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In a serious escalation of violence, a group reportedly consisting of Chechen rebels and Georgian partisans clashed with Abkhazian troops following a deadly raid on a village in October. The subsequent downing of a United Nations helicopter and the bombing of several Abkhaz ian villages by aircraft, alleged to be Russian, intensified the conflict, making a final settlement to the protracted conflict in Abkhazia more elusive than ever. While officials in Tbilisi and Sukhumi continued to disagree on the fundamental issue of the territory's political status, widespread criminality and lawlessness were a constant threat to the fragile peace process.
Annexed by Russia in 1864, Abkhazia became an autonomous republic of Soviet Georgia in the 1930s. The year following the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, Abkhazia declared its independence from Tbilisi, igniting a war between Abkhaz secessionists and Georgian troops that lasted nearly 14 months. In September 1993, Abkhaz forces, with covert assistance from Russia, seized control of the city of Sukhumi, ultimately defeating the Georgian army and winning de facto independence for the territory. As a result of the conflict, more than 200,000 residents, mostly ethnic Georgians, fled Abkhazia, while casualty figures were estimated in the thousands. An internationally brokered ceasefire was signed in Moscow in 1994, although a final decision on the territory's status remained unresolved.
In June 1999, the Georgian leadership lobbied for international condemnation of alleged ethnic cleansing in Abkhazia as a result of the 1992-1993 war. The unsuccessful effort effectively ended Georgian hopes that the UN would sanction the use of force against the breakaway territory.
In the October 1999 elections for president of Abkhazia, the incumbent, Vladislav Ardzinba, was the only candidate running for office; his inauguration ceremony was held in the capital, Sukhumi, in December. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and other international organizations refused to recognize the vote as legitimate. In a concurrent referendum on independence, the results of which were not recognized by any state, a reported 98 percent of voters supported independence for Abkhazia. Georgia denounced the polls as illegal and as an attempt to sabotage peace talks.
In July 2000, Georgia and Abkhazia signed a stabilization protocol in which both sides agreed to deploy no more than 600 troops and police on each side of the conflict zone and not to resort to force in attempting to resolve disputes connected with the conflict. However, ongoing peace negotiations have yet to find solutions acceptable to both parties on the main issues of the return of displaced persons and the region's final political status. While Tbilisi maintains that Abkhazia must remain a constituent part of Georgia, Sukhumi continues to insist on the territory's independence from Georgia, a status that has not been recognized by the international community.
During a November 1999 OSCE meeting in Istanbul, Moscow agreed to close two of its four military bases in Georgia by mid-2001, including its Gudauta base in Abkhazia. The plan was opposed by many of the territory's leadership and population, who regard Russia as an important ally against Georgian claims on the breakaway republic. Protestors repeatedly blockaded the base to prevent the withdrawal of Russian troops, which was delayed until late October 2001.
A series of violent incidents late in 2001 underscored the precariousness of the region's fragile peace and Georgia's continued strained relations with Russia. Several hundred Georgian and Chechen fighters reportedly seized a village in Abkhazia on October 3, resulting in at least five casualties. On October 8, five UN military observers and one translator were killed when their helicopter was shot down while making a routine inspection flight over the Kodori Gorge in Abkhazia. Abkhaz officials blamed ethnic-Chechen and Georgian fighters for that attack, as well as for a raid the following day on an Abkhaz village in which 14 residents were killed. Just hours later, unidentified aircraft launched bombing raids on three other villages that Abkhazian authorities accused Georgia of conducting. Georgian officials denied any involvement, countering that they had evidence that the aircraft had come from Russia, a claim the Kremlin refuted.
Following the attacks, renewed fighting broke out in and around the Kodori Gorge region. The Abkhazian government ordered a partial military mobilization of its forces; Georgia moved troops to its border with Abkhazia; and the Russian military deployed more forces to its southern border with the republic. The Kremlin has long accused Georgia of harboring Chechen rebels, especially in the Pankisi Gorge area in eastern Georgia that borders Chechnya. According to some reports, Georgian security ministry officials had arranged to move the Chechen fighters from the Pankisi Gorge to the Abkhazian border following Russian threats to flush them out; the Chechen rebels then reportedly hoped to make their way back into Chechnya through Abkhazia.
Residents of Abkhazia can elect government officials, but some 200,000 displaced Georgians could not vote in the 1999 presidential elections or in parliamentary and local elections in previous years. Local elections held in March 2001 were condemned as illegitimate by the OSCE, which denounced local officials for failing to assure the voting rights of those ethnic Georgians who had fled the republic in the mid-1990s. Although the November 1994 constitution established a presidential-parliamentary system of government, the president exercises almost complete control of the region. The ethnic-Georgian Abkhazian Supreme Council has been a government in exile in Tbilisi since being expelled from Abkhazia in 1993.
While several independent newspapers are published, the Abkhazian press generally publishes mostly negative information on events in Georgia. Electronic media are controlled by the state and generally reflect government positions.
Freedom of religion is respected for Muslims, but Christian Georgians and Armenians face harassment and persecution. President Vladislav Ardzinba issued a decree in 1995 banning Jehovah's Witnesses. Most nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) operating in Abkhazia rely on funding from outside of the territory. Trade unions are former affiliates of the Georgian Confederation of Trade Unions. Freedom of assembly is restricted.
The constitution formally established an independent judiciary, but the system continues many Soviet-era practices. Most judges are nominated by the president and appointed with parliamentary approval.
Personal security in the conflict zone deteriorated throughout 2001. The unarmed, 106-member UN Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG) remains stationed in the country to monitor the ceasefire and attempt to resolve violations, and a Commonwealth of Independent States peacekeeping force, dominated by Russian troops, patrols the region. However, the 1994 ceasefire has been tenuous, with a series of hostage- takings and killings, including the deaths of civilians, occurring throughout the year. In early July, six people were killed and two taken hostage in Abkhazia's Kodori Valley, while two civilians and two soldiers were killed by unknown gunmen in the Gali district along the Abkhazian-Georgian border. According to a UN report, there were 21 killings, 10 abductions, and 45 robberies during one three-month period alone in midyear. Citing the eroding security situation, the UN Security Council voted in July 2001 to extend the UNOMIG mission until January 2002. The October shooting down of a UN helicopter and a subsequent deadly raid on an Abkhazian village, both of which attracted considerable international attention, heightened the overall sense of insecurity throughout the republic.
Close to 200,000 displaced persons who fled Abkhazia during the early 1990s are living in western Georgia, most in the Zugdidi district bordering Abkhazia. Gali remains the last Georgian enclave in Abkhazia.
Agriculture, including the cultivation of tobacco, tea, and fruit, constitutes the main economic activity in the region. Large segments of the economy, many of which have been devastated by the war, are controlled by criminal organizations, and smuggling and corruption are widespread.