Speaking at a rally and a news conference on the occasion of Georgia’s National Day (May 26), President Mikheil Saakashvili reached out to Abkhazia and South Ossetia with proposals for mutually acceptable political arrangements between the central government and the two breakaway areas. “We propose to our Abkhaz and South Ossetian brothers to start immediate talks on the restoration of a united state. We are prepared to consider any state model that takes into account their interests and ensures their future development.”
Saakashvili offered a federal model as the basis for Abkhazia’s and South Ossetia’s political status as a part of Georgia. Without going into details, he underscored that it would require an asymmetric federation; he ruled out any “federation that would disintegrate Georgia.” Regarding the negotiating process, Saakashvili called for working out direct agreements between Tbilisi and Sukhumi and between Tbilisi and Tskhinvali. “After that, Russia can play a certain role” as part of an international mechanism to guarantee the arrangements.
In focusing on economic problems in his address, Saakashvili underscored that the “path of return to Abkhazia passes through the Georgian economy” — implying an evolutionary approach to restoring Georgia’s territorial integrity. He termed it the “main goal of my life,” and held out the prospect of achieving it “within my presidential term.” He added, “Neither Georgia nor its president will ever accept a fragmented Georgia.” Saakashvili called on Georgian citizens to display tolerance in inter-ethnic relations. “See not only the mistakes of others, but also our own mistakes,” he stated. Never again be intimidated by “those who want to keep Georgia divided,” Saakashvili cautioned.
While the latter remark seems to allude to Russia, Saakashvili spoke of a “new quality of Russian policy” toward Georgia, referring to it as a “completely different type of relations” compared to those of the very recent past. He described his relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin as “warm and normal,” and welcomed the prospect of massive Russian capital investment in Georgia. “It makes no [political] difference where the capital comes from.”
Significantly, Saakashvili discussed relations with Russia in the context of efforts to settle Abkhazia and South Ossetia problems. However, on the subject of foreign policy, he underscored close relations with the U.S., and termed Georgia a “military ally” of America.
Abkhazia and South Ossetia reacted within hours to Saakashvili’s overtures. In Sukhumi, self-styled Prime Minister Raul Khajimba and Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Shamba ruled out in separate statements any discussion of reunification or political status in Georgia. Both insisted that Abkhazia considers itself an independent state, willing to negotiate with Georgia for “peaceful coexistence” between two distinct states. To that end, the Abkhaz leadership recently appointed a permanent negotiator for security issues and joint confidence-building measures with Georgia. In Tskhinvali, self-styled Foreign Affairs Minister Murad Jioev similarly responded that South Ossetia considers itself a “sovereign state, prepared to build good relations with Georgia.” He added the issue of negotiations can only take the form of conflict-settlement, as distinct from reunification of the Georgian state.
Georgia held unprecedented military parades in Tbilisi and Batumi on National Day. The display in Tbilisi was the strongest since Georgia became independent. It included some 8,000 army, internal, border, and special-force troops, along with almost 100 pieces of armor – including tanks, infantry fighting vehicles and armored personnel carriers as well as numerous artillery pieces. Several fighter planes and helicopters flew overhead during the display. The hardware on parade was almost entirely of Soviet vintage. Saakashvili implied in his news conference that this hardware had been de-mothballed for the occasion.
In Batumi, Saakashvili was present to review a parade of locally-based Georgian forces, including a coast guard unit. Saakashvili underscored the role of Georgia’s coast guard in monitoring the seaboard of Abkhazia. The two military displays appeared calculated to add an element of psychological pressure, to go along with the political offer being addressed to Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The mix of political offers and displays of military force worked successfully in Ajaria in early May, for what Saakashvili yesterday termed “the beginning of the restoration of Georgia’s territorial integrity” (Rustavi-2 Television, Imedi Television, May 25, 26; Interfax, NTV Mir, May 26).