26 May 2016

Murder on the bridge

Author: Tornike Zurabashvili / Source:
Pedestrian bridge over Yupshara river, Abkhazia. Photo: Birtute Steponenaite, Civil.ge 
Tbilisi left agonizing over policy as uniformed men kill citizen on boundary with Abkhazia
On 27 May, an Incident Prevention and Response Mechanism (IPRM) meeting will be held in Abkhazia’s easternmost Gali district after a four-year break. Almost the only tangible outcome result of Geneva international discussions – a diplomatic forum to handle the aftermath of 2008 Russo-Georgian war - IPRM meetings for Abkhazia were suspended when the Abkhaz officials refused access to the territory to erstwhile EU Monitoring Mission (EUMM) commander for his allegedly pro-Georgian stance.

The occasion is tragic. On May 19, Giga Otkhozoria, thirty-year-old IDP from Abkhazia was shot and killed point-blank in the Tbilisi-administered village of Khurcha, close to one of the crossing points between Abkhazia’s predominantly ethnic Georgian-populated Gali district and its adjoining Zugdidi district of Samegrelo region.

The CCTV footage broadcasted by Georgian television on May 20, shows a group of camouflaged men crossing the Administrative Boundary Line (ABL), pursuing and shooting an unarmed civilian several times and retreating across the ABL.

According to media reports, the victim went to the ABL to negotiate the shipment of food for his relative’s funeral in his hometown of Gali. Although exact details of the incident remain unclear, the incident had allegedly followed an altercation between Otkhozoria and the Abkhaz "customs officers” while haggling the amount of bribe to be paid for allowing the parcel inside Abkhazia.

The fatal incident follows a long period of relative calm along the ABL. It is also the first murder committed on the Georgian-controlled territory in recent years. Georgians were also shocked by the brazen conduct of the armed men caught on the CCTV camera as well as the apparent absence of the Georgian armed men. And the fact that the murder coincided with the US, UK and Georgia joint military drills has further jarred the nerves.

Legal grey zone

Contradictory media reports have emerged as to whether the uniformed perpetrators came from Russian, Abkhaz armed groups or to both. Georgia’s State Security Service, the first official institution to comment on the incident, has confirmed the involvement of "four armed men” but did not specify their affiliation. The EUMM released a statement a day later and claimed that it was the "armed security actors from the Abkhaz side” who shot Otkhozoria. Georgia’s Prosecutor’s Office confirmed, that the men were from Abkhazia’s "de facto armed groups” and identified the suspected perpetrator as Rashid Kanji-Ogli, apparently the Abkhaz "border guard”. The identities of other assailants remain unknown.

While the Georgian officials have not, so far, identified the direct involvement of the Russian servicemen, the diplomatic row between Tbilisi and Moscow has ensued. Tbilisi maintains, that Russia maintains "effective control” over Abkhazia though extensive military, security and civilian presence and is thus an "occupying power” under the meaning of the Geneva conventions. As such, Georgia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs statement argued, Moscow bears full responsibility on the "highly alarming” human rights and security situation in the area. The Georgian MFA has highlighted the need for "international security mechanisms” – a code-word for international presence - in the "occupied regions of Abkhazia and Tskhinvali region”, thus making a reference to original, 2008 mandate of the Geneva discussions.

In response, the Russian Foreign Ministry dismissed Tbilisi’s allegations calling the accusation as "propaganda exercises on the topic of Russian occupation” and adding that "neither the border guards nor any other Russian representatives” had any connection to this "genuinely regrettable” incident.

The statement of Sukhumi authorities has tried to shield the Russian troops. It explained that the "alercation” between Otkhozoria and the unnamed "Abkhaz border officer” started on the Abkhaz side of the boundary and "moved on the Georgian side, where Otkhozoria was shot.”

The delicate diplomatic dance reflects the confusion that reigns along the boundary line. The Russian FSB (security service) troops guard what Russia considers Abkhazia’s state borders in accordance with a bilateral treaty. The checkpoint of the Abkhaz "customs officers” – also uniformed and armed - is usually positioned behind the Russian border guards. It is thus apparent, that the Russian officers could have ended the "altercation” once it broke out and must have definitely prevented the armed men from crossing over. Tbilisi thus argues, that the Russian military are complacent in murder – by their inaction, the very least.

