The messenger logo

UN: Georgian-Abkhaz relations worst in years

By Messenger Staff
Monday, January 28
The UN secretary-general released his latest report on the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict last week, warning that relations between the two sides are at a nadir and blaming widespread tensions in part on provocative Georgian media reports.

Saying the “political process [is] at a standstill,” the report, released January 23, cites observers who say “the relationship between the two sides was in 2007 at its lowest point since the large-scale violence of 1998.”

“The two electoral campaigns that took place in 2007, for the Georgian presidency and the de facto Abkhaz parliament, illustrated once again the deep rift between the political aspirations of the sides and their constituencies, with reunification and independence seen as top, non-negotiable priorities in Tbilisi and Sukhumi, respectively, and promoted with an equal sense of urgency,” the report reads.

“Basic distrust in Tbilisi and Sukhumi as to the intentions of the other side generated actions and reactions that have, in turn, fed growing perceptions of impending threats.”

The secretary-general’s report blamed, in part, Georgian news media for inflaming tensions in the conflict zone.

The report said that while Gali district, the predominantly ethnic-Georgian populated southern portion of breakaway Abkhazia, was relatively calm over the last few months, “a widespread sense of uncertainty and alarm was fuelled…by an almost daily flow of inaccurate reports originating in the Georgian media and, occasionally, by the Georgian authorities themselves.”

UN observers dedicated a large number of patrols, the report continues, to investigating claims made by Georgian press and government.

“By and large…the information was sometimes baseless, sometimes only partially correct and, in some cases, misconstrued,” observers found, citing untrue Georgian allegations of Abkhaz mining the administrative border, a state of emergency in Gali, raids and mass detentions of Gali residents and the burning of Georgian language books by Abkhaz militia with peacekeeper cooperation.

In its coverage of the secretary-general’s report, leading Georgian television channel Rustavi 2 quoted the description of relations between the Georgian and Abkhaz sides as the worst in years, but omitted the report’s suggestion that inaccurate Georgian media coverage is exacerbating tensions.

The report found that a number of allegations against Russian peacekeepers widely reported by Georgian media were groundless. Those claims included the deployment of Russian tanks and artillery in November, the illegal construction of new peacekeeping posts, a Russian deployment of anti-aircraft and heavy weaponry in the conflict zone, shootings between ethnic Russian and Chechen peacekeepers, and a shootout on January 5 along the administrative boundary.

But Rustavi 2’s Gali correspondent says it’s UNOMIG that is getting the stories wrong.

“That UN report is based on material from the Abkhaz side and from Russia’s FSB,” said Ema Gogkhia, reached by phone in western Georgia. “The UN has an office in Abkhazia and the FSB gives them information. [The FSB] gave the UN interpreters, and all the UN reports agree with Abkhazia and Russia [claims].”

A Rustavi 2 producer, asked about how they verify their coverage of the conflict zone, said the station simply shows what Gogokhia and other regional correspondents report.

Gogokhia says ethnic Georgians living in and near the conflict zone criticize the UN for turning a blind eye to what they say are blatant human rights abuses.

“People in the conflict zone are very unhappy with the UN’s work here,” Gogokhia says. “[The UN] never says anything when people are kidnapped, or when children are tormented. On Election Day, when people crossing the border came to Zugdidi with muddy boots [from passing over the Enguri River] and some of them had been beaten, I ran around to find a UN representative to show them what was going on. But I couldn’t find any. Where were they? What were they doing?”

UN observers did confirm an increased presence of ethnic Chechen soldiers, concentrated in three posts, in the Russian-led peacekeeping force. The report points out that including ethnic Chechens in the peacekeeping force would not help relations with conflict zone residents. Chechen paramilitaries fought for the Abkhaz in the secessionist conflict, and Georgian news media have frequently reported tensions and violence between ethnic Chechen and Russian peacekeepers.

The report also referenced another well-publicized incident between Georgian journalists and Russian peacekeepers, when a Georgian news crew claimed to have been physically abused by peacekeepers in early December while filming copies of election pamphlets entitled, “We Will Be Back,” scattered along the administrative border.

UN investigators concluded the journalists had actually scattered the pamphlets themselves, and violated a long-standing prohibition on filming checkpoints. UN observers noted multiple occasions of Georgian journalists showing up in the conflict zone to distribute election propaganda ahead of the January 5 presidential poll.

The secretary general’s report also detailed findings on the death of two Russian ex-officers leading an Abkhaz militia group in a clash with Georgian forces near Kodori Gorge on September 20. The Russians were shot at close or point-blank range by the Georgians, an investigation concluded, but in close-quarters combat rather than in deliberate executions.

Tbilisi claims its forces intercepted a group of saboteurs encroaching on Georgian-controlled Upper Kodori that day; Abkhaz representatives say the Georgian forces attacked a training camp deep in separatist-controlled territory.

A UN probe found no conclusive evidence supporting either claim, but suggested that an Abkhaz group separate from the one attacked could have been carrying out operational activities in Georgian-controlled territory.