Publication: Russia and Eurasia Review Volume: 2 Issue: 6

By Zaal Anjaparidze

The problem of the breakaway province of Abkhazia was central to negotiations between Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, in Sochi on March 6-7. The meeting, however, brought neither clarity nor hope of resolution to this complex problem. Some 250,000 ethnic Georgians fled Abkhazia–approximately 75 percent of the population–after the civil war in the province in 1992, and very few of them have been able to return home. A May 1994 ceasefire halted the fighting but has not paved the way to a political settlement. In recent months the Georgian government has been consoling itself and the nation with vague promises from Russia that Georgian refugees will be allowed to return to Gali (a district in Abkhazia) simultaneous with the opening of full-scale railway travel between Abkhazia and Russia.

Despite the continued positive spin from the Georgian government, recent developments suggest that Moscow is seeking to push to a new level the incorporation of Abkhazia into Russia’s sphere of influence. Moscow has been conferring Russian citizenship on the inhabitants of Abkhazia, placing a seal in their current Soviet-era passports while promising to issue new Russian Federation passports in the near future. An estimated 50,000 residents of Abkhazia have been granted Russian citizenship, and 120,000 applications are under consideration. This is one more piece of evidence suggesting that statements by Abkhaz separatists alluding to “Abkhazian independence” are only for show, and that their real goal is closer ties with the Russian Federation.

Railway traffic between Abkhazia and Russia has now been established, in violation of a January 19, 1996, CIS summit resolution. It prohibited any economic relations between Russia and Abkhazia without approval by the Georgian government. Moreover, Moscow’s help in the rehabilitation of the airport in Abkhazia will soon restore Russia’s air links with the region. Rostelecom is likewise preparing direct telephone communication with Abkhazia, which until recently was possible only via Georgia, in accordance with the bilateral agreement. Russia has also financed a census of the Abkhaz population, which the Abkhaz separatists plan to link with the census recently completed in Russia. Nor has the Russian Orthodox Church lagged behind. It plans to send representatives to Abkhazia to establish a permanent religious presence. Russia has already adopted a law allowing Russian citizens residing in the CIS to serve as contract soldiers in the Russian armed forces. The State Duma is considering a law about the incorporation of neighboring territories, and the country’s national security doctrine calls for the defense of Russian citizens in any country, even by means of military force.

In such a situation it is incumbent upon Tbilisi to formulate a coherent policy for the restoration of Georgia’s jurisdiction over the breakaway province and to put in place tools for the realization of this policy. However, the current situation in and around Abkhazia makes it abundantly clear that, ten years after Abkhazia’s separation, Shevardnadze’s government still has not drawn up any such policy. It has chosen instead to pursue simultaneously several conflicting strategies. These strategies include a little intimidation, much blustering, and continued negotiation.

This mishmash of policies has left the public wondering what comes next. Is it possible to resolve the conflict peacefully, or do those who suggest resolving it by force make more sense? Are Russian peacekeepers needed in the conflict zone, and are they in fact operating as “peacekeepers” at all? Reliable sources confirm that the “peacekeepers” actually function as border troops and are heavily involved in contraband deals at the artificial Georgian-Abkhaz border.

As a result of endless polemics over possible solutions to the Abkhaz problem between Georgia’s “doves of peace” and “hawks of war,” the nation has let the initiative for conflict resolution pass into the hands of other players. These include Russia, international organizations (the UN, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe), Western countries and such regional powers as Turkey. Georgia has slowly but surely allowed itself to be held hostage to the interests and objectives of these players. Today it is clear that a resolution of the Abkhaz problem is more dependent on the vagaries of international politics than was the case just three years ago. In the aftermath of September 11, a great deal has changed in relations between global and regional powers, and in their attitudes to regional problems. The Georgian daily Dilis Gazeti (“Morning Newspaper) caustically remarked on January 31 that, with regard to such problems as Chechnya and Abkhazia, Western countries are likely to remain “cynically pragmatic…”

It seems that the international players involved in the peace negotiations fail to pay much attention to Georgian interests when searching for a key to the Abkhaz problem. They seem more prepared to exert pressure on the Georgian government than on the Abkhaz separatists when seeking progress at the talks. In February, Georgia extended the mandate for the Russian peacekeepers for another six months. This decision was made under “polite pressure” from the Western community, which presumably wanted to maintain the status quo in the region until a resolution of the Iraq crisis might be reached. A failure by Georgia to accept the mandate extension could have had serious consequences, such as the withdrawal of UN observers. Shevardnadze attempted to placate his domestic audience by stating hopefully that this would be the last extension of the mandate. He also referred again to the encouraging promises of assistance that have come from the United States. With these promises presumably in mind, Shevardnadze is openly supporting U.S. policy against Iraq.

