Georgia has withdrawn its agreement for the presence of Commonwealth of Independent States peacekeepers in breakaway Abkhazia after an October 30 conflict between Georgian police and Russian peacekeepers in a Georgian village bordering the disputed territory.
"A decision to end the Russian peacekeepers' mandate e and to delegitimize their presence has been made," Parliamentary Speaker Nino Burjanadze told reporters on October 31 after a meeting between government ministers and members of the ruling National Movement Party. Discussions are being held with Georgia's "international partners" about a precise date for the withdrawal, Burjanadze added.
Removing the roughly 2,000 peacekeepers from Abkhazia has been a longtime ambition for Tbilisi, which has repeatedly called for replacing the peacekeepers from the Commonwealth of Independent States primarily represented by Russia with a more international group.
Under the 1994 cease-fire agreement, the peacekeepers were deployed at the request of both Abkhazia and Georgia. Within Georgia, the operative understanding is that they may remain in the conflict zone until either Tbilisi or the separatist Abkhaz government demands their removal.
Burjanadze and other senior government officials maintain that the October 30 clash, in which several Georgian policemen were allegedly beaten and detained by Russian peacekeepers, has made imperative the demand for a new peacekeeping format.
"We announced several times that the peacekeepers are not objective and neutral, but very often they are the main destabilizing factor [in the conflict zone]," she said.
In an October 31 statement, the Georgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs alleges that Russian peacekeepers with armored vehicles besieged a youth camp in Ganmukhuri, a village in the Georgian region of Samegrelo, and physically abused and detained Georgian officers who were guarding the camp. Georgian Interior Ministry special unit officers stopped the Russian peacekeepers, the foreign ministry claims, alleging that the confrontation ended only when Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili arrived on the scene.
Television footage shot by the pro-government Rustavi 2 television station on October 30 showed an abusive verbal exchange in a field between Georgian police officers and several Russian peacekeepers, followed by a brief brawl. The officers were finally forced to lie down on the field, with their hands behind their backs.
Georgian television repeatedly broadcast shots of Saakashvili, flanked by Tbilisi Mayor Givi Ugulava, striding purposefully to the site of the clash to examine the wounded police officers and to lash out at a somewhat bemused senior Russian peacekeeper for the group's "provocation" and violation of the peacekeeping mandate. With the cameras filming, Saakashvili told the peacekeepers that their head, Sergei Chaban, is a persona non grata on Georgian territory, and demanded an official apology for the treatment of the police officers.
"I want you to know that Sokhumi is a part of Georgia, like Ganmukhuri, Zugdidi and Tbilisi," he told the peacekeepers. "You should immediately put everything in order here."
In a later emergency session of the National Security Council on October 30, Saakashvili declared that the incident was a "criminal attack" and "absolutely unacceptable." The president said that he decided to travel to Ganmukhuri after getting word that "100-150 soldiers" with "military hardware" had attacked a Georgian police post near the camp. Rustavi 2's television footage, however, shows a band of about six to eight Russian peacekeepers, some armed with automatic rifles.
The president told the cabinet that his "personal dignity" required him "to defend this camp and to stand with the people who were defending it." The camp, one of a series of facilities designed to instill patriotism in Georgian youth, has long been a bone of contention between Georgia and Russia.
Saakashvili lauded the "heroic behavior" of the Rustavi 2 journalist, Ema Gogokhia, who filmed the incident, claiming that she managed to fend off two Russian peacekeepers who attempted to seize her tape.
Russia's version of events, however, differs sharply from that of Tbilisi. Sergei Chaban, the commander of Russian peacekeepers in Abkhazia, told the Russian news agency RIA Novosti that a Georgian police officer had verbally provoked the Russian peacekeepers, threatening to shoot them and to use grenade launchers. The peacekeepers, he claimed, were patrolling to the north of the mouth of the Inguri River when they were approached by the officer, a Major Khurtsia.
In comments to reporters after being summoned to the Georgian foreign ministry, Russian Ambassador Vyacheslav Kovalenko echoed Chaban's assertions.
"[T]he incident was provoked by the Georgian patrol; in particular, a major who behaved aggressively and threatened the lives of those peacekeepers who were in the region," he said.
The Georgian Foreign Ministry claims that Chaban's mandate expired in February 2006 and that Tbilisi did not approve an extension of his time in Abkhazia, given at an October Commonwealth of Independent States summit. Russian officials have asserted that Chaban will remain at his post.
For now, the international community appears to be carefully considering its options for a response. The United Nations Security Council renewed a six-month mandate for the UN's Observer Mission in Abkhazia on October 15.
One Georgian expert, however, contends that the incentive does not yet appear to exist outside of Georgia for seeing a change in the peacekeeping format in Abkhazia. Tbilisi, however, could use the Ganmukhuri incident, argued Archil Gegeshidze, a senior fellow at the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies, to draw attention to the problem and spark that motivation.
"The Georgian side has the right to unilaterally break off the peacekeeping operation," said Gegeshidze. "The other way is to leave the CIS. But in this case, there will be a vacuum and the ending of the peacekeepers' mandate will be postponed."
The broader message, added Temuri Yakobashvili, executive vice president of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies, is that, despite years of peace talks, Georgia's frozen conflicts with separatist Abkhazia and South Ossetia are still far from frozen. Both conflicts, he said, "can explode at any time."
Nina Akhmeteli is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi.