Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 159

On August 29, Georgia’s National Security Council, under the chairmanship of President Eduard Shevardnadze, decided to acquiesce in a prolongation of the Russian “peacekeeping” forces’ mandate in Abkhazia. Georgia had for nearly two years declined to take that step, citing Moscow’s pro-Abkhaz leanings. Yet even then Tbilisi had stopped short of exercising its legal right to terminate the Russian operation. It merely tolerated the Russian troops for lack of realistic alternatives and for fear that Moscow might spark renewed Abkhaz-Georgian fighting as a way to keep the Russian troops in place, in the event that Tbilisi decided to send them back to their own soil. Such was the case in 1992-93, when Moscow unleashed the Abkhaz against Georgia, setting the stage for the initial arrival of Russian troops.

The prolongation of the mandate–“by several months”–is not yet a done deal; it must be formally approved by the CIS Council of Heads of State. But that body has no standing in international law, and Georgia’s acquiescence–even though made under duress–can be portrayed as legitimizing the Russian operation in Abkhazia. The purely Russian operation has been underway since 1994 under a CIS guise.

Announcing Tbilisi’s concession yesterday in a broadcast to the country, Shevardnadze cryptically stated that there was “no alternative.” He sweetened the pill by promising that Georgia would–as it has these past two years–“categorically insist” on the fulfillment of the 1997 decision of the CIS Council of Heads of State regarding the Russian operation in Abkhazia. The CIS “decision”–a misnomer in view of the fact that it can not have legal or practical effect–envisaged the expansion of the Russian troops’ mission and zone of responsibility in Abkhazia, with a view to tasking Russian troops to protect the return of Georgian refugees. Any hopes in that regard seem illusory, however. President Boris Yeltsin’s lighthearted–and cost-free–acquiescence in the 1997 summit’s resolution notwithstanding, Moscow has ever since rejected the proposed changes. Moscow can hardly be expected, in the foreseeable future, to abandon Abkhazia and try to help reverse the ethnic cleansing–the undertaking which Russian troops had condoned in the first place as part of Moscow’s strategy in the region. On a practical level, Moscow maintains that the proposed changes to the mandate of its troops would necessitate a massive increase in manpower and funding, neither of which Russia can afford. That argument may be irrefutable, but it also constitutes a pretext for freezing the conflict, as Moscow opposes any internationalization of the Abkhazia “peacekeeping” operation.

In separate statements yesterday, Georgia’s Foreign Minister Irakly Menagarishvili and the chairman of the parliament’s Defense and Security Commission, Revaz Adamia, disclosed that top Moscow officials had threatened in recent weeks to withdraw the Russian troops from the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict theater immediately, unless Georgia prolonged their mandate without any further delay. If a bluff, the threat worked due to its timing. On the threshold of parliamentary and presidential elections, Georgia is concerned lest Moscow exploit internal and regional frictions to instigate turmoil in the country–as it more than once has. Tbilisi, moreover, seeks during this difficult period to achieve progress toward the withdrawal of Russian troops and weaponry from Georgia as a whole, and feels that it can ill-afford, as Adamia put it, to “overload the agenda” by rejecting the demand to prolong the Russian troops’ mandate in Abkhazia. Tbilisi in any case insists that the prolongation does not apply to the Russian military base at Gudauta in the same region.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry commented sourly on the mandate prolongation that “Tbilisi has made up its mind at last.” But Moscow’s arm-twisting may not have worked without passive Western cooperation. Shevardnadze and Adamia had hinted at that factor shortly before the official announcement of Tbilisi’s decision. They alluded to the unwillingness of the United Nations and the reluctance of the Friends of Georgia countries–the leading Western powers–to take the steps necessary for internationalizing the peacekeeping operation. Shevardnadze and Adamia, moreover, clearly implied that the Friends of Georgia had advised Tbilisi to prolong the Russian mandate. That stance represents a far cry from Georgia’s hopes that the West’s peacekeeping operation in Kosovo could form the precedent to a similar reversal of ethnic cleansing in Abkhazia. Rather than displaying such consistency, Western powers seem to attach a higher priority to appeasing Moscow in the wake of NATO’s intervention in Kosovo. In this sense, Georgia has at least for now become a loser of the Kosovo situation. Left by the West to face Russia eyeball to eyeball, it should come as no surprise that Georgia has blinked (Radio Tbilisi, Prime-News, August 23-24, 29-30).