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Abkhazia?

Sitting here in a hotel room in the Armenian capital Yerevan, waiting for my flight to Moscow tomorrow, I've been thinking of all the places I've been in the last two weeks and the people I met along the way. We'd been reporting on the situation in Abkhazia, one of the two breakaway regions of Georgia that have been at the center of the last week of fighting between Georgia and Russia. I've traveled widely in this time, all the way from Sukhumi, the Abkhaz capital, to Yerevan, overland. Many of the places I stopped along the way: Gali, Kodori, Zugdidi, Senaki, Gori, are reported to have seen intense fighting or have been occupied by Russian forces.

Abkhazian_visa While the forces of the international news machine deployed in great number to cover events in Tbilisi, Gori and within South Ossetia itself (with tragic consequences for at least three lost journalists), there has been little information coming out about what has happened in the Kodori Valley or in the Gali region of Abkhazia. This is no surprise, as these are incredibly difficult places to visit even in times of relative peace. Our trip to Gali required a UN escort and even this didn't stop us from being threatened with violence and having our camera seized by local militiamen. And Kodori, then held by hundreds of Georgian Interior Ministry troops, was only possible with a government escort and a terrifying four hour drive over a 7,000 foot mountain pass on a cliff-side dirt road only about 3 yards wide.

Before we had our camera taken by an extremely belligerent Abkhaz security services man (for whom our official Abkhaz media credentials meant nothing), we'd tried to talk to a few residents. Everyone was frightened. One man we managed to interview standing at the front gate of his home, a Georgian returnee, claimed that he felt secure with the local Abkhaz authorities: these were people he knew. What he feared were "the foreigners walking around with automatic weapons". By this he meant Russian troops, here as official peacekeepers.

Now fully enveloped in the fog of war, there is no way to determine what is happening in Gali. There are only a few scant reports of Georgians fleeing, probably back across the Inguri yet again.

As for Kodori, there is a little more information available. For one thing, I heard President Saakashvili in a press conference referring to a destroyed ski school. This was one of the things the Georgian administration has been happy to show off, a new ski school for local kids (obviously not operational when I saw it last week in the height of summer) built on one of the hills rising up from the Kodori River in this stunningly picturesque valley. There would have been absolutely no strategic value to destroying the ski school, which wasn't even close to any official or administration buildings. It could be spin to make the Russians appear vicious. Or perhaps the Russians were vicious. Without being there, there is no way to tell.

A bit of background on Kodori: The valley is in the Northeast corner of Abkhazia. A road runs up to it from Sukhumi to the Southwest and to the Georgian city of Zugdidi to the Southeast. Though it is clearly in Abkhaz territory, it was never really a place controlled by Abkhaz authorities at any time (it is so remote that even during Soviet times it was largely left on its own to self-govern). It is inhabited by 2,000 Svans (3,000 in summer), an ethnic subgroup of the Georgians.

The entire Svaneti region, which includes the Kodori valley, has been associated with a degree of lawlessness and banditry in recent years. When the Georgian Interior Ministry sent in troops in 2006 to take the upper part of the Kodori valley, it was ostensibly a police operation to wrest control from a warlord and stop drug running and human trafficking. But their capture of the valley also gave Georgia a strategic position, offering them a second approach to Sukhumi should they ever need it. Politically, it also gave them a critical foothold of Georgian controlled territory within Abkhazia, which they were quick to exploit by moving in an Abkhazia "government in exile" (they called it "Upper Abkhazia") and embarking on significant public works projects like a new road to Zugdidi, a school, and government offices (not to mention that ski school). This was why they were keen to show it to us last week.

Until last week, the Kodori Valley was, in the conventional wisdom, the greatest potential flashpoint of conflict in the Caucasus. At the southern end of the Georgian-controlled part of the valley was the "Broken Bridge" (actually intact), where, similar to the Korean DMZ, heavily armed Georgian and Russian troops stared at each other across a short no man's land. [Again, the Russians ran the checkpoint on the Abkhaz side because of their official role as CIS peacekeepers separating the Georgians and Abkhaz.] The broken bridge was an ideal choke-point, at least from the Georgian side. The river gorge is very narrow there and the road leading up to the bridge offered elevation and clear line of sight to the Russian post. The Georgians had taken advantage of this and constructed sandbag bunkers at regular intervals, backed a camouflaged firebase surrounded by trenches.

Until war broke out, the Kodori issue was the one that you heard the Russians and Abkhaz complaining the loudest about. No matter that when held by the Abkhaz, it never actually had forces there, it was part of Abkhazia and by the peace agreement that ended the war in 1994, there were supposed to be no Georgian troops on Abkhaz territory. The Georgian's response was always that it was a police force, not a military one. But this was pretty hard to defend when you got a look at their "policemen" in full combat gear working in heavily fortified bases along the border.

Of course this is now largely academic. Today, Abkhaz president Sergei Bagapsh reported announced the restoration of Abkhaz control over the entire valley. No one really knows how it went down, but clearly even the Georgian's impressive defenses could not counter Russia's air dominance. Even though there has been no independent information about casualties in the valley, I worry less about the Svans of Kodori than I do for the Georgians of Gali. After a period of dislocation, they will probably be left on their own once again, with only the ruins of some administrative buildings and that wrecked ski school to remember Georgian control by. Deputy Minister of the Interior Shot Utiashvili, who took me to the valley last week, just told me that all the officials from the government-in-exile, whom I interviewed only a week ago standing in that heart of that beautiful valley, have been safely evacuated. They will now have to regroup and find a new base.

The fighting in South Ossetia last week came to many as a surprise. But once the Russians got in the fight there, no one following the conflicts in Georgia would have thought there wouldn't be a quick move in Kodori as well. And the timing of the cessation of hostilities issued by Moscow yesterday could have been in accordance with the completion of Russia's military objectives in the valley. When talk emerges in the next few days of a ceasefire stipulating the return to military positions before the outbreak of fighting, this will only apply to South Ossetia. The Russians, and by extension, the Abkhaz, have won a significant victory in a place where few are looking and they will be sure to hold it.