Georgia's ill-disciplined army lacks clout to end conflict: The war in Abkhazia is about the republic's survival, writes Hugh Pope from Sukhumi

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE 74-YEAR-OLD veteran stood at the foot of the aircraft steps, pleading for order with a surging crowd of Georgian soldiers, armed to the teeth and determined to board the aircraft that was their only route home for precious combat leave.

As thin steel coffins bearing their dead comrades were passed overhead into the plane, a moment's quiet was achieved. A drunken guardsman saluted them with slow shots in the air, and the veteran lifted his cap. The crowd grudgingly allowed the walking wounded to follow. After that, pandemonium.

'If we don't have discipline, we're finished. We'll lose the war,' the old man shouted, waving his pistol weakly over the fray. Those upset about the chaos screamed and fired machine-guns into the air. It made no difference. Boarding took three hours.

Over the mountains in the capital, Tbilisi, the Georgian President, Eduard Shevardnadze, was under no illusions about the forces he could muster against separatist rebels in Abkhazia or in any of Georgia's other battles. 'It is too early to talk about an army. We've just got armed units,' he said. 'Mostly they are patriots and volunteers. The level of training is none or very low. It is dificult to talk about discipline, it is so very weak.'

For this reason, nobody should expect a quick end to the nine-month-old conflict over Abkhazia, a war ultimately about whether Georgia survives as an independent state or gradually has pieces chipped off it until it returns to the Russian fold.

A history of unrest in Georgia's Abkhazian autonomous republic dates back to the beginning of the century, but the present armed conflict - which has killed at least 960 Georgians and perhaps as many Abkhazians - started in earnest in August last year.

Reacting to a declaration of independence by the region's Abkhazian minority in July and the kidnapping of their Interior Minister, Christian Georgian, Georgian troops recaptured the Abkhaz capital, Sukhumi. They destroyed Abkhazia's historic archives and pushed Abkhazian forces back to the present frontline trenches along the banks of a river to the west of the city.

The Abkhazians, who numbered about 80,000 of the region's pre-war population of 530,000, were initially strongly backed by their Muslim neighbours of the northern Caucasus. Georgians say this support is waning in importance as Russia steps up support with a stated aim of securing its strategic interest in Black Sea ports. Russian warplanes have raided Sukhumi at least 30 times, according to the local Georgian army spokesman, Soso Margashvin.

Talks between Georgia and Russia at the Black Sea port of Sochi on Friday brought promises of peace from both sides and a week of quiet in the war, but nobody in Sukhumi seemed to believe it would last. 'Whatever document they sign, they will upset it as usual . . . only strong military force will solve this problem,' said Tamaz Nodarishvili, Georgia's Prime Minister.

Where Georgia's military force will come from for a final push is a mystery, especially if well-trained Russians are the ultimate opposition. 'We've got arms coming out of our ears, but we don't know how to use them,' said David, 22, an officer and fourth-year student of economics. 'We are learning on the battlefield.' Other officers said a ratio of trained former Soviet soldiers to volunteers was only about one to three.

Half the former 130,000 inhabitants of Sukhumi have fled. The city shares the same latitude as Nice and was once a rich jewel of the former Soviet Black Sea riviera. Waves of looters have wrecked public buildings, more than half the schools are closed, water supplies are erratic, and there has been little electricity since the beginning of the harsh winter.

'The city is very badly marked. It is not yet dramatic, but it is very difficult, especially for the old. There are no restaurants and no real shops, except for the city's central market,' said Anton Marti of the International Committee of the Red Cross, the city's only foreign humanitarian worker. A few buses and trolley-buses still limp around the neglected streets that are slowly being reconquered by Sukhumi's lush sub-tropical vegetation. Scores of dogs, abandoned by owners no longer able to keep them, roam the streets, dirty, unkempt and searching for food. Even pedigree pets are sharing the suffering of a city that will never be the same again.

KIEV - Mr Shevardnadze was due to arrive in Ukraine yesterday with the clear intention of forming a joint political front against Russia, Reuter reports.

Mr Shevardnadze said in a weekend interview that Georgia and Ukraine had a joint interest in acting as a counterweight to an unnamed 'third force'.

'We were forced into this war,' Mr Shevardnadze said in an interview with Georgian television shown in Kiev. 'Separatism has taken root over several decades thanks to the special interests of a third force.'

(Map omitted)