Recent developments in Abkhazia, Georgia’s breakaway region, do not bode well for the forthcoming Georgian-Abkhaz negotiations scheduled for mid-November in Sukhumi, the capital of Abkhazia. These UN-mediated talks have already been delayed because the sides failed to finalize a draft of a joint Georgian-Abkhaz declaration on security guarantees and non-resumption of hostilities.
Efforts to reconcile the contents of the declaration are underway, although some Georgian analysts see hazards for Tbilisi in this initiative, which is backed by the UN and the Georgian Ministry for Conflict Resolution (see EDM, August 17). The latest moves by the Abkhaz authorities are likely to encourage opponents of the declaration in the Georgian government.
On November 4, Daniel Tsurtsumia, an ethnic Georgian resident of Gagida village in Gali district, died in a Sukhumi hospital after a severe beating by Abkhaz militiamen. A 200-strong squad of Abkhaz militiamen raided the village on November 2 to forcibly conscript ethnic Georgians into the Abkhaz army. Tsurtsumia’s refusal to swear allegiance to the Abkhaz army after being pressed into service resulted in his death. The Georgian parliament opened today’s session (November 8) with one minute of silence in remembrance of Tsurtsumia (Caucasus Press, November 8).
On November 7, Abkhaz defense minister Sultan Sosnaliev denied reports about forcible conscription of Georgians. Moreover, Abkhaz interior minister Otar Khetsia asserted that Tsurtsumia had mounted an armed resistance to militia, which had detained him as a suspected guerrilla terrorizing the local population.
The Abkhaz defense ministry insists that the call-up of Georgians is voluntary. Yet Georgian media have reported numerous eyewitness accounts this month of the Abkhaz militia intimidating and forcing Georgian youth to serve in the Abkhaz army. On November 7, the UN Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG) expressed concern about “the deteriorating security and human rights situation” in the Abkhaz conflict zone, which “could lead to the escalation of tension” in the region.
Tsurtsumia’s death has allowed Tbilisi to repeat charges about the inefficiency of Russian peacekeeping troops in Abkhazia. A November 4 statement from the Georgian Foreign Ministry states that the Russian peacekeeping troops have failed to “to perform the obligations under their mandate to ensure the safety of the local population and they show complete inertness over the gross violations of human rights.” This statement echoes the Georgian parliament’s recent resolution (see EDM, October 6) that charges Russian peacekeepers with shielding separatist regimes and sets deadlines for corrective measures or, alternatively, termination of their activities in Abkhazia and also South Ossetia.
The Georgian daily Resonansi, using reliable sources in Abkhazia, has reported plans by the Abkhaz separatist government to draft about 8,000 Georgians into the “Jima” battalion of the Abkhaz armed forces. According to the newspaper about 120 ethnic Georgians are already serving in the battalion.
The forcible conscription of ethnic Georgians is a reflection of the continuing efforts by the Abkhaz authorities to assimilate Abkhazia-based ethnic Georgians. According to various sources more than 40,000 ethnic Georgians permanently reside in breakaway Abkhazia and, some analysts argue, most of these people no longer share Georgian interests because of increasing assimilation.
The process of converting ethnic Georgians into Abkhazians began long before the Georgian-Abkhaz armed conflict of 1992-93, but this thoroughly concealed trend became particularly apparent during and after the hostilities, when press reports about ethnic Georgians who had “abandoned” their nationality became frequent. Moreover, some Georgians fought on the Abkhaz side during the war. Avtandil Ioseliani, former head of Georgian intelligence, confirms this information. After the war seven ethnic Georgians were decorated with the prestigious Abkhaz “Leon,” order, four Georgians became “Heros of Abkhazia,” and 20 Georgians were awarded a medal for bravery for their actions in the Abkhaz army. Meanwhile, no cases of Abkhazians fighting on the Georgian side have been registered.
The Moscow-influenced Abkhaz leadership is successfully working to integrate the region into Russia. On October 24, the Abkhaz parliament adopted a law on citizenship that states that citizens of Abkhazia can only hold dual citizenship with the Russian Federation. Tbilisi considers the law discriminatory against ethnic Georgians and persons of other nationalities that fled Abkhazia during or after the war in 1993 and charges the Abkhaz leadership with plans to “legalize the ethnic cleansing of the Georgians in the region.” The Abkhaz officials interpret the law differently and say that no Georgian living in Abkhazia would be forced to adopt Abkhaz citizenship. Meanwhile, the separatist government is preoccupied with the future of the Abkhaz language, which experts claim is on the verge of extinction. Out of 20 newspapers published in Abkhazia, only one is entirely Abkhazian.
On November 2, Sergei Bagapsh, self-styled president of Abkhazia, bluntly rejected Tbilisi’s recent peace initiatives, implying that the United States and European Union were somehow involved in the negotiations, and reiterated his call for Georgia President Mikheil Saakashvili to recognize the independence of Abkhazia.
Meanwhile, Bagapsh has promised to double Abkhazia’s military budget in 2006 in response to Georgia’s increased military spending. Abkhaz defense officials also annnounced that a two-week examination of Abkhaz army preparedness will start November 28. General Anatoly Zaytsev, a Russian citizen serving as deputy defense minister of Abkhazia has actively invited Russian military specialists to Abkhazia. They are offered high salary and the houses abandoned by Georgians.
Georgian politicians are now conceding that the hopes they had pinned on Bagapsh as a possible supporter of direct Georgian-Abkhaz dialogue for reintegration of Abkhazia into the Georgian state have been dashed.
(Resonansi, November 3, 4; Apsnypress, November 1,3, Vremya novostei, Kavkas Press, November 2; Regnum.ru, Interfax, November 3; Civil Georgia, November 7; 24 Saati, November 4; Basta, November 6)