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Conflict in Georgia Simmers - 2002-02-19

The collapse of the Soviet Union meant the end of years of internal peace for many of the countries that made up the Soviet empire. Perhaps nowhere is that more evident than in Georgia, located on the Black sea at the southern edges of the former Soviet state. Ever since the Soviet collapse, the country has been torn by internal conflict. Starting in the early nineties, Georgian forces and separatists in Abkhazia, an autonomous republic in the northwest of the country, fought a war that left almost 10,000 people dead. Though the fighting has subsided, Abkhazia is far from calm.

Aslan Tsvinariya lives in Sukhumi, a resort city on the Black Sea. In August of 1992, he had just come home from the beach for lunch when war broke out.

Today, he is standing on the bridge where the Georgian military first attacked Abkhazia. Mr. Tsvinariya recalls how he almost became one of the war's first fatalities. "I lived there, about 50 meters from where we're standing, and the rocket landed about 80 meters away," he said.

Mr. Tsvinariya fought in the war that resulted in de facto independence for Abkhazia, and he says he is ready to fight again to defend what he calls his country, although the world community does not recognize it. He also blames the Georgians for starting the war.

The Abkhaz say before the war they would have agreed to stay within Georgia with some sort of autonomous status. But Georgia says it had no choice but to attack to rein in a growing separatist movement.

The two sides agreed to a cease-fire in 1994, but Georgian forces and Abkhaz separatists have clashed many times since then.

One of the most serious incidents came last October, when about 300 fighters from Georgia fought with Abkhaz troops in the Kodori Gorge region, on the border with Georgia. The Abkhaz government claims the fighters were Georgians and Chechens who came to the Kodori Gorge with the help of the Georgian government to stir up trouble. They believe the Georgian government used the incident as an excuse to then send in regular Georgian army troops into the region, a violation of the 1994 cease-fire agreement.

Georgia has denied any involvement in the skirmishes. And they say it was necessary to send in troops to defend the Georgian people in the region. The Georgian government has so far refused to pull the troops out of the region, despite criticism from the U.N. and the Abkhaz government.

The United Nations has been trying for years to bring the two sides to the negotiating table but so far has had little success.

In January, the U.N. Security Council gave its backing to an effort to renew talks, but it has received little support in Abkhazia. The U.N. will only consider Abkhazia's future as part of Georgia, something the Abkhaz reject outright.

Sergei Shamba is the Abkhaz foreign minister. He says before the war, Abkhazia would have been content with autonomous status within Georgia but that time has passed. "We already passed our own constitution," he said. "We held a referendum, and in the referendum it was confirmed that the Abkhaz people want to live in an independent state. So we can't accept that. We can discuss with Georgia only international relations."

The Abkhaz say they're not counting on quick acceptance by the world community; they're willing to wait.

People here say that during Soviet times, their culture and language was repressed by Georgia. 65-year-old Maga Barsitzmaka says she'd rather die than return to Georgian control. "I remember when I didn't have the right to speak in my own language," she said. "Every Georgian knows that Abkhazia was never part of Georgia, that Abkhazia was always a proud state, not just a state, but a proud state. And they killed the best of us. And we're suffering and crying because we don't know what is waiting for us the next day simply because those Fascists live next to us."

But Georgians are determined to retain Abkhazia because they say it is their territory. Malkhaz Kakabadze is the Georgian minister in charge of negotiations with Abkhaz authorities. He says the Georgians are willing to be flexible about everything but independence for Abkhazia. That, he says, they will never accept. "People must believe that there is no way but to negotiate with Georgia about the future status of Abkhazia within the borders of Georgia," he said.

One very contentious issue between the two sides is the fate of almost 300,000 Georgian refugees who fled Abkhazia during the early nineties. Before the conflict almost half the population of Abkhazia was ethnically Georgian. The Georgians say that once the war started, the Abkhaz began killing all Georgians in an attempt to ethnically cleanse the country. The Abkhaz deny these charges.

They point to the fact that some Georgians who fled Abkhazia in the early nineties are now beginning to return. But Mr. Kakabadze, the Georgian negotiator, says these returning Georgians are often risking their lives. "We never agree with this idea that these people live in peace," he said. "Each year, no less than 50 or 60 people are dying, they're killed."

About 1,600 Russian peacekeepers and 107 U.N. military observers protect the fragile peace in Abkhazia. But the Russian presence is very controversial.

Georgia claims Russia gave the Abkhaz separatists military support during the early nineties and is now propping up the Abkhaz government.

Last autumn, the Georgian parliament called for the removal of the Russian peacekeepers. However, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze wants the peacekeepers to stay since there is no other force to take their place.

There are signs that Russia would like to end the Abkhaz conflict. Last autumn, Russian president Vladimir Putin said Abkhazia is an internal Georgian problem. And in December Russia endorsed the U.N. sponsored efforts to bring the Abkhaz separatists and Georgia to the negotiating table. Many in Georgia are hoping that means the Russians will use their influence with the Abkhaz to convince them to eventually agree to Georgian control.

But the Abkhaz say that independence is the one issue on which they will never compromise.

Standing on the bridge where the war started 10 years ago, Aslan Tsvinariya says this place is important and not just because it was the sight of the first attack.

This was where they gathered in large groups to protect their city, their families, their homes.

And Mr. Tsvinariya says he and people here are willing to fight again if need be.