Moscow Defense Brief

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#5 (67), 2018


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Armed Conflicts

Events in The Kodori Gorge**


Research Director,

Caucasian Institute of Mass Media


South Osetian Center for Humanitarian Initiatives and Studies

On October 16-20, 2001, that is, right at the time of fierce fighting in the Kodori Gorge, a group of representatives from the Caucasus Fo­rum (CF), a network of peacemaking NGOs from the Caucasus region, conducted a moni­toring mission in Abkhazia. The goal of the monitoring was to get first hand information, that is, from eyewitnesses, on events in the Kodori gorge. The members of the working group tried to com­pletely distance themselves from all media re­ports, whether they be Geor­gian, Abkhaz or Rus­sia, and work exclusively with primary sources of information, since the geographical compactness of Abkhazia makes it possible to meet with key participants and wit­nesses of events in a short time span. Despite the lack of time, the task was completed thanks to the assistance provided to the group in its work by both the Abkhaz leader­ship and, espe­cially, nongovernmental organiza­tions.

Monitoring Methods

The group used a method of in-depth interviews and surveys of witnesses. Information was pro­vided by prisoners of war (POW), local resi­dents living directly in the war zone, victims, reserv­ists, military personnel, officials from the foreign ministry and security services, journal­ists, and representatives of the UN mission, in­ternational organizations based in Abkhazia, as well as local NGOs.

The most valuable witnesses were of course com­batants from both sides of the conflict. The Abkhaz authorities allowed us to talk with POWs for fairly long periods of time and with­out the presence of others. Of course we were not the first to meet with them; journalists from various agencies also had the opportunity to talk with them. Considering the preliminary "work" conducted with POWs, the working group was nonetheless able to get them to speak freely.

Thanks to the Caucasus Forum's contacts among combatants, we also worked with participants in the fightings from the Abkhaz side. This fact must of course be considered an asset of the pro­gram of ex-combatant meetings, but with one reservation: the potential of the program, in the opinion of all its participants, is sufficiently great for it to be used not only to conduct stud­ies of already existing crisis situations, but also to prevent and resolve them. On the Abkhaz side, conscripts serving in the Abkhaz army were not involved in the fighting, only re­servists were.

The third category of interviewees was civilians who had suffered from attacks by fighters who invaded the Kodori Gorge. These people were mostly rural residents of Armenian nationality. The value of the information provided by these people was in the fact that it was less subject to the influence of various mass media propagan­dizing the position of that or the other side.

The analysis of various sources was conducted taking into consideration the specifics of the situation in the region, and the desire of inter­viewees to defend their political views.

Chronology of events

As a result of the study it has been possible to more or less conclusively establish that some sort of "intervention" did in fact take place in the Kodori Gorge. According to the information re­ceived, the "interventionists" consisted of two groups that differed in all parameters: degree of combat readiness and level of equip­ment, ethnic makeup and, probably, goals for being there.

The first group, made up completely (or virtu­ally completely) of ethnic Chechens and num­bering about 100-120, was extremely well equipped, outfitted with the tools needed to wage war in the mountains and had good weap­ons. The fight­ers in this group were clearly ex­perienced profes­sionals. It is quite possible that this group was actually led by Gelaev or a per­son calling himself Gelaev. All POWs assert that he was personally present, but when ques­tioned in greater detail it becomes clear that their testimonies are secon­dary, especially when it comes to victims and Abkhaz soldiers. It should be noted that if this was Gelaev, the prominent Chechen field com­mander, then this was not his first "visit" to Abkhazia. During the Abkhaz-Georgian conflict of 1992-1993 he headed one of the units of Che­chen volunteers who at that time fought on the side of the Abkhaz. The situation was the same on the issue of whether there were Arab merce­naries in this division. No one among those who allegedly saw them was capable of differentiating Arab speech from any other speech with which they were un­familiar. Furthermore, several times witnesses, when speaking about Arabs, could have con­fused them with representatives of Turkic-lan­guage peoples (there were references to phrases of clearly Turkic origin and "people who knew Arab - Azerbaijanians").

