Last week the saber rattling that has characterized Georgian-Abkhaz relation subsided as UN- mediated talks about confidence building commenced. Against a backdrop of continuing mutual violence in Georgia’s breakaway region of Abkhazia (see EDM, November 8, 29) the talks are intended to demonstrate that a peaceful settlement of the 13-year-old conflict is still possible.
The United Nations reactivated its peacemaking role following pointed criticism from Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili during his talks with UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in Tbilisi on November 19. “We are extremely frustrated with the situation in Abkhazia,” Saakashvili said as he called upon the UN to be even more involved in seeking a settlement. When Saakashvili appointed Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili on October 20, the president bluntly stated, “We still have not managed to properly bring to the international level our grief on Abkhazia.”
During the UN-mediated talks in the Abkhaz capital, Sukhumi, December 6-7, Giorgi Khaindrava, Georgian state minister for conflict resolution, and Sergei Shamba, the self-styled Abkhaz foreign minister, reportedly made progress toward a draft agreement about the non-resumption of hostilities and mutual security guarantees. Moreover, the parties confirmed their readiness to convene a special meeting for final approval of the draft. Khaindrava described the talks as “very interesting” and the package of security guarantees as “actually agreed.”
The Sukhumi talks involved top EU representatives and offered Abkhazia a large package of economic assistance to induce Sukhumi to soften its intransigent secessionist agenda. The first session of the steering committee on European Commission-funded infrastructure rehabilitation projects worth €2 million discussed the first stage of the two-phase, three-year program to revitalize the Tkvarcheli, Gali, and Ochamchira districts of Abkhazia and the adjacent Georgian Zugdidi district. Along with social-economic rehabilitation, the program is simultaneously targeted at developing stability in the conflict zone. The Abkhaz side welcomes the program, but categorically opposes including Georgian experts in the working groups within the territory of Abkhazia.
The representatives of the UN Secretary-General’s Group of Friends of Georgia (United States, Britain, Germany, France, and Russia) also participated in the session and conducted meetings with self-styled Abkhaz president Sergei Bagapsh and other Abkhaz officials.
Having briefed the visitors about the situation Abkhazia and in especially Gali, Bagapsh accused Tbilisi of patronizing “bandit groups” and launching a guerrilla war in this district. Bagapsh clearly identified the areas of possible Georgia-Abkhaz cooperation, including energy, transportation, and anti-contraband measures. During their meeting with U.S. Ambassador to Georgia John Tefft, the Abkhaz leaders reaffirmed that under no circumstances would Abkhazia give up its de facto independence from Georgia. They claimed that the Abkhaz would help South Ossetia militarily in case of “Georgian aggression.” Moreover, a new report by Georgia’s Russian-language news service, Novosti Gruzia, falsely attributed the statement to Tefft, implying that he knew Abkhazia had existed as an independent state prior to incorporation into Georgia. The U.S. Embassy in Georgia called the report “patently untrue.”
Whether this meeting between the ambassadors and the Abkhaz leadership foreshadows an increasing level of U.S. and EU involvement in the conflict settlement, which Tbilisi has long sought, remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, the “War Party” is doing its job. Hostilities continue in the conflict zone. On December 6, a secret ammunition depot containing anti-tank mines and TNT explosive was detected by locals in the Gumuri village in the Abkhaz-controlled Gali district. On December 7, an armed Abkhazian group crossed the Inguri River and entered Shamgona, a Georgia-controlled village in Zugdidi district, where they fired at a building sheltering Georgian refugees from Abkhazia. On December 10, in the village of Otobaia in Gali, unidentified gunmen fired at a house where a unit of the Abkhaz task force, mostly composed of Cossacks, was quartered, wounding two of them.
During the talks in Sukhumi Khaindrava vainly tried to dispel Abkhaz concerns about Georgia’s growing military potential. On December 9, the Georgian parliament overwhelmingly voted to increase the number of Georgian military personnel from 20,000 to 31,868. Khaindrava said that strengthening the Georgian army should not be interpreted as a plan to regain Abkhazia by military force.
Abkhaz defense minister Sultan Sosnaliev told Nezavisimaya gazeta that time constraints and the continued failure to resolve the Abkhaz problem politically encourage Tbilisi to escalate tensions. He argued that once the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline comes fully online, the West would not allow Tbilisi to wage war against Abkhazia. “The Georgian army is totally different from what it was in the early 1990s,” he said. Sosnaliev said that Georgian-Abkhaz hostilities are imminent if Russia supports Georgia’s peace plan on Abkhazia as it recently did with regard to the Tbilisi peace plan on South Ossetia at the December 6 OSCE Ministerial Council in Ljubljana.
Not everyone in Tbilisi hailed the widely advertised draft Georgian-Abkhaz agreement about non-resumption of hostilities, believing that the document ties Georgia’s hands if the peace talks ultimately fail.
(Kviris palitra, October 17-24; Civil Georgia, November 19, December 6; Regnum, Akhali taoba, Apsnypress, December 7, December 6-7, 9; Prime News, December 8; Kavkas Press, December 8-9; Nezavisimaya gazeta, December 9; TV-Rustavi-2, December 11)