The Jamestown Foundation’s recent visit to Abkhazia showed the results of a decade-long failure by international organizations and the West to initiate genuine peacekeeping and conflict-resolution efforts in the region.
Back in 1994, along with the Russian “peacekeeping” deployment, the UN initiated what became known as the “Geneva process” of negotiations. A few meetings were held in that Swiss city in a format that included Georgia and the Abkhaz as “parties to the conflict” and Russia as “facilitator.” The UN Secretary-General’s representative chaired the meetings. Very soon, however, the Abkhaz — at Russian prodding — refused to participate and demanded that the negotiations be transferred to Moscow and into a bilateral format of Georgia and the Abkhaz under Russia’s aegis. This was done, despite Georgian protests and amid UN indifference. Moreover, Russia gained admission to the “Friends of Georgia” group of Western countries (United States, Britain, Germany, and France).
Talks languished until 1997, when the United States and others rallied to revive the Geneva process. The UN Secretary-General’s new representative, Romanian diplomat Liviu Bota, put together a format consisting of Georgia, the Abkhaz, Russia as facilitator, the envoys of the Friends-of-Georgia countries (now including Russia), the OSCE, and the UN as chair. Georgia and its Western friends wanted the issue of Abkhazia’s political status to be negotiated in this format, but Moscow encouraged the Abkhaz to refuse. Skirting that core issue, the Geneva process was institutionalized in the form of a Coordinating Council and three working groups dealing with security issues (i.e. non-resumption of hostilities), return of Georgian refugees, and economic reconstruction. A series of inconclusive meetings followed in Geneva, Tbilisi, and Sukhumi from 1997 to early 2001, at which point the Abkhaz, again with Moscow’s encouragement, refused to participate in the Coordinating Council. Only a few fruitless working group meetings have been held since.
Scuttling the Geneva process to ensure full Russian control of negotiations was one aspect of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s hard line against Georgia. Meanwhile, since 2001 Moscow has backed the Abkhaz refusal to take official delivery of a settlement plan submitted by the UN Secretary-General’s representative, German diplomat Dieter Boden (Bota’s successor). Thus, the plan cannot be officially discussed in any forum post-Geneva.
At a meeting in Sochi in March 2003, Putin pressured Georgia’s then-president Eduard Shevardnadze into establishing what became known as the Sochi process, namely Georgian-Russian-Abkhaz working groups on confidence-building, return of refugees, and economic reconstruction. The Sochi process signifies a regress from the multilateral to a bilateral format that leaves Georgia on its own to face Russia and the Abkhaz. This shift undermined Georgia’s argument that the Geneva process was the sole format for a comprehensive settlement of the conflict. Tbilisi fell back to the position that the Sochi process should be “complementary” to the [now-frozen] Geneva process. This year, Russian officials from Putin on down confirmed the 2003 Sochi agreement, whereby Russian reconstruction and, thus, control of Georgia’s railway in Abkhaz-controlled territory (a Russian goal) would be conditional on the return of Georgian refugees to their homes in Abkhazia.
However, in July 2004, Russia unilaterally began reconstruction of the Abkhaz-controlled, Vesyolaya-Sukhumi stretch of the Georgian railway, while stonewalling the Georgian refugees’ return. Damaged in the 1993 Russian-Abkhaz military operation against Georgia, the railway connects Sochi with Sukhumi across the internationally recognized Russia-Georgia border, whose Georgian side is under de facto Russian and Abkhaz control. Unilateral reconstruction can facilitate military transit, unauthorized trade, and unchecked migration, as well as Abkhazia’s absorption into Russia. With Putin frequently on holiday in Sochi, he obviously condones this breach of his commitment.
Because the Sochi process is clearly counterproductive to Georgia and to Western interests, a resurrection of the Geneva process may seem desirable, at least by comparison, and is currently being suggested. However, returning to that same process is not a promising alternative. The Geneva process foundered over inherent flaws, including: 1) de facto acceptance of Russia’s monopoly on “peacekeeping” troops; 2) political overrepresentation of Russia, both directly and indirectly; 3) unwillingness to address the ethnic cleansing of Georgians; and 4) failure to discuss Abkhazia’s political status within Georgia. With no results to show after four years, the Geneva process stopped when the Abkhaz withdrew from it at Moscow’s behest.
Reviving a forum similar to the Geneva format (and adding the European Union) would only be desirable if the Western players pull their full weight in setting the agenda and simultaneously internationalizing the existing Russian peacekeeping operation. Otherwise, creating a multilateral format for the format’s sake would prove as unrewarding as the Geneva process itself.