As expected, the Abkhaz separatists rejected the peace plan that the Georgian government had offered in response to an earlier Abkhaz framework (see EDM, May 10). Sergei Shamba, the self-styled Abkhaz foreign minister, had officially submitted the Abkhaz plan while he was Tbilisi on May 15. On June 1, Shamba dismissed Tbilisi’s counter-proposals as unacceptable, because they lacked new approaches (Kavkaz Press, June 2). So far, Tbilisi has not released details of its peace plan.
However, Tbilisi has indicated its readiness to consider the Abkhaz peace plan, even though it bluntly calls on Tbilisi to “become the initiator of recognizing Abkhaz independence” and to stop attempts to “supplant Russia” in the peacekeeping process. The Abkhaz peace plan also asks Georgia to apologize for its “policy of war, assimilation, and isolation” of Abkhazia. Therefore, a close read of the Abkhaz plan provoked dubious responses and concerns about possible concessions to the separatists. Vague statements by Georgian officials only fueled the concerns.
After a session of the Georgian National Security Council on May 16, Council Secretary Kote Kemularia said only, “Negotiations on the conflict settlement are entering a new phase.” Georgian State Minister for Conflict Resolution Giorgi Khaindrava remarked that the Abkhaz plan deserved discussion, despite “contradictions.” “It contains issues that we can start to consider right away,” he said at a governmental meeting on May 17. These issues are likely to be the repatriation of Georgian refugees and restoration of economic links, which the Abkhaz side presumably does not associate with the question of independence, and which Tbilisi dearly strives to use as tools for confidence building. However, repatriation of Georgian refugees was the sole sticking point for the Abkhaz establishment. This may explain why the Abkhaz authorities want Georgian refugees returned only to the traditionally Georgian-populated Gali district, which is closest to the rest of Georgia.
The Abkhaz separatists value each and every peaceful day. Their new peace plan may only be a ruse to involve Tbilisi in new, time-consuming negotiations until the international community reaches an agreement over the independence of Kosovo. “While the talks are held, guns are silent,” Shamba commented (Regnum, June 5).
Some liberal-minded Georgian analysts call on Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili to reassess previous approaches to Abkhazia, apologize for launching the war, recognize the Abkhaz as the sole indigenous ethnic group in the region, and postpone discussion regarding the political status of Abkhazia in favor of parity cooperation in various spheres, including conflict settlement. They detected some positive aspects from the Abkhaz peace plan, including, for example, the Abkhaz leadership’s admission that it had excluded Georgian refugees from the 1999 referendum that overwhelmingly voted for Abkhazia’s independence. Advocates of a liberal approach argue that softening Georgia’s policies towards Abkhazia would weaken Russia’s leverage on the region and lessen Moscow’s chances to manipulate the Abkhaz issue at the international level (Resonansi, 24 Saati, June 5).
So far, these ideas have not found support among Saakashvili’s team, which relies more on international actors to help settle the conflict than on direct contacts with the Abkhaz, which would only be productive after genuine conciliatory steps from Tbilisi. However, domestic politics, the mood of the Georgian public, and the uncertainty about the true intentions of the Abkhaz seemingly prevent Saakashvili from changing his current tough approach, which is still generating political dividends at home.
Meanwhile, the Abkhaz separatists are steamrolling their secessionist agenda and military preparations. On June 3 a squad from the newly established Abkhaz anti-terror center — trained and equipped by Russia — was tasked with establishing control over the Kodori Gorge (the sole Georgia-controlled piece of Abkhazia) and Georgian-populated areas of Gali district (TV-Rustavi-2, June 3). Evidently at Moscow’s bidding, Shamba warned that if the international community fails to recognize the independence of Abkhazia after Kosovo, Abkhazia may reject international mediation of the conflict. (Interfax, June 3). Abkhaz leaders in Sukhumi were evidently encouraged by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s statement at a meeting with media chiefs from the G-8 states on June 2 about extending the Kosovo and Montenegro precedents to Abkhazia and South Ossetia. But it seems that Russia is well aware of the substantial differences between the Kosovo and Abkhaz issues, but uses the Kosovo case as a carrot for the Abkhaz separatists.
Russia evidently is much more concerned about Abkhazia than South Ossetia, thanks to Abkhazia’s strategic location, maritime access, and economic potential. Saakashvili and Putin are expected to discuss this favoritism when they meet in St. Petersburg on June 13.
To create a favorable climate for the summit, the Georgian Parliamentary Bureau has delayed debates on a draft resolution about outlawing Russian peacekeepers in Abkhazia and suggested a moratorium on anti-Russian rhetoric.
However, it is naïve to expect that Moscow would react the way Tbilisi expects. Some Russian analysts say that the assertive, anti-Russian policy of the Saakashvili regime has backfired and given Moscow a reason to toughen its attitude toward Georgia (Regnum, June 5).
The June 13 summit is likely to result in a compromise that will leave Russian peacekeepers in the conflict zone and seal the status quo in Abkhazia. Perhaps Moscow will temporarily restrain from applying the Kosovo and Montenegro precedents to Abkhazia (Kviris Palitra, June 5; 24 Saati, June 6).