Tension and risks rise in Abkhazia standoff

By bne IntelliNews April 30, 2008

Clare Nuttall in Almaty -

Troops are building up on both sides of Georgia's border with Abkhazia and tensions are high. While an open declaration of war by either side is unlikely, the risk of an isolated incident sparking local fighting that could escalate into war is increasing.

"This situation is not unprecedented; we've seen a lot of standoffs in Georgia. However, there are now deeper tensions and more head-on collisions than in the past. The rhetoric from the leaders on both sides is tricking down to the forces on the ground," said Magdalena Frichova, the International Crisis Group's Caucasus Project Director.

"I don't think there is a premeditated wish for war on either side. The biggest danger is that isolated incidents will spiral out of control."

Georgia has been building up its military presence on the Abkhaz border since the shooting down of a Georgian reconnaissance plane over Abkhazia earlier this month. Yesterday April 29, the Russian Foreign Ministry claimed it had evidence that Georgia had moved 1,500 troops into the upper Kodori Gorge and was planning an invasion.

In response, Russia says it will increase the number of peacekeeping troops it has in the region. Although Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has said that Russian peacekeepers will not exceed the agreed 3,000 limit, the move is an inflammatory one given Georgia's recent demand that Russian peacekeepers in its two breakaway republics should be replaced with international forces.

"The Georgian leadership categorically condemns this act of aggression camouflaged as a peacekeeping operation," Georgia's foreign ministry said in a statement released April 29. The claim by David Bakradze, Georgia's presidential special envoy to NATO and the European Union, that Russia's actions were reminiscent of Soviet interventions in neighbouring countries is likely to strike a chord with Georgian voters headed to the polls next month.

"Given the current atmosphere, increasing Russian soldiers in Abkhazia creates a worse situation. Although they are technically operating within their mandate, this is very badly timed and not sending the right signal at all," said Dennis Sammut, Executive Director of LINKS, the London Information Network on Conflicts and State-building.

While Lavrov denies that Russia intends to go to war with Georgia, Sergei Mironov, Speaker of the Russian Federation Council, said on April 28 that Russia would be justified in using force if the lives of its citizens in Abkhazia and South Ossetia were in danger. The risks of war breaking out between Georgia and Abkhazia as a proxy for Russia are increasing.

"Both sides are aware that a confrontation or outbreak of violence would have very serious consequences," said Sammut. "There have been escalations in the past that have led to limited fighting. But now both sides are upping the stakes in a very dangerous way and it's difficult to see how either can back down."

Abkhazia has been a frozen conflict since the 1994 ceasefire, despite occasional flare-ups. Tensions have been rising this year with fears that Russia would recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia in reaction to Kosovo's independence; relations between Russia and Georgia worsened with the latter's failed attempt to join NATO.

On April 16, President Vladimir Putin ordered the Russian government to take a range of measures to increase its ties with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, including recognising certain documents issued by their governments. Sahkashvili described the move as an attempt to annex Georgian territory. The country's Minister for Reintegration Temur Yakobashvili recently said that arrest warrants would be issued for Russian businesspeople investing in Abkhazia without permission from the Georgian authorities.

While Russia already supports both Abkhazia and South Ossetia politically, Frichova points out that, "this is clearly a strategy from Putin himself. It's his personal initiative, which is very significant."

The shooting down of two Georgian planes over Abkhazia - on March 18 and April 20 - have also been treated by Tbilisi as acts of Russian aggression. Immediately after the second plane was shot down, Georgian troops were reported to be massing on the Abkhaz border.

And while seeking help from a generally sympathetic international community, Tbilisi's language internally has been full of military rhetoric. Abkhazia and South Ossetia have been skeptical of Georgian overtures, when accompanied by military spending that has soared to more than 40 times the pre-Rose Revolution level and the creation of a 100,000-strong force of military reserves. "The message Tbilisi is sending out locally is very different from the peaceful face it shows to the west. Sokhumi and Tshkavili are aware of this," said Frichova.

Although the current standoff has been triggered by a range of factors, restoring Georgia's territorial integrity has always been one of the two cores of Sakhashvili's presidential policy, along with closer integration with the West. The forthcoming parliamentary elections on May 21 reduce the likelihood of a backdown by Tbilisi even further.

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