Talks held by Georgia’s State Minister for Conflict Settlement Giorgi Khaindrava on May 20-21 in Sukhumi with Abkhaz leaders indicate that changes are expected in Abkhazia, possibly in relations between Sukhumi and Tbilisi. Vladislav Ardzinba, president of the unrecognized republic for more than a decade is ill and will not seek re-election when his term expires in October. Ardzinba is a former leader of the secessionist movement, a staunch ally of Moscow and staunch antagonist of Tbilisi.
Ardzinba does not have an heir apparent. Two different orientations “one Russian-centered, the other Abkhaz-centered” are developing within the Abkhaz ruling groups, according to Khaindrava’s observations. The outcome is uncertain, but “would make a great deal of difference to us. The Abkhaz-centered tendency is agreeable to us.” (Prime-News, May 22-23).
However, it is the other tendency that seems to have inspired the declaration issued by the Abkhaz legislature on May 24. It warned unnecessarily against any “attempts to use an Ajara-type scenario for a takeover of power in Abkhazia.” The declaration is purported to have been issued in response to threats against the Georgian leadership. The Abkhaz declaration also underscored the difference between Ajars, who form a subgroup of the Georgian nation, and the Abkhaz, who form an ethnic nation in their own right. The declaration called on the “multiethnic people of Abkhazia” to be ready to defend their “independent state.” The declaration alerted the UN and OSCE, as well as the European Union and the Council of Europe, to what it portrayed as aggressive intentions on the part of Georgia. (Interfax, May 24).
The Abkhaz declaration would seem to be a delayed over-reaction to an off-the-cuff statement made by Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili while visiting Romania a week earlier (Rompres, May 16, Georgian Television, May 17). Within a day of that statement, Abkhaz authorities concentrated troops in the Gali district along the demarcation line. That move and the tenor of the declaration indicate that Abkhazia’s relationships with Tbilisi and Sukhumi are not improving.
Georgia’s Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania, Parliament Chairwoman Nino Burjanadze and other officials have indicated that the Ajara scenario will not be repeated in Abkhazia. Tbilisi officials not only rule out the use of force, but consistently seek to reassure Sukhumi that Georgia is interested in stability and patient negotiations.
Tbilisi’s current priority is to prepare for the safe return of Georgian refugees to their homes in the Gali district. In that case, Georgia would agree to reopen the Sukhumi-Tbilisi-Yerevan railroad. Such a compromise is under discussion within the “Sochi process” of high-level Georgian-Russian discussions, which began last year. Talks are being continued by Georgia’s new leadership. Zhvania reaffirmed that position ahead of his current visit to Moscow. Georgia’s National Security Council is working out proposals for negotiations with Abkhazia on the latter’s political status within Georgia. According to Khaindrava, it would be a type of federal status, and would be guaranteed internationally. However, substantive negotiations are on hold until after the October elections in Abkhazia. (Prime-News, Kavkasia-Press, Imedi Television, May 17-24).