By all appearances, this group arrived in the Kodori Gorge at the end of July - beginning of August. Their appearance in this region, ap­proximately at the beginning of August, coin­cided with the launch of a campaign of anti-Abkhaz rhetoric in the Georgian media. This di­vision attracted virtually no attention to itself right up until the beginning of the events them­selves, and existed autonomously in the moun­tains of the Svaneti region for more than two months. Naturally, these people had guides, evi­dently from among the local Svans. Some Abkhaz reservists asserted that they had con­tacts with Chechens who were in the Abkhaz Svaneti at the end of the summer, and they held negotiations on allowing them to spend the win­ter there. The Chechens were refused a request to be allowed to spend the winter at a deserted, campground high up in the mountains. There is no information on whether these were the same people as mentioned above.

The second group was much larger in number (about 300 people) and multiethnic. About 100-130 people were ethnic Georgians, including refugees from Abkhazia. The remaining members of this group were mostly representatives of Cau­casus ethnic groups that traditionally prac­tice Is­lam. They included Chechens, Kabardini­ans, Dagestanis, Balkars, Azerbaijanians, and even at least one Ukrainian. A large part of this division arrived in Abkhazia through Georgia in three groups, including in covered Kamaz trucks from villages in the Pankisi Gorge, then on barges across the Dzhvari reservoir. They did not stop along the way, according to Chechen prisoners, except to spend the night, and they were accom­panied in cars by people in civilian clothing. They spent several days at a camp in the Svaneti foothills, where they were joined by Georgians, after which members of the first "Gelaev's" group guided them into the Svaneti mountains in smaller units. The units were formed according to various characteristics, some (Georgian) on an ethnic basis, and some ("Islamic") by motivation ("jihad").

These people were recruited in various places, mostly in the Pankisi Gorge but not only. The majority were people without military training who were lured to Abkhazia through deception. They were deceived in various ways, without much concern for plausibility. The Chechens and the more "religiously" inclined were told that they would be taken to fight in Chechnya with "faith­less Russians;" the Georgians, who were mostly refugees from Abkhazia, were told that they are going to liberate their homeland; and it cannot be ruled out that some were simply promised the chance to steal. Weapons were only handed out to these people upon arrival in Abkhazia. They traveled through Georgia with­out weapons, and did not undergo even elemen­tary military train­ing. This group was made up mostly of poorly educated, deprived people, without a clear idea of where and why they were going. One of the prisoners, asserting that he had studied the Ko­ran, in fact knew only what con­cerned Jihad, and even then in a dis­torted form. We could not get an intelligible answer to the question of how something like jihad can be car­ried out with Or­thodox Chris­tian Georgians against the partially Muslim Abkhaz ethnic group. One thing was clear: they were not pre­pared for the campaign, and were not outfitted with the necessary equip­ment. Some of them were in summer clothing.

Immediately upon arrival in Abkhazia, the mem­bers of the first group (others for some rea­son called them "scouts") arranged a kind of demon­stration, apparently to frighten the other "fight­ers." An Azerbaijani was for some arbi­trary rea­son picked out from among the mem­bers of the second group, accused of working with the FSB (Russian security service - ed.) and brutally killed in front of his comrades. Thus the members of the second group were in­timidated. Then they began to be sent into the mountains with, at first glance, incomprehensi­ble assignments, such as to climb up to some height, spend the night there and return in the morning. By that time they had already been given green bands, copies of the Ko­ran and other Islamic paraphernalia. All this was lost in large quantities along the way, and the chaotic passage through the mountains left tracks. All these pointless excursions were con­ducted in an absolutely desolate area, and their goal was probably known only to the organizers of this, as later became clear, monstrous and inhu­man endeavor. After a few days the mem­bers of the second group stopped being fed. All at­tempts by these hungry people to appeal to the "scouts" were brutally cut off. They began to un­derstand that they had fallen into a trap. Some tried to escape but, not knowing where to go, they did not go up into the mountains to­wards Georgia or Russia, but descended to the coast, where they were either killed or taken prisoner. They were kept hungry for about a month, after which the second phase of the op­eration appar­ently began.

