Analysis, book reviews and photography from Abkhazia and the wider Caucasus --- updates when time permits

A reply to Popjanevski and Cornell

Last week Johanna Popjanevski and Svante Cornell released a report with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program (link), in which they detail the findings of their investigation into a series of (attempted) bomb attacks that hit Georgia between 2009 and 2011. These most notably include a car bomb on 5 May 2010 in Batumi killing a Interior Ministry official and seriously injuring his co-passenger, an explosion on 22 September 2010 near the Unites States embassy in Tbilisi and an explosion on 22 November 2010 outside the Labor Party headquarters which killed a 65 year old woman. Georgia has arrested and convicted a number of persons for these attacks, which it says testified that they had been acting upon the orders of Russian Security Service operatives stationed in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

On 21 July 2011, the story was covered by Eli Lake in the Washington Times (link). This prompted rather sceptic reactions by Joshua Kucera at EurasiaNet (link), Joshua Faust at The Atlantic (link) and Daniel Larison at The American Conservative (link 1, link 2, link 3). Others, like Thomas de Waal writing for The National Interest (link 1, link 2) were convinced by the evidence, but argued that elements of the Russian 'deep state' must have been responsible, since the Russian leadership could not be so incompetent as to direct operations that do significant damage to Russia's standing in the United States while having practically no effect on Georgia's stability.

Popjanevsky and Cornell's initial objective is to re-evaluate the evidence behind the alleged Russian involvement. To corroborate the findings of the Georgian investigation, Popjanevski and Cornell recast the bomb attacks in a wider context of security incidents between 2005 and 2011. They also interviewed a number of the people convicted for the attacks who implicated Russian security operatives during their investigations. The authors conclude that the Russian operatives must indeed have been responsible. Next, they consider the theory that while the attacks were planned by Russian operatives, these might not have been acting upon orders from Russia's leadership, and end up rejecting it. Finally, they distil from their findings a series of recommendations to governments in the west.

In the end, the report does not contain a lot of new facts. The most significant finding is that the persons convicted for the attacks repeated their statements in interviews with the authors.

Popjanevski and Cornell do not investigate the possibility that the attacks might have been planned by the Georgian government itself. This may seem contrived. However, there is precedent. On 1 May 2008, an attack was staged on two minibuses in the Georgian village of Khurcha, close to the Abkhazian border. The minibuses came from Abkhazia and carried Georgian voters for the parliamentary elections that day. The attack injured 3 people, one of whom seriously. Georgia's authorities alleged that the attack had been perpetrated by Abkhazian and Russian troops in order to disrupt the elections. However, a subsequent investigation by the Norwegian Helsinki Institute and the United Nations Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG) (link) revealed that the attack had instead been staged by Georgian troops. The minibuses had been driven not to the voting booths in Khurcha, but instead straight to the site of the incident, where they were targeted with grenades, under the eye of the media whose presence had conveniently been arranged beforehand.

This omission does not mean that the conclusion of Russian culpability is necessarily unwarranted. One strong piece of evidence consists of the Russian officer stationed in Abkhazia who on 3 October 2010 called the European Union Monitoring Mission (EUMM) to ask about a non-existing train accident with casualties and the subsequent discovery of a bomb on the tracks four days later. A rather uncommitted statement by the EUMM (link) cast some doubt on the veracity of this story, but the authors claim that the phone call was confirmed to them by the EUMM. It appears that Russia is indeed responsible for some, if not many, of the incidents in the wider period between 2005 and 2011 listed in the report.

The authors conclude that the attacks cannot have been the work of rogue operatives, acting without direct consent from Russia's leadership. They base this conclusion on the similarity of the explosives used, the large number of operatives implicated from two different security services, the large amount of money offered for one of the attacks (\$50,000) and the opinions of a number of experts of Russia's Security Services. Whether this is justified remains hard to judge.

