Abkhazia: new Cold War frontline?

Officials in Georgia are seeking to use the alleged downing of a Georgian reconnaissance drone by a Russian warplane to build international support for reducing the Kremlin’s “peacekeeping” role in the separatist enclaves of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Georgia’s Foreign Ministry asserts that a Russian MIG-29 shot down the Georgian Interior Ministry drone off the Black Sea coastline of Abkhazia April 20. Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili says the drone’s final video footage provides “clear proof” of a Russian violation of Georgian airspace.

Russia denies that its pilots were behind the attack, and accuses Georgia of attempting to escalate tensions in Abkhazia. The Kremlin’s website states that in an April 21 phone call with Saakashvili, outgoing Russian President Vladimir Putin affirmed that Georgia’s flights in the area violate “the spirit and meaning” of the 1994 ceasefire agreement with the Abkhaz separatists. A Russian Foreign Ministry statement issued April 22 said Georgia’s use of “spy planes” violated UN Security Council resolutions on Abkhazia. The Foreign Ministry statement said the downed drone was a Hermes 450 type unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), manufactured by Elbit Systems of Israel.

Abkhazia’s leaders also refute Georgia’s versions of events, charging that an Abkhaz L-39 jet, formerly used as trainer during the Soviet era, shot down the drone. Tbilisi dismisses the Abkhaz claims. Radar data released by Georgian indicates the aircraft took off from Gudauta, an Abkhaz town that formerly hosted a Soviet air force base. Russia insists the base is closed, in keeping with a 1999 OSCE agreement, and has blocked inspections. Georgia counteres that the base is still used by the Russian military to back up Abkhaz separatists.

The incident comes in the wake of Putin’s April 16 order for direct cooperation between Russia and the de facto governments of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The Georgian government demands that the order be rescinded. (EurasiaNet, April 22)

Putin’s announcement that Moscow will formally recognize the separatist authorities in the breakaway regions was condemned by NATO, the EU, and US as well as Georgia. NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said Russia must not take the next step of recognizing the self-proclaimed independence of the provinces. Russia’s Federation Council is set to vote on the question April 25. (OpenDemocracy, April 18) Russia is widely believed to have undertaken the move in response to the West’s recognition of indpendent Kosova.

Escalating tensions, Abkhazia has expelled a the enclave’s only Georgian Orthodox priest, Fr. Pimen Kardava, after a “special decree” of the (canonically unrecognised) Abkhaz Orthodox Church. The expulsion, just before the Orthodox celebration of Easter, leaves the entity’s Georgian Orthodox believers without any priests. (Forum18, April 23)

The UK Guardian’s Luke Harding, reporting from the Abkhaz-Georgian border post of Dikhazurga, said the frontier “may be about to become a flashpoint—not just between Georgia and its breakaway province of Abkhazia, which fought a war here in 1992-93, but between NATO and the Russian Federation.” (The Guardian, April 17)

See our last post on Georgia and the struggle in the Caucasus.