignty is in force, where Georgian border guard forces and police are operating, where local governmental bodies are functioning and where [local] elections will be held [on October 5],” Saakashvili said.
The President’s Administration reported that in the village of Chkhalta, President Saakashvili opened a newly-constructed building which will serve as the headquarters of the Tbilisi-backed exiled Abkhaz government, which until now was in Tbilisi. The first-ever session of the Abkhaz government-in-exile in upper Kodori Gorge was held shortly after the inaugural ceremony of the building.
Saakashvili also said while visiting Kodori that upper Kodori Gorge will serve as “a temporary administration for the legitimate Abkhaz government. It should then move to Sokhumi.”
In a move to further increase the legitimacy of this government-in-exile, which is denounced by Sokhumi as “puppet government,” President Saakashvili announced on September 26 that each foreign diplomat traveling to the Abkhaz capital for talks will have to visit the village of Chkhalta as well as to hold talks with “the legitimate Abkhaz authorities.”
“We have told every foreign ambassador in Georgia that Abkhazia and Tbilisi are not separate entities… From now on the protocol of each foreign diplomat [visiting Abkhazia], apart from trips to Sokhumi, will also include the route to Abkhazia’s administrative center in the village of Chkhalta where the chairman of the Abkhaz government is Malkhaz Akishbaia,” Saakashvili said at a news conference on September 26.
He said that chairman of the Abkhaz government-in-exile Malkhaz Akishbaia is western-educated and a highly-qualified person who will be able to negotiate with foreign diplomats.
In addition, President Saakashvili announced that Kodori Gorge should be referred to as Zemo (Upper) Abkhazia from now on.
“He [Saakashvili] is a dreamer. I always try not to comment on foolish things,” Apsnipress news agency reported quoting Abkhaz leader Sergey Bagapsh in a response to the Georgian side’s decision to rename Kodori as Upper Abkhazia.
He also warned that any attempt to involve the exiled Abkhaz government in the process of negotiations will have “serious consequences.”
“If, as Saakashvili announced, foreign ambassadors want to visit Kodori Gorge and have contact with them [exiled Abkhaz authorities], it is up to them [foreign diplomats], but in this case there is no need to have contact with us,” Bagapsh said.
But he also tried to downplay importance of this statement by Saakashvili as part of “a stage-show.”
“Saakashvili is staging yet another show. He just likes doing these kinds of things,” Bagapsh added.
On July 28, when the decision to relocate the exiled Abkhaz government’s headquarters from Tbilisi to Kodori was announced, Sergey Bagapsh threatened to pull out from talks with Tbilisi in if the plan was implemented.
Foreign Minister of breakaway Abkhazia Sergey Shamba warned that any attempt to change the current negotiating format will lead to a suspension of the peace process.
“The format of talks has been set up from the very beginning of the negotiating process, carried out under the aegis of the UN: the Abkhaz side on the one hand, represented by the Abkhaz leadership, and the Georgian side, represented by the official Tbilisi,” Shamba said.
For the past 13 years September 27 has been marked as a tragic day in Georgia, but PM Zurab Nogaideli said that from now on is should be seen as “a day of hope” and “the launch of the return to Abkhazia.”