We did not manage to reconstruct a complete picture of the first attacks on villages in the Abkhaz part of the Kodori Gorge. The atrocities that fighters committed in their attacks on the Abkhaz villages were probably after all commit­ted by the first group, the "scouts," but it is pos­sible that the second group was let in on the robberies as well. Then the first group, the so-called "Gelaevtsy," disappeared. They somehow left Abkhaz Svaneti: they are not among the prisoners, and there are almost or completely none among the dead. The Abkhaz participants in the fighting asserted that, in their rare con­tacts with the "Gelaevtsy," the latter stood out with their high level of military training. With the departure of the "scouts," the hungry, un­trained group was left without leadership and without food in unfamiliar mountains at the on­set of win­ter. The Abkhaz reservists, who by that time had seen the results of the atrocities in the mountain villages, set off into the moun­tains and began to "cleanse" the gorge. The hungry, lice-ridden, completely unfit for combat units of the second group descended the gorge in order to beg or steel something edible. They raided cornfields, ate raw beans (they were found in the pockets of those who were killed), cleaned out all food re­serves in villages, but did not touch valuables. And everywhere they ran up against units of Abkhaz reservists.

Analysis of events

The "interventionists" were doomed. The Abkhaz army is very combat ready and is built accord­ing to the Swiss principle. All men who have served in the army have weapons at home and are pre­pared to take up arms if necessary. The reserv­ists, who have combat experience and know the mountains, are much more combat-ready than the army, which is built on the draft. And it was the reservists that the hungry and unprepared mem­bers of the second group of "interventionists" ran up against.

Military specialists with whom we spoke, in­cluding from the Abkhaz military, assert that this operation, on its own, did not and could not have made any military sense, even if all four hundred attackers had been experienced soldiers. After descending to the plains, the at­tackers were bound to face heavy armaments and artillery. Fighting tanks and armored vehi­cles with Kalashnikov rifles is senseless. Fur­thermore, such operations are possible in the spring, not in the fall, when mountain passes are blocked with snow and the attackers are cut off from their supply sources.

This operation was not a diversionary maneuver and part of a wider plan by the Georgian armed forces to attack Abkhazia, as Abkhaz military of­ficials claimed, if only because there was no wider plan. If there had been, it would have be­come known, at least to the Georgian public. During the whole period that tensions were es­ca­lating, in the Gali area even the number of bor­der crossings to the market in Zugdidi and back remained almost unchanged. These data were provided to our group by employees of the UN mission who conduct constant monitoring there.

A theory has been floated that the attackers were planning a raid on a city in Abkhazia simi­lar to the Basaev raid on Budyonovsk. But then why was it necessary to take along three hun­dred un­trained people - such operations are car­ried out only by experienced fighters. And if such a plan existed, there were no significant obstacles to its realization. We are referring to a sudden attack on a city, inciting of panic, tak­ing of hostages and a quick retreat, the not holding of long-term po­sitions. The attackers clearly did not have suffi­cient strength for the latter.

We did not manage to find any conclusive con­firmation of the presence among the attackers of Arabs and other mercenaries from outside the former Soviet Union. One cannot completely rule out the possibility that people of any na­tionality were in the units of insurgents, but we did not find serious grounds to think that there was any significant number of Arabs.

The following factual conclusions can be made:

·   First of all, one can say that the operation was in fact quite large-scale, which is surprising since such large divisions are very rarely used for fighting in the mountains.

·   Secondly, the insurgent units passed through Georgia without hindrance: someone got them through the country.

·   Thirdly, the operation did not and could not have made military sense. Political evaluations and interpretations of what happened were not a goal of the monitoring, but the obvious absence of a military point to the operation makes it pos­sible to assume that this was a large-scale politi­cal provocation. Officials in Abkhazia, partici­pants in the negotiating process, have voiced the view that the operation of the Che­chen fighters in the Kodori Gorge was organized at the highest government levels. Georgia wanted to demon­strate that the government of Abkhazia is inca­pable of controlling its territory and thus, firstly, stir up anti-government feel­ings in the popula­tion, and secondly, force offi­cial Sukhumi to be more compliant in negotia­tions. However, the same representatives of of­ficial structures in Suk­humi think that the fac­tor of September 11 was not taken into account, that is, the declaration of a "crusade" against "international terrorism." As confirmation of this, they cite the fact that, ac­cording to their sources, Eduard Shevardnadze received a very cool reception on his visit to the United States.

