Western-supported efforts by the Georgian government to engage the Abkhaz leadership in meaningful negotiations have triggered an internal political backlash from President Eduard Shevardnadze’s opponents of various stripes.
Following his re-election as president in April, Shevardnadze put a new team in charge of the Abkhaz problem, hoping to persuade Sukhumi of Tbilisi’s readiness for political accommodation. Shevardnadze appointed Malkhaz Kakabadze as chief negotiator with the rank of minister; authorized the new state minister [equivalent to prime minister] Giorgi Arsenishvili to hold out economic incentives to Abkhazia, in parallel with the political negotiations; instructed the government to avoid denunciations and a confrontational tone in the official rhetoric; and encouraged the establishment of a permanent telephone link and other informal contacts at the high level between Tbilisi and Sukhumi. Yet Shevardnadze and the parliamentary leadership–which supports the president’s course on Abkhazia as on other issues–are proceeding with caution and minimal publicity, so as to avoid provoking the nationalist and other diehard opposition circles.
On July 11 in Sukhumi, in the presence of supportive Western diplomats, Arsenishvili and Kakabadze discussed with Abkhaz leader Vladislav Ardzinba a set of confidence-building measures in the political and security spheres, as well as the political prerequisites to a gradual resumption of economic relations. Documents signed on that occasion include provisions on ruling out the use of force by either side against the other, banning public incitements to a military solution of the dispute, as well as cooperating to curb crime, smuggling and politically motivated violence in the Georgian-Abkhaz contact zone.
In addition, Arsenishvili and several heads of Georgian economic ministries discussed in Sukhumi the possibility of restoring economic ties in the energy, transportation and agricultural sectors, in parallel with negotiations on three core political issues: Georgian refugees’ return to the Gali district, preparation of a Tbilisi-Sukhumi agreement on concord and, as a corollary, formulation of Abkhazia’s political status within Georgia, it being understood that Georgia would become a federation. In the wake of the Sukhumi meeting, Arsenishvili made an unprecedented, reaction-testing reference to Ardzinba as “president.”
Once these developments became known in Tbilisi, an unlikely combination of political groups accused the president and government of engaging in “one-sided concessions,” a “sellout” and plain “treason.” Pickets, inflammatory political propaganda and threats of violence ensued from these groups. They include Zviadist factions, anti-Zviadists of equally nationalist convictions, Georgian refugees from Abkhazia who seem prepared to cross from the pro-government into the opposition’s camp, and some nonnationalist left-wing parties which seem bent on exploiting this political opportunity for their own ends. Some twenty-eight of the protesting parties and groups form the National-Democratic Center, among them the Popular Front led by Nodar Natadze and the Ilia Chavchavadze Society. These once-strong organizations were in the forefront of the national liberation movement in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but are now marginal.
Diehard Zviadists, too, seem to regard the Abkhazia issue as an opportunity for resuming political and paramilitary activities. The Zviadist chieftain Akaki Eliava, who was killed in a shootout with security forces recently, had threatened to launch guerrilla operations against both the Tbilisi government and the Abkhaz secessionists. He had also not too long ago made an alliance with the anti-Abkhaz guerrilla group of Dato Shengelia, which is based in western Georgia’s Zugdidi district alongside Abkhazia and operates on either side of the demarcation line.
Georgian refugees from Abkhazia, who number more than 200,000 and are massed in Tbilisi and the Zugdidi district, provide a potentially combustible material for agitators. Living in wretched conditions, on allowances which are not being paid for months on end, many refugees blame the government for failing to secure their repatriation to their farms in Abkhazia. In their despair, many among them favor a resumption of the Georgian-Abkhaz war. The refugee community provides a source of recruitment for the guerrilla and criminal groups which operate along the demarcation line.
The official refugee leadership is made up of the Georgian members of the former Abkhaz Supreme Soviet, who fled Abkhazia during the 1992-93 ethnic cleansing and are now members of the Georgian parliament in Tbilisi as the Abkhazeti group of deputies. This group, headed by Tamaz Nadareishvili, officially advocates a military solution to the conflict, as do many of its refugee constituents. Once allied to the ruling establishment and held in check by it, the refugee leaders have recently turned highly critical of Shevardnadze and quit the parliamentary majority. They are indignant at the Sukhumi agreement–specifically at the ban on advocating a military solution. They do not accept the decision to exclude the refugee leadership from now on from the Tbilisi-Sukhumi negotiations.
Addressing the country on July 24, Shevardnadze defended the understandings reached in Sukhumi as the only possible means toward the twin goals of repatriating the refugees and ultimately reunifying the country. Terming Ardzinba “a partner in negotiations,” Shevardnadze urged the independent media and political groups to refrain from inflammatory rhetoric and to abandon the idea of resorting to force in Abkhazia.
Focusing on the need to agree on a political status of Abkhazia within Georgia, Shevardnadze unmistakably alluded to Russia’s opposition: “I can not imagine a situation in which Russia refuses to support a very high status [of self-government] for Abkhazia within a single and united Georgia. It must be in Russia’s vital interest to see the neighboring states unified and stable. This should determine Russia’s stand regarding the Abkhazia problem. If this proves not to be the case, it will be Russia’s big and serious mistake.”
Such is indeed the mistake that Moscow continues committing through its encouragement of Abkhaz intransigence. Sukhumi refuses to negotiate toward a political status within a federated Georgia. The Abkhaz side persists in the old position that it forms an independent state and that it can only discuss joining the rest of Georgia as a coequal entity, in a “common state” to be created by treaty. That is the main stumbling block which Tbilisi hopes to overcome through its recent overtures to Sukhumi and through offers of postconflict reconstruction assistance, held out by the Friends of Georgia group of Western countries. The internal political backlash in Georgia is manageable if the presidential team moves cautiously and unless Moscow enlists some of the more radical protesters in some covert operation by proxy (Prime-News, Kontakt, Kavkasia-Press, Tbilisi Radio, July 20-26; see the Monitor, May 9, June 22, July 13).
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