The investigations have been launched on both sides of the ABL. Tbilisi has launched criminal proceedings but is unable to detain the alleged perpetrator across the ABL. On its part, Abkhazia’s military prosecution service has also announced that it has filed charges against the suspected murderer but has requested Tbilisi to hand over its evidence at the upcoming round of the Geneva Discussions in mid-June, arguing that the "Abkhaz investigative bodies are deprived of the possibility of collecting the necessary evidence” since the events "took place on the territory of Georgia.” The military and legal grey zone alongside ABL means that the murderer remains free.

Tbilisi’s contested conciliatory stance

Although the brazen murder has triggered public outcry in Georgia, senior officials have pledged that the murder would not derail Georgia from its conciliatory policy towards Abkhazia and South Ossetia., Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili has told the journalists that the incident was "an atrocious fact, greatest tragedy” but added that he hoped for the continuation of ongoing confidence-building process., President Giorgi Margvelashvili stated that Tbilisi’s would continue the policy of "strategic patience”, aiming to eventually bring Russia to "rational dialogue.”

The opposition United National Movement (UNM) has slammed the government for mishandling the response to the incident, and decried its policy towards the occupied territories as "ineffective and a failure”. They called for "concrete measures” to ensure security on ground, including the increased police presence along the ABL.

The murder puts the weaknesses government’s policy under an uncomfortably bright spotlight.

Over the last four years, the Georgian Dream government has invested in dialing down the tensions with Russia, toned down its rhetoric against Russia, including limiting the use of the word "occupation” by the senior officials, and engaged in new trade talks with Russia. At the national level, Tbilisi has eased the security measures on both ABLs, which included reductions in manpower as well as dismantling some of the stationary police checkpoints.

The checkpoint in the village of Khurcha – which would have been the one to monitor the sector of ABL where the murder occurred - has been moved further into the Tbilisi-administered territory. Simultaneously, authorities have minimized their intelligence activities within the two territories, most notably through abolishing of Abkhazia and South Ossetia units of its secret security services.

Tbilisi’s steps brought some positive results. Physical security on the Abkhaz section of the ABL has improved. Exchanges of fire between the armed groups became extremely rare. But the tragic fatalities continued to happen: including the death of a twelve-year-old Levan Tsaava who was denied entry to Georgia proper for medical treatment and the death of nineteen-year-old Davit Basharuli, who went missing after police interrogation. The government has continuously pointed to lowered tension as one of its biggest policy successes. It also put emphasis on "hearts and minds” approach, highlighting the growing number of Abkhaz and South Ossetian patients in Georgia’s healthcare facilities, as well as the recent tripartite prisoner exchange.

Tbilisi’s optimism however, has been tempered by Russia’s continued aggressive actions. Regular detentions along the ABL continue. The gradual expansion of the Russian border infrastructure on the South Ossetian sector – has worried Tbilisi, which terms it the "creeping annexation”. To add insult to injury, recently the Kremlin has appointed its chief Georgia negotiator Grigory Karasin as its official representative on the Russia-South Ossetia border agreement. The political disenfranchisement of approximately 25000 ethnic Georgian voters in Abkhazia, replacement of Georgian as the language of instruction in Abkhazia’s Georgian schools and the recent initiative to conduct a referendum in Tskhinvali have enraged the opposition, unnerved the citizens and put Tbilisi’s conciliatory policies to a considerable – nearly unbearable - test.

A crime too far?

Unless brought to a satisfactory conclusion, Otkhozoria’s murder might trigger an adjustment in Tbilisi’s policy. A murder caught on camera cannot be diplomatically brushed aside, and the Abkhaz (or Russian) reticence might break whatever remains of confidence among the negotiators. Georgia is also in an election season, and the politicians are particularly sensitive to the loss of face.

But politics aside, the incident made it abundantly clear, that ordinary people alongside ABL continue to live in a precarious and unpredictable security environment. Strategic patience might be Tbilisi’s declared policy, but under Russia’s constant challenge, patience starts to look dangerously like series of pointless concessions.

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