MOSCOW. (Alexei Makarkin, for RIA Novosti) - Last week saw the escalation of the conflict in the Kodori Gorge. The Georgian armed forces entered the territory, which was made off limits to them under a 1994 agreement establishing the framework of peacekeeping operations.
Tbilisi has already announced it may move the exiled Abkhaz government to the region. This "shadow cabinet" represents ethnic Georgians who were forced to leave Abkhazia after the bloody war of the early 1990s, which was provoked by Eduard Shevardnadze and proved a failure to the central government.
What triggered the developments was the refusal by Emzar Kvitsiani, a field commander who received administrative powers in the Kodori Gorge from Eduard Shevardnadze's weak regime, to obey the Georgian government. Now, Tbilisi accuses this military leader, who controlled the area inhabited by the ethnic Svans, of conspiring with the Abkhaz leadership, who are treated as separatists by the Georgian authorities. There is certain logic to this, for when people spend long years in confrontation, with insufficient government control of border guards, the conflict becomes less acute and people develop things in common, which far more-militant officials living far from the border cannot accept. However, it is more evident that the reason for this clash of interests between President Mikhail Saakashvili and former Georgian official Kvitsiani lies in domestic politics.
Kvitsiani's reasoning is obvious. He has been leading a carefree life in his region, where his authority was unshakable until recently. The Svans mostly follow the rules of a traditional community and recognize the authority of their elders and "military leaders." And while an elder's authority is quite stable, a military leader is evaluated according to his success. That is why the population of the Kodori Gorge supported Kvitsiani while he could make compromises with the central government and distanced from him as soon as things turned into a direct conflict with Tbilisi.
The use of force in the Kodori Gorge was especially important for Saakashvili, who had to demonstrate his ability to establish order in the country and restore its territorial integrity to his electorate on the eve of parliamentary and presidential elections. As the Adjarian success became history, Georgia has been unable to establish control of Abkhazia and South Ossetia so far. Nevertheless, Saakashvili must show his effectiveness to his own population and to the West, in whose direction he is still steering. In addition, Svanetia may be a productive ground for implementing Saakashvili's tactics, which proved almost ineffective in South Ossetia - large social programs and humanitarian assistance to the population. Ossetians then regarded Saakashvili's steps as an attempt to bribe them, while Svanetians have a less negative attitude to Tbilisi and may look on the Georgian government's moves more positively.
Besides, the Georgian president finds it crucial to establish his presence in at least a small area of Abkhazia, both for PR purposes and with the objective of establishing a stronghold for a potential invasion of Abkhazia. The latter took the threat seriously and said it had the power to prevent "a puppet government" from establishing itself in the Kodori Gorge.
What can the Kodori confrontation lead to? First, Georgia's military presence in the gorge is recognized as illegitimate by Abkhazia, Russia and UN officials who act as observers of the peace-keeping operation. Tbilisi regards Russia as a patron of Abkhazia, and, consequently, an interested party, while the United Nations is playing the part of an "honest broker" who is equally distanced from all the parties and checks their compliance with the existing agreements. The Georgian authorities have failed to honor these agreements of late.
Saakashvili will likely have to restrain himself, unless he wants to face serious problems with the international community. On the other hand, after the Georgian government, and especially the "party of war" and its leader, Defense Minister Irakly Okruashvili, establish control of the Kodori Gorge, they will insist more energetically that the format of peacekeeping operations in Abkhazia and South Ossetia be changed.
Alexei Makarkin is deputy director general of the Center for Political Technologies.