Officials in Tbilisi say that the defiance of Kodori-based warlord Emzar Kvitsiani is a Russian-orchestrated provocation amid heightened tensions between the two countries over secessionist conflicts and peacekeeping troops stationed in the conflict zones.
Emzar Kvitsiani, chief of the Monadire (Hunter) paramilitary group based in breakaway Abkhazia’s Kodori gorge, announced his defiance towards the central authorities on July 22, citing alleged plans of Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili to disarm the militia group.
But on July 23 he voiced political demands as well, threatening to continue his defiance if Parliament approved Vano Merabishvili and Irakli Okruashvili on the position of Interior Minister and Defense Minister, respectively. The Parliament approved a slightly reshuffled cabinet at a session on July 24.
Calls for Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili’s resignation currently top the political agenda of opposition parties. However, lawmakers from the opposition parties have already condemned Kvitsiani’s actions as illegal.
Officials in Tbilisi show no signs of confusion. PM Zurab Nogaideli even downplayed Kvitsiani’s defiance and said this person does not represent the local population of Kodori gorge.
Influential parliamentarian Giga Bokeria said “Kvitsiani is a threat, but we should not overestimate this threat.”
Parliamentary Chairperson Nino Burjanadze accused Russia of being behind Kvitsiani. She told Rustavi 2 television on July 23 that Kvitsiani just recently met in Kodori with the Defense Minister of breakaway Abkhazia Sultan Sosnaliev and Commander of the Russian peacekeeping troops Sergey Chaban.
“This fact in itself means a lot,” Burjanadze said, adding that developments in Kodori gorge have coincided with the most recent Russo-Georgian tensions.
Kvitsiani has denied meeting with the Abkhaz and Russian officials.
Parliamentary Chairperson Nino Burjanadze warned that a police operation is not ruled out if tensions remain in Kodori gorge, although officials in Tbilisi seem to be cautious over using force in this sensitive area.
The mountainous Kodori gorge, with its Georgian population of Svans, is the only part of breakaway Abkhazia that is not controlled by the secessionist authorities. In the past the gorge was only under the nominal control of the Georgian central authorities, as influential local clans were in full control of the situation on the ground.
The Abkhaz side has always regarded the gorge as the Georgian side’s foothold for a potential offensive.
The Monadire paramilitary group, with an estimated 300-400 members, was formed by local residents of Kodori gorge with the aim of protecting the gorge from a potential attack of Abkhaz troops.
The militia group was legalized through its incorporation into the Defense Ministry in 2002. At that time the chief of the group, Emzar Kvitsiani, was President Shevardnadze’s representative to the gorge. The position was later abolished in December 2004 by President Saakashvili’s administration.
In 2005 Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili disbanded the Monadire unit, which triggered the discontent of Monadire members. The decision was also criticized by Irakli Alasania, which became a reason for a rift that formed between him and Okruashvili.
In July, 2005, after the Monadire unit was abolished, Defense Minister Okruashvili accused its members of being engaged in criminal activities and called for an “anti-criminal operation” in the gorge. But since then there have been no reports or indications that a police operation, or any other kind of operation, was planned in the gorge.
Nika Gvaramia, an MP from the ruling National Movement party with close links to President Saakashvili’s administration, said on July 23 that it was the government’s mistake that Kvitsiani’s problem was not addressed immediately when allegations emerged about his links to criminal activities.
Officials in Tbilisi have also indicated that influential local clans in Kodori should mount pressure on Kvitsiani. “There are wise people [in Kodori] who will not let the situation spiral out of control,” MP Gvaramia told the Public Broadcaster on July 23.