If we grant Russian responsibility for the attacks, the question then is whether this warrants the recommendations by Popjanevski and Cornell, which boil down to: "Georgia is an innocent victim of Russian aggression so the west should renew and strengthen its support for Georgia". The fact of the matter is that the conflicts in the Caucasus are played dirtily, by all sides involved. The authors give a whole list of security incidents in Georgia with alleged Russian involvement. But they conveniently ignore similar security incidents in Abkhazia and South Ossetia with alleged Georgian involvement. In June and July of 2008, a total of five bomb attacks (link) hit Abkhazia in the middle of the tourist season. The attacks targeted markets, railway tracks and security structures in the border Gali District, killed 4 and injured 18. On 29 January 2010, a mine blast in the Gali District (link) killed 3 and injured 7. Finally, Valmer Butba, one of the people implicated in the confessions in the report, was assassinated in the night of 28 and 29 December 2010 (link).

These are only three in a long list of bomb attacks and targeted assassinations of officials, which seem to have abated in recent times only. Georgia clearly profits: the attacks harm tourism and therefore economic recovery in Abkhazia, they hinder normalisation, state building and integration in the Gali District and they allow Georgia to call for international troop presence. And note that Abkhazia's authorities do not (as one might think) gratuitously accuse Georgia for every security incident that takes place — they did not, for example, when Deputy Interior Minister Zakan Jugelia was assassinated (link) or following any one of the six assassination attempts (link) on President Alexander Ankvab. Without a proper investigation, we cannot know for certain whether Georgia is responsible for any of the incidents in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. But it seems extremely premature to portray Georgia as an innocent victim of Russian aggression.

It does not help that Popjanevski and Cornell take a very politicised stance in their report, of which it suffices to give just a few examples. The authors adopt the ridiculous Georgian claims that Russia has been occupying Abkhazia and South Ossetia since August 2008 and that Russia should want to destroy Georgia's political system merely because it is afraid of the democratic example it sets. This latter claim is squarely contradicted by another claim of the authors, namely that Russia is behind the April 2010 revolution against President Bakiyev, which has made Kyrgyzstan a more democratic place. It is also contradicted by the continuing development of democracy in Abkhazia, which, after all, the authors claim is occupied by Russia.

The authors also mention the Russian invasion of Georgia during the August 2008 war, but they ignore the fact that this was a direct reaction to Georgia's attack on Tskhinval, the capital of South Ossetia. Likewise, one of the security incidents included is the shoot-down of a Georgian spy drone over Abkhazia by an initially unidentified fighter jet on 21 April 2008. The authors point out that the subsequent UNOMIG fact finding report established that the fighter jet had been Russian, but they omit another finding of the report, namely that the use of the unmanned drones had itself constituted a violation of the 1994 cease fire.

That Georgia may not be as innocent as portrayed by Popjanevski and Cornell does of course not mean that we should accept these attacks to and fro as facts of life, or that the west should not raise security incidents with Russia if it has sufficient evidence of Russian involvement. But the authors are right in suggesting that more substantive measures are needed to bring real peace to the region. One of their proposals is that the west should pressure Russia to allow the EUMM access to Abkhazia and South Ossetia. This is vain, Abkhazia and South Ossetia will never allow the presence of international troops under a mandate that treats them as part of Georgia. Instead, the west needs to come to terms with the situation on the ground. The conflicts are decided, Abkhazia and South Ossetia will simply not give up their independence.

The West has to normalise the international positions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as has been done for Kosovo, Northern Cyprus, Taiwan and other places whose sovereignty remains contested. Firstly, the west should strive to end the embargo of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, to the point where trade and demographic mobility might make bomb attacks disadvantageous for all sides involved. Secondly, the west wants a lot of things: minority rights, the return of refugees and security for civilians, but it is unwilling to deal with the governments of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. This is impossible, the west cannot have it both ways. It can only appeal to their responsibility and bind them to international agreements if it accepts the governments of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as legitimate partners.

Category: Abkhazia, Georgia, Reports, Russia, South Ossetia, United States of America

Tagged: August War, reset