On October 13, the U.S. State Department joined with Russia to pass a heavily biased resolution against Georgia regarding Abkhazia in the UN Security Council. Resolutions favoring Russia on this matter are almost routine at the UNSC; but this one is the first in which the United States is signing a whole series of provisions and formulations in Moscow’s favor.
The resolution is basically a result of Russia-U.S. drafting, although several European countries tried briefly to “mediate.” Procedurally, the State Department’s bargaining with Moscow bore marks of hasty improvisation to meet the deadline for parallel votes on North Korea’s nuclear weapons testing and the Abkhazia conflict in the UNSC. Substantively, however, this U.S. action reflects the policy line of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and was ultimately her decision. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili appealed to Rice by telephone on October 11, but Rice decided in Moscow’s favor on the 12th after telephone consultation with Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov.
UNSC resolutions on Abkhazia are routine actions every six months to renew the mandate of the United Nations Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG), a group of 121 unarmed military observers on either side of the Inguri River (demarcation line). Each time, Russia threatens to veto UNOMIG’s mandate if Georgia demands the termination and transformation of Russia’s “peacekeeping” operation. This time, however, Russia turned the upper Kodori Gorge — a part of Abkhazia pre-1992, afterward an uncontrolled territory — into the main contentious issue, and the United States went along with this.
Tbilisi reestablished effective control over the crime-ridden upper Kodori in July of this year, in a swift and bloodless operation that demonstrated the competence of Georgia’s reformed security forces and outraged Moscow.
Given the constantly repeated U.S. view that uncontrolled territories generate manifold threats and risks to international security, and the fact that Tbilisi successfully restored law and order in upper Kodori, it seems highly incongruous for the United States to join Russia in “expressing [the Security Council’s] concern with regard to the actions of the Georgian side in the Kodori Valley.” Further criticizing Georgia, the resolution claims that recent Georgian-Abkhaz tensions emerged “in particular as a result of the Georgian special operation in the upper Kodori Valley.” In reality, the tensions mounted when Russia threatened Georgia with military action and held military exercises with its Abkhaz clients. The resolution passes over these facts in silence, even as the Russian threats against Georgia continue on an almost daily basis.
The resolution urges Georgia to accept regular joint patrols in upper Kodori by UNOMIG and “CIS peacekeepers.” The first such patrol was conducted on October 12 after a three-year hiatus, during which patrols could not venture into the lawless upper Kodori. But Georgia receives only criticism in the resolution, instead of credit for restoring the order that makes the patrolling possible.
Georgia had proposed that UNOMIG conduct the patrols and that some Russian personnel be included in those patrols under UN colors, rather than participate in its own right as “CIS” or Russian “peacekeepers.” Such an arrangement could have become the first step, however modest, to internationalize the Russian “peacekeeping” operation, without excluding Russians. However, the UN resolution nips that intention in the bud.
The joint patrol determined that Georgia had not militarized the upper Kodori (UNOMIG press release, October 13). But the UN collectively, and the Security Council’s Western members in particular, never asked for an international inspection of Russian-controlled, heavily militarized Abkhazia, thus tacitly relegating it to Moscow’s sphere of dominance beyond challenge.
The resolution contains five references to the “CIS peacekeeping force,” even praising the latter for “playing a stabilizing role.” Thus, the document purports to legitimize a Russian force that is neither “CIS” (the latter has no authority to confer any such mandate) nor “peacekeeping” by any UN-accepted criteria. Moreover, by praising the Russian force as “stabilizing,” the resolution gives Moscow an argument against Georgia’s efforts to transform that operation into one that would conform to international standards of peacekeeping.
The document terms the conflict a “Georgian-Abkhaz conflict” and refers to “the sides” throughout, equalizing them. It constantly urges compliance — particularly by Georgia — with “previous agreements and understandings,” such as the 1994 Moscow agreement and even [unspecified] “obligations” toward “CIS” and other international personnel, although Georgia is under no obligation whatsoever to the CIS. By portraying the conflicts as local or inter-communal, and the Moscow-imposed “peacekeeping” and negotiating frameworks as binding, the resolution follows Russia’s entrenched position in the Abkhaz, South Ossetian, and Transnistrian conflicts. Thus, U.S. endorsement of these positions on Abkhazia at the UN is a setback for the ongoing efforts to change those other formats. Implicitly it helps Moscow to reinforce the freeze on the resolution of other conflicts as well.
On the more constructive side, the resolution “recalls [the Security Council’s] support” for a paper (presumably the 2001 Boden paper) on the distribution of competencies between Tbilisi and Sukhumi. But this reminder seems academic, as the Abkhaz have all along refused to take delivery of that paper, and Moscow has seemed content to use that fact in freezing the negotiations. The resolution calls for [largely unspecified] Abkhaz steps to permit a return of internally displaced persons to the Gali district. But the word “Georgians” does not figure in this context, and even the “language of instruction” in schools remains unnamed because Abkhaz authorities try to engineer a Mingrelian national identity at the expense of the Georgian national identity there.
The resolution reaffirms the UNSC’s commitment to Georgia’s territorial integrity and recognized borders, even as the Council and the UN as such are tolerating Russia’s de facto incorporation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia without any audible objections.
The resolution could have been even worse. An earlier Russian draft had explicitly criticized Georgia for its action in upper Kodori and demanded the withdrawal of Georgian authorities and troops from the area. To obtain U.S. acceptance of this draft, Moscow offered to support a relatively strong U.S. draft resolution regarding North Korea’s nuclear weapons testing. The United States, however, substituted “concern” for outright criticism of Georgia, and would accept the Georgian presence in upper Kodori per the relevant provisions of the 1994 Moscow agreement (interpreted as allowing Georgian police and internal security personnel, but no military force). Moscow responded tit-for-tat by diluting the text of the North Korea resolution in the UNSC.
Ultimately, this bargaining can suggest to Moscow and some third parties that the United States is capable to a certain extent of treating the interests of even a very close partner — which Georgia is — as potential bargaining chips for Russia’s “help on” a global issue that suddenly comes to a head. It is a game in which Moscow can and did enjoy the upper hand over the United States time and again in the UNSC. Trading off the interests of loyal U.S. allies in this process is futile and self-defeating.