Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 42

Abkhazia unilaterally launched yesterday what it terms the repatriation of ethnic Georgian who fled during the 1992-1993 war. Sukhumi’s move is opposed by Tbilisi and by the refugee organizations and lacks international approval. The UN and Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) missions and the “Friends of Georgia” group of Western countries are withholding their blessings. International donor agencies are withholding the economic rehabilitation aid which Sukhumi had sought as a reward for its gesture. Moscow and its “peacekeeping” troops are maintaining a wait-and-see attitude.

On the first day of the readmission process, only several dozen Georgian refugees crossed into Abkhaz-controlled territory at the specially created checkpoint on the Inguri River bridge. Hundreds of Georgian refugees living on Tbilisi-controlled territory are picketing at their end of the bridge against what they regard as a sham repatriation.

Sukhumi has publicized its offer but not the strings attached, which come close to nullifying the offer’s value. Readmission is limited to the Gali district, which has been gerrymandered down to half its former size, and which constitutes only one of Abkhazia’s four pre-war districts. The Abkhaz authorities reserve the right to screen the refugees individually and to exclude “participants in the war on the Georgian side”–a definition which can be applied and abused almost at will, considering the chaotic circumstances of the 1992-93 war and intercommunal conflict. Repatriates are supposed to pledge loyalty to Abkhazia and its constitution and take up its citizenship, thus in effect recognizing the unrecognized state.

Also unresolved is the key issue of providing security for the repatriates. Georgia has pressed for authorizing the Russian “peacekeepers” to escort the repatriates and for creating a joint force, including Georgian internal troops, to protect Georgian villages in Abkhazia. Moscow has successfully resisted the first proposal on military grounds, but cannot indefinitely stonewall the second proposal without appearing to condone the ethnic cleansing, which the Russian military intervention had made possible in the first place.

Sukhumi realizes all too well that an internationally mandated repatriation would have to involve some kind of international force, counterbalancing the Russian “peacekeeping” operation and helping restore a measure of Georgian sovereignty in Abkhazia. That in turn would at last give Tbilisi some cards to play in the negotiations over Abkhazia’s status. To forestall such a development, the Abkhaz authorities have now decided to proceed with a strictly limited and controlled repatriation, on their own terms and in a preemptive fashion.

Prior to the 1992-93 war, Georgians formed 46 percent and Abkhaz 17 percent of Abkhazia’s population. The Russian-Abkhaz military campaign created a quarter-million Georgian refugees. Approximately 20,000 have, in the past few years, filtered back to their homes in the Gali district, which the Abkhaz and the Russian troops are unable to police effectively. The terms of Abkhazia’s repatriation offer fall far short of a reversal of the ethnic cleansing (Radio Tbilisi, Radio Sukhumi, Itar-Tass, March 1).