As became clear on March 4, a secret agreement was reached in Alma-Ata between the Presidents of Russia and Georgia . Eduard Shevardnadze will minimize the American military presence in the republic, and for this Vladimir Putin will change the mandate of the Russian paratroopers who are fullfilling a peacekeeping function in Abkhazia.
The details of Putin and Shevardnadze’s agreement came to light only on Monday. In distinction from the Russian President, who immediately stated that instead of 200 commandos from the US there will be only 20 in Georgia, Shevardnadze put off telling about his diplomatic success until his return to Tbilisi.
At today’s briefing he reported that Putin agreed to change the mandate of the Russian peacekeepers in the zone of the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict. This means that the Georgian head of state was able to put into action his long held plan for the gradual shift of the Georgian-Abkhaz border deep into Abkhazia.
Recall that Russian paratroopers took up positions along the border river of Inguri in the summer of 1994. From that time they have controlled the 24 kilometer security zone which divides the Georgian partisans from the Abkhazian separatists. Despite this, low intensity skirmishes have taken place in the border regions of Zugdidi and Gali, and the Akbazis always complain about the very indifferent attitude of the peacekeepers to local ethnic contradictions. The Inguri river receives rapt attention from both sides, since a hydroelectric station supplying both Georgia and Abkhazia is located on it. The border lies directly between the reservior and the station iself. The local residents are sure that the Georgians will cut the water off to the Abkhazians at the first opportunity, and if this happens, the latter will turn off the switch to their neighbors.
The mandate of the Russian peacekeepers, which in Sukhumi is considered, and not without basis, to be their singular defense from Shevardnadze, ran out on December 31 of last year.
Several months before that, however, the question of the extention of the mandate was raised in the Georgian Parliament – on a wave of of anti-Georgian sentiment in both Russia and Abkhazia, following the invasion of the Abkhazian part of the Kodori gorge by armed detachments which were primarily commanded by the Chechen field commander Ruslan Gelaev. The deputies decided not to extend the peacekeepers’ mandate, to which official Sukhumi reacted with near hysterics, declaring that the Abkhazi residents would not allow the Russians to withdraw their troops. Incidentally, they are no less frightened by the nearly completed evacuation of the Gudauti base.
Meanwhile, Shevardnadadze has been waiting for the expiration of the mandate for a while now, intending to immediately set about returning the Georgian refugees to Abkhazia, which would give the possibility of a rapid regime change in the unrecognized republic.
According to his plan, the peacekeepers must free Abkhazia region by region for the Georgians. In this connection, the first step is the plan to relocate them from the Inguri river across the whole of the Gali region to its border with the Ochamchiri region, which extends to the Galidzga river. With Putin, Shevardnadze has agreed to an intermediate measure for the withdrawal of the peacekeepers from the Inguri. Instead of withdrawing, they will be distributed throughout the entire Gali region, in order to guarantee the security of the returning refugees. It is no secret that the only threat for the Georgians in this region could be the Abkhazi authorities. The majority of the local residents are ethnically close to the Migrelian Georgians.
The new format for the peacekeeping mission will be confirmed in the next two months.
In this, Moscow will not exclusively control the peacekeeping units. On last Wednesday at the conference of the Council of Ministers of the CIS, the head of the Russian Ministry of Defense, Sergei Ivanov, agreed with his Georgian colleage, David Tevzadze, to expand the national composition of the peacekeepers to include servicemen from other countries of the CIS.
Neither Moscow nor Tbilisi has been advertising the new agreement, in order not to stir up the government in Sukhumi, which always reacts sensitively to any announcement. Nevertheless, the alarms are sounding in Sukhumi all the same.
On Monday the local security service distributed an announcement to the information agencies about certain “unconfirmed information” it had received on the preparation of a “large-scale operation in Abkhazia, in which American troops might be involved.” “One of the goals of the planned operation is the collapse of the Russian peacekeeping mission and the creation of conditions for the introduction into the autonomous republic of peacekeeping forces under the aegis of the US or NATO,” the announcement states. All of this will be carried out under the cover of an anti-terrorist operation in the Pankisi gorge. As proof, the Abkhazian authorities report that on Saturday a Georgian air force helicoptor of American manufacture was spotted over the Kodori gorge.
Recall that Georgia has received military assitance from the US for a long time, and Shevardnadze uses this to explain the arrival in Tbilisi of foreign military advisors. At today’s briefing he stated that “the four battalions and one company of the Georgian Ministry of Defense that are being prepared by the American specialists will, in the case of necessity, carry out operations on their own on the territory of the republic.” Shevardnadze did not confirm the information on the smaller number of arriving advisors that Putin stated after the summit. He said that for the preparation of the “model detachments” of the Georgian army there would be as many specialists as necessary, although he promised that not a single one of them would take part in military action.
(Translated by Timothy Blauvelt)