Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 61

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has proposed a reunification of Abkhazia with the rest of Georgia on terms of far-reaching autonomy and with the assistance of international guarantors (Civil Georgia, Rustavi 2 TV, March 28). All elements of a political settlement are to be placed on the negotiating table, except a “disintegration of Georgia,” he announced. “There are no issues that we and the Abkhazians cannot solve through negotiations.”

Saakashvili launched this proposal on March 28, speaking to an audience of Georgian and international experts and diplomats at the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies (GFSIS). The offer includes:

– “Unlimited Autonomy” in a federal structure to be created in Georgia;

– Substantial representation of the Abkhaz on all levels of territorial and central governmental bodies, in all ministries and in Parliament. A post of Vice President of Georgia is to be created and held by an Abkhaz representative;

– The right to veto legislation and governmental decisions related to the constitutional status of Abkhazia; preservation and development of the Abkhaz ethnic group, culture, and language; and a free economic zone;

– Establishment of a joint Free Economic Zone in the Gali district, including the sea port of Ochamchire. Such a zone would help facilitate reconstruction and development of areas depopulated during the armed conflict [an oblique reference to the ethnic cleansing of Georgians]. This economic zone would be controlled by Abkhaz and Georgian authorities, without outside parties [that is, free from Russian troops]. Tbilisi proposes an immediate start to talks on the economic development of these areas;

– Gradual merger of Abkhaz and Georgian law enforcement agencies and customs services. Legal immunity to Abkhaz authorities;

– Transformation of the existing [all-Russian] peace-keeping format. A review of that operation’s performance by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at Georgia’s request is expected to become the starting point for transforming the operation;

– International guarantees to ensure the functioning of the proposed federal system and the security environment. As part of such guarantees, Russia is being invited “to move from being a party to the conflict toward becoming a genuine mediator in the conflict, together with other members of the international community.”

– The right to veto legislation and governmental decisions related to the constitutional status of Abkhazia; preservation and development of the Abkhaz ethnic group, culture, and language; and a free economic zone;

Saakashvili called the small Abkhaz people a hostage to big-time geopolitical games, and he said that the Abkhaz-Georgian conflict was damaging to both peoples: “Abkhazia and the whole of Georgia will face an unclear future full of risks,” if the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict is not resolved. Characterizing the pursuit of Abkhaz independence as “unfathomable deceit, which serious people in Abkhazia must not take seriously,” Saakashvili enumerated the main reasons why it cannot be sustained: No prospects for international or Russian recognition, underpopulation, and massive migration from Russia jeopardizing the preservation of the Abkhaz identity. Georgia can demonstrate that it “helps the Abkhaz to survive and develop…as a special nation for Georgia.”

Georgia proposed to draw on concepts that developed in Europe for accommodating minority demands within the context of national sovereignty, Saakashvili stated in the speech. As in European Union countries, a constitutional arrangement for the Abkhaz in Georgia should enshrine rights and mutual obligations. This is not a take-it-or-leave-it offer. Saakashvili is calling on the Abkhaz to “start at least a discussion” on Tbilisi’s proposal. “External factors” have thus far blocked a direct Georgian-Abkhaz dialogue. If direct talks start, Georgia is ready to move together with the Abkhaz toward relevant decisions “within the coming weeks.”

Parliament Chair Nino Burjanadze has endorsed Saakashvili’s offer on behalf of the governing majority. She expressed hope for international support, even if a “neighboring country dictates to them [Abkhaz leaders]” to reject negotiations on that basis (Civil Georgia, Kavkas-Press, March 30).

To thwart Georgian peace initiatives, Moscow is militarizing the situation on the ground and fuelling the Abkhaz perception of a Georgian threat. Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov has accused Georgia of intending to attack, once Georgia has joined NATO. The Abkhaz chief-of-staff,” Lieutenant.-General Anatoly Zaytsev, has announced, “We are preparing for war, really and seriously” (Interfax, March 27).

The initial reaction of Abkhazia’s de facto leaders looks uncompromising. “The proposals are unacceptable and we reject them,” “president” Sergei Bagapsh declared. Sukhumi leaders insist on full separation from Georgia, rather than autonomy and federalism (Apsny-Press, March 29, 31).

This is not necessarily their final word, however. The timing of the Georgian offer is inauspicious against the backdrop of the NATO summit. Moscow is exploiting the Abkhaz and South Ossetian conflicts to the hilt in order to discourage NATO from approving a Georgian Membership Action Plan at the summit. At this juncture, Russia can be expected to inflame the political and even military environment in Abkhazia.

Georgia’s parliamentary elections in May will also probably necessitate a time out on peace offers to Abkhazia. Once the post-election government is in place, however, Tbilisi will almost certainly flesh out the outline of its offer with more specific details.