Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 156

Despite earlier optimism, talks postponed on linking Russia and Georgia by rail

Abkhaz leaders have derailed the tripartite talks on rehabilitating the railroad between Russia and Georgia in Abkhazia that were scheduled to begin in Sukhumi on August 9. The group of nine Georgian railroad experts had to return to Tbilisi after the Abkhaz authorities unexpectedly refused entry to two members of the group, on the grounds that they are internally displaced persons who fled Abkhazia during the 1992-93 war (Interfax, Apsynpress, Imedi TV, August 9).

Sukhumi’s peculiar argument seems intended to break the linkage between the restoration of the railroad and the safe return of Georgian refugees to their homes, beginning with the Gali district. That linkage has formed the basis of negotiations for several years in several formats, including the tripartite “Sochi process” conducted since 2003 among the Russian, Georgian, and Abkhaz sides. Russia is keen to restore the railroad in order to obtain a strategic link through Georgia with Armenia. The Abkhaz are just as keen to be linked by rail with Russia, but are unwilling to accept a mass return of refugees, and now apparently seek to de-couple the two issues.

Although the railroad talks are formally tripartite, the Abkhaz authorities hardly have experts of their own. They want the meeting to proceed without Georgians if necessary and to start technical inspection of the railroad with the Russian experts, who are in Sukhumi already. The Sukhumi meeting and a detailed plan for inspection had been approved at tripartite talks among expert groups on July 19, and the intention was confirmed during a session of Georgian and Abkhaz negotiators on August 4 at the UN Mission (UNOMIG) office in Tbilisi, in the presence of ambassadors of the “Friends of Georgia” group of countries.

The Tbilisi meeting was an unusually promising one, in that it was free from polemics and the Abkhaz representatives matched the Georgians’ civility. The Abkhaz side clearly appreciated Tbilisi’s willingness to discuss an agreement on mutual assurances for non-resumption of hostilities. Because this issue is now a part of the agenda, the Abkhaz self-styled “deputy ministers” of defense and state security obtained seats at the negotiating table opposite the Georgian delegation, in the presence of great powers’ ambassadors.

The negotiators also discussed the restoration of the railroad, linked to return of refugees; and they agreed in principle to conduct a reliable count of Georgians refugees from Abkhazia, including those who managed to return to the Gali district and those who wish to return there. The Abkhaz delegation leader, “minister of foreign affairs” Sergei Shamba, declared after the meeting, “There is hope and we look into the future with optimism.” More emphatically, Georgia’s State Minister for Conflict Settlement Giorgi Khaindrava remarked, “The freeze is over, the climate is warming up ….We must continue on the path of peace, understanding and mutual forgiveness. It is us [Georgia] who must do this first.” He held out the prospect of a bilateral meeting between Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and Abkhaz leader Sergei Bagapsh, if the talks advance on the interrelated issues discussed at that meeting (Rustavi-2 TV, Imedi TV, Interfax, August 4, 5),

The improved atmospherics notwithstanding, a number of negative signals followed. Shamba declared that any organized return of refugees would exclude some categories of Georgians and is in any case a distant prospect. While Georgia regards a reliable numerical count as a step toward an early start of the organized return, Shamba’s statements suggest an intent to use the count (and making up some categories within that count) for stonewalling the refugees’ return. On the morrow of the Tbilisi meeting, Bagapsh challenged Saakashvili to recognize Abkhazia’s secession from Georgia, as a precondition to allowing Georgian refugees to return to Gali. This position implicitly de-couples the issue of the refugees’ return from that of reconstructing the railroad, which the Abkhaz now seem to want to obtain without a quid-pro-quo (Interfax, Rustavi-2 TV, Imedi TV, August 5).

Abkhaz “prime minister” Alexander Ankvab spent the first week of August in Moscow, holding talks with Russian government officials and private firms on investment projects in Abkhazia. Upon returning, Ankvab listed the projects as rebuilding the highway from the Russian border on the Psou River to Sukhumi by two Russian construction companies, building a timber-processing mill, and organizing wholesale export of Abkhaz fruit to Russia. No reference is made to Georgia as lawful sovereign and owner of some of the assets under discussion, or to the Russia-Georgia legal border on the Psou (Interfax, Apsynpress, August 9).

The railroad talks and inspection may well proceed after the August 9 postponement, but Tbilisi will have to make certain that this process remains politically linked to the issue of return of refugees, and is not turned by the Abkhaz side into a mere technical operation divorced from the negotiating process of resolving the conflict. Meanwhile, Tbilisi made the right choice in seeking to engage the Abkhaz directly, outside the formally structured negotiations, through the informal bilateral contacts in which the chief Georgian negotiator, Irakli Alasania, has clearly earned the Abkhaz side’s respect.