On March 3, in his regular Monday radio interview, Shevardnadze accused Russia of wanting to annex Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and the former South Ossetia. But in the same interview he confirmed his country’s readiness to allow railway traffic between Sukhumi (the capital of Abkhazia) and Russia, and even to allow the railway branch to extend from Abkhazia to Tbilisi, should the refugees return to Abkhazia simultaneously. Tbilisi, which had initially protested vigorously against the Russia-Abkhazia railway, is now saying that it might support the railway under certain conditions. The Abkhaz, the Russians and some Georgian pacifist circles had criticized Tbilisi’s objections to the unconditional opening of the railway, accusing Georgia of trying to throttle Abkhazia economically.

Another zigzag in the Georgian government’s policy involved its clumsy attempts to persuade the United Nations to sanction the use of force in Abkhazia, based on Chapter 7 of the UN charter. The government has also spoken of approaching the Hague International Tribunal in hopes of convicting the political and military leaders of the Abkhaz separatists for ethnic cleansing and genocide. That threat comes after the preparation of more than 200 volumes of documentary evidence regarding attacks on Georgians during the 1992-1993 war. Statements along these lines were aired by some top members of the Georgian National Security Council, including Tamaz Nadareishvili, head of the exiled Abkhaz government in Tbilisi, as if to indicate that a turning point had been reached in Georgian state policy toward Abkhazia.

But Shevardnadze disavowed his aides. At a news conference on March 10, he described the statements as the personal opinion of Mr. Nadareishvili and not reflective of the views of the Security Council. He also said that Georgia is not about to use military force in Abkhazia. Moreover, Shevardnadze expressed irritation publicly over the performance of Aslan Abashidze, the leader of the Ajarian Autonomous Republic and Shevardnadze’s personal envoy to the Georgian-Abkhaz settlement process. He charged that Abashidze has failed as a peacemaker and that he did not always involve Tbilisi in his negotiations with Russian officials in Moscow. Abashidze submitted a settlement plan to Shevardnadze long ago, but the plan has never been fully published. One of the main components of the plan is the restoration of economic links with Abkhazia.

One of the possible explanations for these “political zigzags” by Tbilisi is its economic and military weakness. Combined with domestic political challenges, this weakness has forced the Georgian government to adopt a “wait and see” policy toward Abkhazia. Moreover, many Georgian political groups and influential figures have their own economic interests in the breakaway region, which is only loosely controlled by the Abkhaz authorities themselves. Abkhazia has long been a conduit for drug-trafficking and contraband, activities which bring illegal profits to both Abkhaz and Georgian clans. The erratic nature of Georgian policy toward Abkhazia appears to play into the hands of the separatists. Georgia has never made a serious attempt to deal with the Abkhaz problem by building strong national statehood and restoring trust with the Abkhaz population and leaders.

This continuous failure to make progress toward a resolution of the Abkhaz problem has left the Georgian public frustrated. It is therefore not surprising that restoration of Georgian jurisdiction over Abkhazia has fallen to third or fourth place in opinion polls about the nation’s top priorities. However, from a middle and long-term perspective, the unresolved Abkhaz problem could yet create a serious threat to the domestic stability of Georgia, particularly because new elections are approaching.

Georgian policy makers could perhaps learn something from their Russian counterparts, who have skillfully hidden their real intentions towards Abkhazia under the banner of a quite noble and widely accepted idea of cross-border cooperation. The Russian strategy towards Abkhazia has remained quite consistent. Moscow’s ultimate goal is probably the creation in Abkhazia of legal, social-economic and political conditions that best facilitate the smooth incorporation of the region into the Russian Federation. To this end, Russia has done its best to shelve a plan about the political status of Abkhazia that was worked out by the UN secretary general’s envoy to the conflict zone.

Russian interest in the region also includes an attempt to forestall any increase in Turkey’s economic and demographic penetration into Abkhazia. In addition, Russia has urged Georgia to extend the rail line from Abkhazia to Armenia (Russia’s sole strategic partner in South Caucasus) across Georgian territory. In contrast to the contentious situation in Georgia, in Russia the government’s policy toward Abkhazia enjoys almost unanimous support from public and political forces across the spectrum.

By fueling secessionist sentiments in Abkhazia, Russia does, however, risk falling into a trap of its own making. That is, the Abkhaz example has encouraged separatists in Chechnya, and some groups of fighters have even moved from Abkhazia to Chechnya. Thus, one could say that Russia has already suffered a form of “blowback” from its support for separatism in Abkhazia, and that it may expect more in the future.

Zaal Anjaparidze is director of the Democracy Resources Development Center, a Georgian NGO.