Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 137

Georgia is preparing to exercise its sovereign right to demand the termination of Russian “peacekeeping” operations on its territory and their replacement with genuine international peacekeeping missions. Concurrently, Tbilisi is redoubling efforts to unfreeze not the conflicts as such (these are not and never were “frozen”) but rather to unfreeze the frozen negotiations toward political settlements in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Within this context, the role of international donor agencies and the functions of development aid in the secessionist enclaves requires some overall political rethinking and adjustment of goals on the ground.

Until now, those agencies and aid programs have basically aimed to bring at least minimal improvements to living conditions in the conflict-torn enclaves. Rarely, if ever, was Western-funded development assistance conceived as a tool for advancing political resolution of the conflicts, let alone resolution on terms consistent with Western interests. This approach should and can now begin to change by correlating development aid programs more directly with the goals of conflict resolution. Free from Russian influence on their decisions, donor agencies are potentially valuable vehicles for promoting those goals.

A new approach along these lines can now be tested in Abkhazia. For example, international development aid can contribute significantly to the rebuilding and resumption of operations of the railroad section between the Psou and Inguri Rivers. A linchpin in the pre-1991 Trans-Caucasus railroad, that section was destroyed in the 1992-93 war and awaits reconstruction in a package deal that would also provide for the Georgian refugees’ safe and orderly return to the Gali district. Russia’s state railways company lays claim to operating that section once it is restored.

To ensure politically neutral operation of that section, donor agencies could facilitate the formation of a Georgian-Abkhaz joint technical group. Georgian managers and personnel who ran that railroad prior to 1992 were turned into refugees as a result of the conflict, and the relevant technical documentation is in Tbilisi since those events. Having the railroad operated by a joint Georgian-Abkhaz group is clearly preferable to a Russian takeover that would advance Abkhazia’s de facto incorporation into Russia. Moreover, Russian operation of that railroad would probably involve deployment of railway troops — a specifically Russian institution that handles many aspects of civilian transport — to Abkhazia on the excuse of protecting that railroad. Meanwhile, an example of Georgian-Abkhaz technical cooperation exists at the Inguri hydroelectric power plant, jointly and continuously operated since 1994.

Donor agencies’ strategy to promote small-scale private-sector projects particularly in farming can also be adjusted to advance the resolution of this conflict. In the Ochamchire district, for example, such assistance can be channeled to joint farming projects that would be undertaken by local Abkhaz residents and Georgian refugees who would be returning to their homes in that district. Such projects can promote the goal of reversing the ethnic cleansing of Georgians — a goal that can be achieved gradually and with proper economic incentives to both sides and is central to a political resolution of the conflict. Also in the Ochamchire district there is need for an inventory of Georgian-owned houses, preparatory to their eventual rebuilding to accommodate any returning refugees.

In the Gali district, Georgian refugees have returned in fairly large numbers to their homes in an unorganized movement that the Abkhaz authorities could not stop. However, Abkhaz authorities are subjecting those Georgians to various forms of discrimination and intimidation. Those problems — as well as organized crime in the Gali and Ochamchire districts — can best be handled by an international police force of several hundred, not by military peacekeeping troops, let alone by Russian Army “peacekeepers.” For their part, donor agencies are well placed to support the provision of Georgian-language education in Gali for the returnees’ children, whom the Abkhaz authorities currently deprive of that right. It is also clearly necessary at this stage to support the creation of community representation of refugees who returned to Gali.

Ongoing demographic trends in Abkhazia would also seem to warrant an adjustment in the aid focus and a more direct correlation of assistance programs to conflict-resolution goals. According to broadly convergent estimates by all sides involved, the number of resident ethnic Abkhaz has dropped to between 50,000 and 60,000 (from an estimated 90,000 a decade ago) through social hardships and emigration; the number of resident Armenians has slowly but steadily increased to some 55,000 and may rise further, mainly through immigration from Russia’s nearby Krasnodar krai, where the authorities condone harassment of Armenians; and the number of returning Georgians in Abkhazia has reached some 55,000, most of them in the Gali district.

These numbers and these proportions suggest that the political as well as the aid dimensions of conflict resolution and post-conflict reconstruction are eminently manageable at the local level. By the same token they underscore the need to face up to the Russian challenge at the international level, first and foremost by pressing for withdrawal of Russian troops to clear the way for local processes toward political settlement.