Another fact about the Kodori events of Octo­ber 2001, without which the picture would not be complete but which, like much else, is shrouded in secrecy is the air bombing raids. The Defense Ministry of Abkhazia took respon­sibility for at least one of them. This does not concern the air raid in the first days of fighting, when jets with­out any markings appeared from behind the mountains and bombed the positions of the Che­chen fighters. There was also a heli­copter attack on the Armenian village of Naa, also anonymous. Fortunately, there were no casualties here as by that time most of the resi­dents of this village had left their homes fol­lowing the incursion by the "interventionists."

And, finally, one of the most tragic facts, not only in the Kodori events but also in the history of ethnic conflicts in the Caucasus over the past ten years: the downing of the helicopter carry­ing UN observers. According to the results of an in­vestigation conducted by the mission's mili­tary specialists, the helicopter was shot down with a surface-to-air missile similar to the Stinger. Pris­oners claimed to have seen the mis­sile being launched in the area where the "Ge­laevtsy" were located. It is impossible to mis­take a UN helicop­ter for a military one because of clear identifica­tion markings.

Representatives of the UN mission, in conversa­tions with us, had little to say because of the lack of information. The remark of mission head Dieter Boden that shots were already being heard in Sukhumi had the most resonance. This proba­bly also served as a signal for many Geor­gian mass media to begin publishing stories to the ef­fect that "Sukhumi will be taken any min­ute." Probably, Mr. Boden did not mean the sounds of firearms, which could not be heard in Sukhumi from Kodori, but explosions of artil­lery shells or air bombs, and his words were in­correctly inter­preted.

The chief of the UN military observers in the area of the Abkhaz-Georgian conflict, Maj. Gen. Anis Ahmed Bajwa, said in a conversation that he was satisfied with the actions of the Russian peacekeepers, thanks to which "there have al­ready been eight years without war." As is known, official Tbilisi, on the contrary, views the presence of Russian peacekeepers as a nega­tive factor, and is demanding that they be re­placed. Gen. Bajwa said that in the past year he had witnessed the leaders of both sides periodi­cally make statements altogether not of a peace­making nature. At the same time, a chain of events can be traced that indicates an escala­tion of the situation. It is difficult to say today what followed what, the events the statements, or the other way around, he added. The UN mission and other international organizations took all the necessary preparatory measures to receive refu­gees from Abkhazia in case the fighting intensi­fied, and coordinated actions with Russian border guards (surprisingly, this has not been difficult so far).

Public opinion and the role of NGOs

The reaction of the public in Abkhazia to these events was extremely painful. The public found especially painful the participation of North Cau­casians, and widely circulated mass media, in­cluding Russian. It should be acknowledged that, thanks to the work conducted by the gov­ern­ment, and to a large extent the nongovern­mental sector in Abkhazia, it was possible to ease the public's frustration somewhat, and at least par­tially "de-ethnicize" the conflict. Al­ready in the final stages of the Kodori opera­tion, it was widely believed among the Abkhaz population that the fighting was being con­ducted against representatives of international terrorism sup­ported by the political elite of Georgia. It is re­markable that Tbilisi NGOs taking part in pro­jects to build trust between the two peoples held a similar position regard­ing "support." This con­vergence of views can be considered an achieve­ment of NGOs' work in conflict management. But, as in work with combatants, when a con­flict situation arises NGOs are activated already post factum. There are, in our view, several rea­sons for this:

·   NGOs do fruitful work in the area of conduct­ing projects for various conferences and the­matic meetings (women's, journalistic, youth, chil­dren's, etc.). But there is insufficient obser­va­tion, evaluation and analysis of the current situa­tion, and consequently, reactions to changes in the situation, including for the worse, can be too slow. In such a situation, the mass media usually remain the public's only source of in­formation. When there are preliminary warn­ings, the NGO sector is still too weak to react to them in time. For example, after the moni­toring under the ae­gis of the CF in the Pankisi Gorge in 2000, it be­came clear that an escalation of tensions could be expected. But we must self-critically note that we could not do anything to even try to prevent the events in the Kodori Gorge.

·   As when projects began to be implemented, work is being conducted between NGOs in the capitals: Tbilisi - Sukhumi. In our view, at the current, high level of relations between Geor­gian and Abkhaz NGOs it is possible to localize the process, bring in representatives of commu­nities in those regions through which the line of con­frontation actually runs.

·   The potential of ex-combatants is underused, in­cluding in building ties between the opposing sides, although in our case there was such a pos­sibility.

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