Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 124

Georgia has ruled out a confrontational response to Russia’s accelerating seizure of Abkhazia since April 16. Eschewing a military standoff, Tbilisi has devised a political-diplomatic response in expectation of Western support for such an approach. The European Union-Russia summit in Khanty-Mansiisk on June 26 and 27 tested the level of EU support. In the event, Russia stonewalled, and the EU did not press the issue.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili had pleaded for support on June 24 and 25 in Berlin with Chancellor Angela Merkel, Minister of Foreign Affairs Frank-Walter Steinmeier, and separately with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who was in Berlin at the same time (Civil Georgia, The Messenger, June 25-26). “Russia is no longer respecting agreed-upon Soviet borders,” Saakashvili noted in his June 24 lecture at the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Berlin (DPA, June 24). Ukrainian leaders can undoubtedly reach similar conclusions from Moscow’s recent statements about the Crimea.

U.S., EU, and German leaders have urged Georgia throughout this crisis to exercise unilateral restraint. For their part, they offered implicit assurances that Russia would be asked to de-escalate militarily, accept some changes to its “peacekeeping” operation, and unblock negotiations on Abkhazia’s political status within Georgia.

Western leaders have thus assumed a higher degree of responsibility than heretofore with regard to this conflict. That responsibility derives from their quid-pro-quo assurances to Georgia, their semiofficial intercessions with Russia, and the brazenness of Moscow’s territorial grab, potentially repeatable elsewhere unless halted here. The EU’s failure to press the issue at the Khanty-Mansiisk summit, however, by no means precludes supporting Georgia’s political-diplomatic strategy in the weeks ahead, outside the EU-Russia framework.

Georgia’s evolving strategy on Abkhazia encompasses three tracks. On the first, it seeks Western support for transforming the Russian-created peacekeeping and negotiating formats. Tbilisi calls for turning that “peacekeeping” operation into an international mission, mainly of a civilian character; and for an internationally balanced negotiating framework that would no longer depend on Russia’s “facilitator” status. By the same token, Georgia looks forward to the EU using its soft-power instruments on the ground in Abkhazia as incentives to a political settlement process.

Georgia can exercise its right to demand the termination of Russia’s illegal military presence in Abkhazia at any time. U.S. and European leaders might again discuss Abkhazia and related issues with Russia at the forthcoming G-8 summit. Russia, however, has warned many times that it would disregard any Georgian demarche on troop withdrawal. Moscow claims rights and even obligations (the wishes of the Abkhaz, protection of Russia’s citizens, a CIS mandate) to keep its “peacekeepers” in Abkhazia. Although such claims fly in the face of international law, neither Washington nor Brussels would call Russia an aggressor, even if it rejects legitimate Georgian demands to withdraw the troops.

On the second track, Tbilisi seeks to initiate a Western-supported dialogue with Moscow. The short-term Georgian objectives are: a) reversal of Russia’s April 16 presidential decree, which instructed the Russian government to develop direct official relations with the Abkhaz and South Ossetian authorities; b) withdrawal of the supplementary Russian troops with heavy weaponry, as well as the railway troops that were deployed to Abkhazia in April and May; and c) a Russian green light to negotiations toward a political status for Abkhazia as part of Georgia (Civil Georgia, The Messenger, June 24, 25).

These goals are incremental. They address only some of Russia’s post-April 16 offensive moves, and they do not address the pre-existing situation, which was already defined by illegitimate “peacekeeping” and de facto annexation of Abkhazia. Nevertheless, the proposed negotiations over Abkhazia’s status might help start discussions on a new peacekeeping format. Georgia hopes to arrange a meeting of Saakashvili with Medvedev for starting such a dialogue. Tbilisi feels that the two presidents’ get-acquainted meeting on June 6 (on the sidelines of a multilateral summit) was too brief and unfocused, necessitating a well-prepared follow-up. Georgian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Grigol Vashadze held talks to that end on June 23 and 24 in Moscow.

On the third track, Tbilisi seeks direct talks with the Abkhaz authorities, without Russian mediation or “facilitation.” In the third week in June, Georgian National Security Council Secretary Kakha Lomaia and State Minister for Reintegration Issues Temur Iakobashvili held informal talks with Abkhaz “foreign minister” Sergey Shamba in Sweden. The Georgian officials elaborated on Saakashvili’s March 2008 proposals for a political settlement, only to hear standard Abkhaz recriminations about Georgian intentions. Nevertheless, both sides regard this exploratory meeting as useful. Tbilisi is keen for a follow-up. EU High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana welcomed the start of direct talks in a press release (AFP, Rustavi-2 TV, June 23).

Abkhaz representatives are caught between their distrust of Tbilisi and their fear of Russian retaliation if they engage too far in unsupervised talks with Tbilisi. The factionalized Abkhaz leadership includes putative moderates, who must fend off the confirmed hardliners, while Russian intelligence services hold sway on all factions. Whether willingly or unwillingly, “President” Sergei Bagapsh relentlessly talks like a hardliner. Following the meeting in Sweden, Bagapsh publicly listed additional preconditions to political negotiations with Tbilisi and urged an even more intrusive Russian presence (Apsnypress, Rustavi-2 TV, June 24, 25).

Tbilisi’s proposals on Abkhazia’s political status, outlined in Saakashvili’ s March 28 address, form a part of discussions on all three Georgian diplomatic tracks: with the West on new peacekeeping and negotiating formats, with Moscow on military de-escalation and follow-up political talks, and with Sokhumi’s representatives in informal contacts that Tbilisi hopes to upgrade to a political process.

Washington and Brussels have urged Georgia to pursue a political-diplomatic approach in response to Russia’s territorial grab. Georgia has now formulated that approach in a comprehensive manner. It can only succeed with Washington’s and Brussels’ active involvement, for their own international credibility.