Moscow and Tbilisi yesterday revealed deep differences over renewal of the mandate of the Russian "peacekeeping" contingent in the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict zone. Georgian officials listed their terms as the expansion of the peacekeeping operation area to include all of Abkhazia — not just the zone separating Abkhaz and Georgian forces — and the enlargement of the peacekeeping contingent’s mission to include law enforcement in Abkhazia, repatriation of Georgian refugees, disarmament of "unlawful" Abkhaz forces, and the reopening of vital transport arteries between Russia and the Transcaucasus via Abkhazia.
Russia’s Defense Ministry in turn went public yesterday in opposing those terms on the grounds that they would necessitate additional troops and funding, require Abkhaz consent and UN Security Council approval, and risk involving Russia’s peacekeeping troops in a conflict with the Abkhazians. Citing those considerations, senior Russian officials reinforced Defense Minister Pavel Grachev’s warning that Moscow may withdraw its peacekeeping contingent by April 19 unless Georgia and Abkhazia make progress toward a political settlement of the conflict or at least agree among themselves on the peacekeeping contingent’s mandate. The officials said that Moscow would be content to deploy in Abkhazia only the airborne regiment permanently based in Gudauta. (16)
The peacekeeping contingent, some 3,000 strong, is a relatively small part of Russia’s nearly 20,000 troops in Georgia. The January 19 CIS summit gave the CIS Councils of Foreign and of Defense Ministers until February 19 to work out a new mandate for Russia’s peacekeeping contingent on the basis of Georgia’s proposals and informally extended the contingent’s stay until April 19 to allow for CIS approval of a new mandate. The January CIS summit also agreed to withdraw the contingent by July 19 if its mandate is not enlarged as proposed. The new mandate is no more in sight than the economic sanctions declared against Abkhazia’s "separatist regime" at the same summit. Georgia continues to complain that Russia’s peacekeeping contingent in practice seals Abkhaz gains and helps perpetuate the political deadlock.