The Coordinating Council, an overarching format for Georgian-Abkhaz dialogue also known as the Geneva Process, reconvened on May 15 in Tbilisi after a five-year suspension. The resumed Council and Process are meant to discuss Georgian and Abkhaz plans for a political settlement and, on parallel tracks, issues related to trust building, return of Georgian refugees to their homes in Abkhazia, and economic interaction.
Founded under United Nations auspices in Geneva in 1997 and chaired by Romanian diplomat Liviu Bota as the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Georgia at the time, the Coordinating Council held several fruitless meetings at irregular intervals before grinding to a halt in 2001, but was never dissolved. The Council includes the “Georgian and Abkhaz sides,” the UNSG SR in the chair, Russia as the “facilitator,” the UNSG’s “Group of Friends” — the United States, Britain, France, Germany, and Russia — as observers, and the OSCE also as observer. The incumbent UNSG SR, Swiss diplomat Heidi Tagliavini, initiated the May 15 first session of the resumed Council.
The only virtue of this Council and process is to serve as a legitimizing framework for launching a direct, un-mediated dialogue between Tbilisi and Sukhumi. That bilateral channel has existed since 2005 and is run on the Tbilisi side by Irakli Alasania as presidential adviser for conflict resolution issues. The Council itself has proven ineffective under Russian-imposed rules of the game: It defines Georgia and Abkhazia as co-equal “sides”; it empowers Russia as “facilitator” between them, although Russia is the main party to the conflict; it ensures multiple representation for Russia both directly and indirectly through its veto power in the UN, OSCE, and the “Friends’ Group”; and it reduces the Western powers to observer roles.
Such flaws only underscore the need to concentrate on the Tbilisi-Sukhumi direct political channel and functional working groups for advancing a dialogue. The Coordinating Council’s Tbilisi session decided to reactivate the three working groups that date back to 2001: on security, return of Georgian refugees, and social-economic issues. These are to convene in late May-early June in Sukhumi, Gali, and Zugdidi, respectively.
Abkhaz chief negotiator Sergei Shamba handed over a purported peace plan by “president” Sergei Bagapsh to the participants in the Tbilisi session. Titled “Key to the Future,” the document had been approved by the Abkhaz legislature the preceding week in principle, but deputies made clear that they would propose some revisions. According to Georgian officials in media interviews after the session, the document basically calls for recognition of Abkhazia’s separation from Georgia and some modalities of cooperation on that basis. Corroborating that initial conclusion, Shamba himself admitted that the plan envisages “peaceful coexistence” between Georgia and Abkhazia, premised on recognition of Abkhazia’s “independence” — a euphemism often denoting merger de facto with Russia.
In line with past practice, Shamba referenced Abkhazia’s plebiscite and parliamentary votes in the past decade for separation from Georgia, without mentioning the ethnic cleansing of Georgians, who had outnumbered the Abkhaz by more than two-to-one before the conflict. In a further discouraging signal, the deputy “defense minister” and the deputy “state security minister” accompanied the Abkhaz chief negotiator in the session. Nevertheless, the Georgians organized a particularly cordial welcome for Shamba and other Abkhaz delegates in Tbilisi.
For its part, Tbilisi is preparing a “Road Map” to a political settlement, for presentation to Sukhumi before the end of this month. Commissions of the Georgian parliament are reviewing the document at the moment. Direct consultations will then commence on the basis of these Georgian and Abkhaz documents. For now, the signals from Georgian officials involved in the dialogue are clearly designed to generate a positive atmosphere. They focus on the resumption of the international diplomatic process as a gain in itself and on the potential for give-and-take in bilateral consultations with the Abkhaz. According to Alasania and Prime Minister Zurab Nogaideli, while Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity within its international borders is non-negotiable, Tbilisi and Sukhumi are presenting each other with peace plans as the start of a new political process (UNOMIG release, May 15; Rustavi-2 and Imedi Televisions, Interfax, May 15, 16).
The Abkhaz — and certainly Moscow behind them — can spoil the upcoming sessions of the working groups by demanding some kind of mutual security treaty that would amount to recognition of Abkhazia’s secession; or by insisting on a “meeting of the presidents”; or by trying to de-couple the issue of rebuilding the Abkhaz stretch of Georgia’s railroad from the issue of returning the refugees to their homes. Moscow and Sukhumi have used these tactics for years to cement the deadlock.
At this moment, however, Moscow is interested in creating at least an impression of some forward movement on Abkhazia. It hopes to persuade the CFE Treaty Review Conference of the OSCE at the end of May to tolerate the Russian military base at Gudauta in Abkhazia; to avoid a likely call by the Georgian parliament in early July for replacement of Russian “peacekeeping” in Abkhazia with an international operation; and to ask Washington to keep the issue of Abkhazia off the agenda of the G-8 presidential summit, relegating it to the relative anonymity of the G-8 ministers’ conference instead.
In each of these cases, Moscow will try to argue that progress is, after all, being made over Abkhazia and that raising those issues in those forums would threaten the purported “progress.” Russia could then return to business as usual afterward. Thus, from Tbilisi’s perspective, raising those issues with full resolve at the CFE Review Conference, in the national parliament, and in Washington and Brussels ahead of the G-8 summit while at the same time trying to engage Sukhumi separately in the bilateral channel seems the most advisable approach.