May 6 marked the second anniversary of the restoration of Georgia’s full jurisdiction over the Ajarian Autonomous Republic. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, attending the celebration in Batumi, Ajaria’s main city, stated that this process “should surely be completed” in breakaway Abkhazia (TV-Imedi, Regnum, May 6).
Tbilisi likely is encouraged by hopeful messages on separatist movements from its Western allies. U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney evidently alluded to Russia during the May 3-4 Vilnius conference on “Common Vision for a Common Neighborhood” when he said, “No one can justify actions that undermine the territorial integrity of a neighbor” (see EDM, May 5). Whether this statement becomes a prelude to more proactive policies by Georgia’s Western allies regarding Abkhazia and South Ossetia will likely be clarified at the July G-8 summit, where the frozen conflicts in the post-Soviet space are likely to be discussed.
Although the Georgian parliament passed a resolution in October 2005 that instructed the government to submit a peace plan on Abkhazia by May 1, 2006, no formal document has been made public. But as early as March it was apparent that the structure of the Abkhaz plan would be largely similar to the one designed for South Ossetia — demilitarization and economic rehabilitation followed by wide autonomy within the Georgian state.
However, the South Ossetian framework is not reproducible in the more independence-oriented Abkhazia, which even dared to anger Moscow in October 2004 by electing a president of its own choice. Predictably, Abkhaz leaders flatly rejected the peace plan. Sergei Shamba, the purported Abkhaz foreign minister, said that Abkhazia would not disarm while Georgia strengthens its military potential and plans to join NATO (Interfax, March 7).
The Abkhaz establishment has long raised the specter of an imminent Georgian military invasion to keep the Abkhaz establishment on a constant state of alert. The separatist government steadfastly claims to be able to rebuff any aggression from Georgia. “Almost each Abkhaz household can arm a platoon,” boasted Abkhaz “prime minister” Alexander Ankvab (Vremya novostei, March 6). In an interview with the Abkhaz newspaper Forum, Anatoly Zaitsev, a Russian lieutenant general serving as Abkhazia’s chief of the general staff, stated that the Abkhaz army has the capacity to successfully retaliate against a Georgian military invasion (Forum, February 17). Abkhaz forces held their third round of military exercises this year on April 24-27; 5,000 servicemen participated (Apsnypress, April 25).
With no Georgian peace plan on the table, the Abkhaz separatists have submitted their own. On May 7, the Abkhaz parliament approved a “Comprehensive Resolution of the Georgian-Abkhaz Conflict,” submitted three days earlier by Abkhaz “president” Sergei Bagapsh. The parliament particularly emphasized that the Abkhaz side was the first to propose a peace plan. The Abkhaz document, “Key to the Future,” seeks to the “development of fundamentally new, neighborly relations” between Georgia and Abkhazia as two independent states. According to Abkhaz news agency Apsnypress, the plan proposes confidence-building measures, mutual good will, ending military rhetoric, and practical implementation of peace measures. The plan particularly underlines the possibility of conflict settlement in the framework of regional economic cooperation among the Black Sea countries (Apsnypress, May 5; Regnum May 6). Undoubtedly, Abkhazia’s peace plan seeks international recognition, as Tbilisi will not recognize Abkhazia as an independent state.
The Abkhaz peace initiative resembles the peace plan proposed by South Ossetia last December, which asked Georgia to consider South Ossetia as an independent state (EDM, December 15, 2005). Symptomatically, before proposing the peace plan, Bagapsh had held closed-door talks with Sergei Baburin, deputy chair of the Russian State Duma, in Sukhumi on May 2. It appears that both the Abkhazian and Ossetian “peace plans” have been written in Moscow, which fully controls both separatist regimes.
The Abkhaz separatists reaffirmed their secessionist agenda during a meeting with a delegation from the NATO parliamentary assembly in Sukhumi on May 6. Bagapsh noted, “The conversation started smoothly, but continued in a tense atmosphere.” The Abkhaz party leaves “little opportunities for talks with Georgia,” Pier Lelush, head of the assembly, stated after the talks with the separatists leaders. Commenting on this statement Shamba said that the Abkhaz leadership has ruled out both federative and confederative forms of coexistence with Georgia. Bagapsh stressed that “Abkhazia will develop relations with Russia whether the international community likes it or not” (rian.ru, May 7; Apsnypress, Regnum, Interfax, May 6).
Although Bagapsh brushed away allegations of Russia’s annexation of Abkhazia at the meeting with the NATO delegation, this process nevertheless is progressing at full speed. About 50 Russian banks now operate in Abkhazia despite numerous protests by Tbilisi. On May 5, Bagapsh stated that Abkhazia wants to join Commonwealth of Independent States, which Georgia plans to leave. He reaffirmed that Abkhazia still seeks associated membership in the Russian Federation. “The main thing is to bring Abkhazia closer to Russia politically and economically,” Bagapsh stressed (Interfax, May 5).
As tensions increase between Georgia and Russia, Georgia’s former President Eduard Shevardnadze, interviewed by Imedi-TV on May 8, advised Saakashvili to restrain his anti-Moscow ardor and arrange a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Georgia’s territorial integrity will not be resolved if Russia stays away from this process, he said. “Improving relations with Russia will facilitate a peaceful solution of the conflicts in Georgia,” he stressed (TV-Imedi, May 8).