Abkhaz separatists have dismissed Tbilisi’s “fresh roadmap” to resolve Georgia’s secessionist conflicts. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili proposed the new approach in his address to the UN General Assembly on September 22. Saakashvili called for a direct Georgian-Abkhaz dialogue, but he hinted that force could become a possibility if political methods do not work (www.un.org). In response, a September 25 statement by the Abkhaz foreign ministry described Saakashvili’s speech as tantamount to withdrawing from the Georgian-Abkhaz negotiating process and criticized Tbilisi’s unwillingness to pursue “peaceful co-existence with Abkhazia” (Apsnypress, September 25; Civil Georgia, September 26). Some local pundits have also criticized Saakashvili’s approach as “inconsistent” and playing into the hands of Russia and the separatists (TV-Imedi, September 23).
Recent developments inside and around Abkhazia remain highly controversial, with the Abkhaz establishment and the international community both seeking ways to settle this 13-year-old conflict. On September 15, the International Crisis Group issued a new report that Tbilisi found quite unpalatable. Emphasizing Abkhazia’s “right to statehood based on national self-determination,” and Abkhaz efforts “to produce a sense of normality in the entity,” the report boldly states that the conflict “will continue to fester unless both sides take a new approach to build mutual respect.” It stresses, “No peaceful solution to the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict appears imminent” … as “Georgians and Abkhaz are drifting further apart.” The report rebuked Tbilisi for stepping up its military preparations, which tends to invalidate any talk of peace by Georgian officials (www.crisis.group.org). Russia hopes the international community will apply the Kosovo model to the secessionist conflicts in Georgia, which Tbilisi opposes.
Yesterday, September 27, Abkhaz separatists celebrated the 13th anniversary of Abkhazia’s secession from Georgia following a military victory in 1993. The celebration did not include a military review as in previous years. However, Abkhaz forces did conduct large-scale military exercises in the Abkhaz-controlled lower part of Kodori Gorge on September 24-26 (www.apsny.ru, Resonansi, September 26; Messenger, September 25).
Reports by official and unofficial sources from Abkhazia indicate rising tensions in connection with a potential Georgian offensive from the strategically important upper Kodori Gorge, where Tbilisi enhanced its control and military presence this summer (see EDM, August 1, 2). The editorial “Crisis of Recognition,” published in the Abkhaz newspaper Forum on September 7, claims that Tbilisi plans to retake Gali district in order to accommodate pro-Georgian state bodies, hamper international recognition of Abkhazia, and deprive Abkhazia of the vital Enguri hydropower station, which had been shared between the Georgian and Abkhaz sides.
The Abkhaz also fear a potential Abkhaz military operation to capture Kodori. The Abkhaz military preparations give Russia a wide opportunity for involvement, because the separatists could not hold off the Georgian army without assistance. Local sources report that Russian military advisors posing as tourists have been drilling Abkhaz forces at the Russian military base in Gudauta, which Moscow claims to have closed. Some high-ranking Abkhaz officials have reportedly dispatched their families to Russia. Ordinary Abkhaz reportedly feel abandoned, and some of them suspect that Russian peacekeepers turned a blind eye as Georgia brought its troops to Kodori because of some secret deal between Tbilisi and Moscow. Some Abkhaz, including veterans of the Georgian-Abkhaz war, reportedly slam Russian policy as “venal.” However, some Abkhaz reportedly are willing to resume dialogue with the Georgians and complain that the Georgian leadership is not interested in Abkhaz popular opinion. Nevertheless, the secessionist agenda still serves as a uniting factor for Abkhaz groups of various orientations.
Self-styled Abkhaz president Sergei Bagapsh reportedly opposed Russian plans to unleash a new round of conflict when Tbilisi moved troops to Kodori. Sources say Moscow and the Russia-leaning radical wing of the Abkhaz establishment, including Vice-President Raul Khajimba, are pressuring on Bagapsh to strike at Kodori. On August 16, the influential Assembly of Abkhaz Elders reportedly demanded that Bagapsh either capture the upper Kodori in the shortest possible time or resign. Bagapsh subsequently warned, “It would take Abkhaz troops only three hours to capture Kodori.” Military analysts, however, say that Abkhaz troops could not do it without Russian help (Resonansi, September 2, 19; Akhali versia, September 21; Messenger, September 25).
An international conference, “Abkhazia in the Context of Regional Security and Development,” convened at the Pitsunda resort on September 19-20. The meeting suggested that the Abkhaz establishment wants Tbilisi to apologize publicly to the Abkhaz as a first step to building trust. The conference also showed the separatists’ increasing international connections, including links with the sizeable Abkhaz community in Turkey. Abkhaz leaders appear to be increasingly aware that Russia is not the only potential international player in the conflict settlement.
The entire Georgian leadership, including Saakashvili, Parliamentary Chair Nino Burjanadze, Prime Minister Zurab Nogaideli, and Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili, arrived in upper Kodori Gorge in Abkhazia on September 27. That same day the Abkhaz government-in-exile began to work in Kodori. This development can be viewed as a symbolic effort to counterbalance the Abkhaz celebration.
At the Pitsunda conference, Ruslan Kharabua, a Moscow-based Abkhaz pundit, argued that the security of Abkhazia “directly depends on the geopolitical claims of the United States and Russia in the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict,” which he said makes Tbilisi a hostage of this external process (Forum, September 7; Apsnypress, September 20).