December 1, 2002
With American trainers still in the Georgian Republic, Abkhazia's new Prime Minister is seeking broader ties with Russia. The political jockeying is the result of continuing squabbles between Christian Georgia and secessionist Moslem Abkhazia, which have remained strained since the 1992-1993 war that made Abkhazia independent. At risk is British Petroleum's plans to build oil and gas pipelines to Turkey from Azerbaijan. The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline would run from the Caspian to the Mediterranean, along with a parallel natural-gas line along the same route. Plans to exploit the giant Shah Deniz gas field in the Caspian could also be affected.
Up to one million barrels of oil per day would start flowing through the 1,770 kilometer long BTC pipeline in 2005, with up to 50 million metric tons per year of crude oil being pumped from an expanded Sangachal terminal near Baku across Georgia to a new marine terminal at Ceyhan. Construction in Baku began on 18 September 2002 and in Adana-Ceyhan on 26 September. The BTC project is estimated to cost about $2.9 billion, with the gas pipeline another $1 billion. With so much money at stake, regional stability is a priority for everyone involved.
Most of the tensions stem from one side or another not making it's intentions clear. The Abkhaz Defense Ministry went to UN officials on 28 November, expressing concern over Georgia's intention to build a military airfield in the volatile Kodori gorge. Abkhazia's senior politicians believe that the airfield will inevitably bring about a new escalation of the conflict and warned that "Abkhazia will not allow Georgia to establish a landing strip in the gorge." According to Abkhazia, up to 1,000 Georgian border guards and National Guard reservists are in the gorge. The unpaved airstrip (560 meters long and 70 meters wide) is currently capable of accepting AN-2 "Colt" planes and the Georgian State Border Guard Department wants to build a paved airstrip for accepting AN-28 "Cash" (or similar) planes.
U.S. aid will apparently be used to finance the construction. The Georgian Border Guard Department press service told the Russian press that the U.S. will provide $10 million to the Georgian Border Guards next year for the infrastructure development, specifically for construction of three landing strips (including one in the Kodori gorge).
The Georgian National Security Council plans to set up a special interagency group, to settle the disagreements with Abkhazia. This new body will be engaged in both analysis and direct negotiations with Abkhaz representatives. The Georgian National Security Council wants that the CIS Peacekeeper force, which has been monitoring the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict zone since 1994, to become an international one. However, they haven't been able to present a plan on how to internationalize this force, to everyone's' satisfaction.
The Russian Deputy Defense Minister told the press on the 27th that the CIS Collective Peacekeeping Forces' 375-man 6th Separate Motorized Rifle Battalion had been disbanded several days prior and withdrawn from its permanent garrison at Gudauta, in the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict zone. Part of the battalion's more-skilled specialists willing to continue service with the peacekeeping contingent remained in Georgia and were assigned to undermanned units.
Meanwhile, the CIS collective peacekeeping force's commander told journalists that that there are no plans to disband Russia's 131st Motor-Rifle Brigade in the near future. This refuted a recent local newspaper report, which asserted that the brigade was to be withdrawn shortly. The mandate for the 2,000 man CIS Collective Peacekeeping Force expires 31 December 2002, but their mandate allows them to have up to 3,000 soldiers in the zone. The force is made up of Russian detachments manning 20 posts and has been in the region since 1994, with more than 20 posts across the conflict zone.
Abkhazia placed its fleet on high alert on 15 November, in anticipation of the Georgian Navy's 18-19 November large-scale exercises near the Black Sea port of Poti. The "SHCHIT 2002" exercises involved 16 Georgian vessels and 1,800 servicemen rehearing offensive and defensive tactics (including amphibious insertions). The war games involved a marine battalion and the Kutaisi 21st Motor-Rifle Battalion, supported by artillery, border guard units and fixed and rotor wing aviation. The Turkish Navy's frigate "Fatih" was a guest observer. Despite the Georgian scenario (which had Abkhazian seperatists invading and Georgian forces on the defensive), Abkhazia interpreted the Georgian amphibious exercises in particular as part of their dream of returning to Abkhazia by force. Abkhaz officials had also been invited to previous exercises and were not even informed of "SHCHIT 2002", which also raised their concerns. - Adam Geibel
Reference: regional map online at http://www.calguard.ca.gov/ia/images-maps/gg_pol99.jpg