FIGHTING IN ABKHAZIA UNDERSCORES RUSSIA’S MULISHNESS.

Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 196

The fighting, recently staged along and across the Abkhaz-Georgian demarcation line, has again exposed the unreliability of Russia’s “peacekeeping” operation. As on past occasions, the operation’s command in Sukhumi made inflammatory anti-Georgian and anti-Western statements, helped transfer weaponry to Abkhaz forces, and presumably loaned pilots with the helicopters it transferred. The Russian airborne forces’ base at Gudauta also handed over weapons from its inventory to the Abkhaz.

Gudauta’s existence has been unlawful since July 1 when Russia was, under international agreements, to have closed it down. Moscow, however, is trying to retain Gudauta simply by reassigning it to the Russian “peacekeeping” contingent in Abkhazia. The Kremlin apparently calculates that Russia will continue enjoying an internationally tolerated peacekeeping monopoly in Georgia.

Now in its eighth year, that operation illustrates–with Moldova/Transdniester a further case study–the specific character of Russian “peacekeeping” in post-Soviet conflict areas. The mission is to cement the de facto partition of states, maintain a controlled level of politically exploitable tension and support secessionist authorities who in turn are hosting Russian forces above and beyond the official “peacekeeping” contingent. Contrary to its label, the Russian operation is in fact designed not for the pursuit of peace, but for conserving the conflict indefinitely, complete with ethnic cleansing in this case. Russia’s direct military intervention made possible the 1993 ethnic cleansing of Georgians from Abkhazia, the population of which was 44 percent Georgian and only 17 percent Abkhaz.

Contrary to the international understanding of peacekeeping, the current operation in Abkhazia constitutes an instrument of Russia’s military policy and strategy. In this case, Moscow plays simultaneously the roles of party to the conflict, military peacekeeper and political mediator. Over the years it has rejected Georgia’s many proposals for internationalizing the peacekeeping contingent and has encouraged the Abkhaz side to insist on a purely Russian composition of that contingent.

From its inception in 1994 to the present, the Russian contingent has been using a false label as “CIS collective forces.” The idea was to set a precedent for international recognition of the CIS as a “regional security organization” in the post-Soviet space, with “special powers” for Russia as pacifier. That broader quest has failed. In Abkhazia, however, the Russian operation has undeniably been successful, not in terms of genuine peacekeeping, but in terms of its own mission, as understood and designed by Moscow in the framework of its strategy in the South Caucasus.

Georgia is now redoubling efforts toward internationalizing the peacekeeping operation. President Eduard Shevardnadze’s visit to the United States earlier this month must have confirmed his understanding that the post-September 11 situation is conducive to a more assertive role for Georgia’s Western friends in global security, invalidating Russian notions of “near abroad” or “post-Soviet space” understood as sphere of influence. Following Shevardnadze’s return, and with his encouragement, the Georgian parliament voted across party lines on October 11 a resolution urging the president to demand the withdrawal of Russian “peacekeeping” troops from the Abkhazia-Georgia theater within three months.

The term would begin flowing from the date of the president’s demand to Russia, not the date of parliamentary resolution. Shevardnadze has not acted on the resolution as yet. Presumably, he will use it to strengthen his bargaining hand with Russia. Under the terms of the 1994 agreements that cover the “peacekeeping” operation, Georgia has the sovereign right to send the Russian contingent home. Tbilisi has attempted to use that provision several times in recent years, but has each time backtracked for fear of being left face to face with the Abkhaz. The Abkhaz forces are more heavily armed, and they control the Georgia-Russia border on the Abkhaz sector, where Russian supplies can and do move freely into Abkhazia. Moreover, if and when Russian “peacekeepers” leave, Moscow is likely to insist even more strongly than it now does on retaining the Gudauta base, unless international efforts would have persuaded Russia to respect its own international obligation to close Gudauta.

Russian President Vladimir Putin responded within twenty-four hours to the Georgian parliament’s resolution. In a televised statement on October 12, Putin went out of his way to sound conciliatory, speaking even of improvements in Russia-Georgia relations. He announced that Russia would withdraw the “peacekeeping” contingent, if Georgia insists on such a move, but warned that Georgia would bear responsibility for any ensuing destabilization of the situation. As Tbilisi clearly realizes, that warning represents the operative part in Putin’s seemingly conciliatory statement.

Just as clearly, Georgia would drop the idea of evicting the Russian contingent if the operation could be internationalized. Shevardnadze has since indicated that much in an interview with national media, in a meeting with ambassadors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and in his talks with the visiting Ukrainian Foreign Affairs Minister Anatoly Zlenko, whose country is conditionally willing to provide troops for such a mission. The Georgian side not only accepts, but wants Russia’s participation in a peacekeeping operation, provided that the Russian troops become one element in an international contingent under a United Nations mandate, and which would include Western as well as non-Western elements (Kavkasia-Press, Prime-News, Tbilisi radio, October 12-23; see the Monitor, September 21, 25, October 3, 12, 23-24).

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