Talk of possible independence for Kosovo, Serbia’s separatist enclave, is markedly hampering the Georgian government’s efforts to find a mutually acceptable model for the reintegration of its breakaway regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
The Abkhaz separatists argue that the possible recognition of Kosovo’s independence strengthens their argument in favor of international recognition of Abkhazia’s independence. During the February 2-3 Geneva peace talks under the aegis of the UN Secretary-General’s Group of Friends of Georgia (US, France, Germany, UK, Russia), Sergei Shamba, the self-styled foreign minister of Abkhazia, noted, “In recent years many new states have emerged,” and this process would not and should not stop with Georgia. Shamba said that the process of democratization has gone much better in Abkhazia than in Kosovo, and “This has been recorded by independent observers” (Itar-Tass, February 3). Shamba and other Abkhaz leaders reacted sharply to the statement by U.S. Department of State spokesman Sean McCormack, who said, “The U.S. stands against the universal approach to settling regional conflicts and believes that every conflict should be settled individually, taking into account its unique specific features.” Shamba dismissed this statement as an “unfair approach” and “a manifestation of double standards” (Itar-Tass, Kavkaz Press, March 9).
This development is highly embarrassing for Tbilisi, particularly given Moscow’s demands that the Kosovo precedent be applied to all of the separatist enclaves in the post-Soviet space, including Georgia’s Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
When he met UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in New York on March 4, Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Nogaideli openly stated that the peace process in Abkhazia “is going the wrong way.” He said that the goal of the peace process “is not to maintain the status quo” in Abkhazia. Nogaideli underlined that restoration of Georgia’s territorial integrity should be the ultimate goal of the peace process. “I don’t think that anyone in the international community has a different opinion on this issue,” he added, likely alluding to the ongoing discussions about the possible independence for Kosovo and other separatist regions (TV-Imedi March 4).
Encouraged by the emerging new opportunity to legally separate from Georgia, the Abkhaz separatists are naturally less enthusiastic toward any talks about how to return the region to Georgian jurisdiction. Georgia, in turn, is not rushing to sign the already initialed agreement between Tbilisi and Sukhumi about the non-resumption of hostilities and the repatriation of internally displaced persons to Abkhazia. A meeting between Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and Abkhaz separatist leader Sergei Bagapsh, scheduled last December, has been postponed indefinitely.
Give this impasse, Tbilisi appears to have decided that the best option to get the process moving forward is to encourage the active involvement of Georgia’s international friends. Saakashvili’s government reportedly is encouraging the Western states, particularly the United States, to continue backdoor talks with Russia to persuade Moscow to adopt a more constructive attitude towards the Abkhaz problem — and to disavow talk of recognizing an independent Abkhazia.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice raised the Abkhaz issue with her Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, during his trip to the United States on March 7. At that time Lavrov admitted to the “divergence of attitudes” about the “methods of activity” (Regnum.ru, March 7). Matthew Bryza, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, said that the “help of European friends” could speed the settlement of the Abkhaz conflict, and he added that U.S. officials are urging Russia “to take active steps to resolve the conflict” (TV-Imedi, March 9). Knowledgeable sources say that the sticking points are the presence of Russian peacekeepers in the conflict zone and Russian respect for Georgia’s territorial integrity.
But Mikhail Bocharnikov, an ambassador-at-large with the Russian Foreign Ministry, made a remarkable statement that may expose Russia’s true intentions. During talks with Georgian and Abkhaz officials in Tbilisi and Sukhumi March 13-15, Bocharnikov underlined the importance of the latest UN Security Council resolution on Abkhazia. He said that, in Russia’s view, the well-known Boden document (elaborated by the UN secretary-general’s representative, Dieter Boden) about separation of constitutional powers between Sukhumi and Tbilisi should not be presented to the sides as the only option or settlement model (Apsnypress, Civil Georgia, March 15; Interfax, March 16). On March 17, the Russian Foreign Ministry accused Tbilisi of hindering the peace process in Abkhazia by refusing to finalize the agreement on non-resumption of hostilities. The ministry also dismissed a March 13 statement by the Georgian Foreign Ministry that said Bocharnikov had failed to “offer new approaches” in the conflict settlement (Civil Georgia, March 18).
Abkhaz authorities have turned down the three-stage conflict settlement plan that Tbilisi had offered to the breakaway regions. The plan includes the demilitarization of the conflict zone, economic rehabilitation, and extensive autonomy within Georgia. Shamba bluntly stated that Abkhazia has tired of discussions about various models for reintegrating Abkhazia into Georgia (Interfax, March 7). Georgia’s hawkish Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili stated that a dialogue with the separatist leaders is impossible, because Bagapsh, for example, has no power for decision-making (Interfax, February 5). On February 16, the Abkhaz government, parliament, and over 20 public and political organizations signed a joint statement regarding “looming Georgian aggression” and called on Russia, the North Caucasus peoples, and Cossacks to side with Abkhazia (Resonansi, February 17).
Nevertheless, some Georgian experts argue that part of Abkhazian society is reconsidering the wisdom of independence and is awaiting an encouraging sign from Tbilisi (Kavkaz Press February 17).
The sign came from Saakashvili during a ceremony to open a new Tbilisi-Tskhinvali-Sukhumi highway. The Georgian president said, “In 2010, or in the beginning of 2011 at the latest, this road will take us to Sukhumi” (TV-Imedi, March 15).