Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 31

President Eduard Shevardnadze is being driven into Moscow’s “peacekeeping” embrace not only by an ineffectual UN, but also by the erosion of his internal political support. With more than three years to go in his last presidential term, Shevardnadze’s popularity is at an all-time low because of a perceived failure to lead in promoting reforms and combating corruption. Some of his natural allies–pro-reform, Western-oriented parliamentarians and ministers–have abandoned him, though not before he had distanced himself from them.

Against this backdrop, pro-Moscow lobbies in Georgia are suddenly becoming active and offering the president their dubious, conditional cooperation. Shevardnadze does not appear to be taking the bait. For now, devoid of a parliamentary majority, he is maneuvering. He needs, badly, at least a semblance of success somewhere–such as Abkhazia–to redeem his presidency, given that long-awaited economic improvements seem years away.

On February 8-9, Ajaria’s leader Aslan Abashidze held talks with top Russian officials in Moscow in his concurrent capacity as Shevardnadze’s recently appointed envoy for negotiations with and on Abkhazia. This bizarre appointment is a direct consequence of Shevardnadze’s internal political predicament, and is a measure of that predicament. Abashidze is a pro-Moscow politician, with close ties to the Russian military stationed in Ajaria, who has long defied the central government in Tbilisi and the president. Shevardnadze has handled this challenge in a calm and statesmanlike fashion over the years, so as to prevent “a second Abkhazia” in Ajaria. Last November, however, Shevardnadze stunned Georgia by going to Batumi to make a deal with Abashidze and appointing him presidential negotiator on Abkhaz issues.

That step was to some extent forced on Shevardnadze by the political divorce between him and the pro-reform wing in the governing Union of Georgia’s Citizens and in parliament. The chain of events led to the collapse of the parliamentary majority and that of the government, leaving Shevardnadze dependent on ad-hoc deals with various political groups. Of these, the Abashidze-controlled Revival Union is the single largest and also the most disciplined in Georgia’s deeply fragmented parliament.

Abashidze, however, took up his negotiating appointment only after Moscow, with UN help, had pressured Shevardnadze into accepting Moscow’s conditions. These include: prolonging the purely Russian “peacekeeping” operation under a CIS label, Georgian renunciation of the goal of adding non-Russian, bona-fide peacekeeping troops to the Russian contingent, the withdrawal of Georgian troops from the Kodori Gorge and an official Georgian application to the CIS to approve the mandate of the purportedly “CIS peacekeeping” operation. This last point is also contained in the UN Security Council’s January 31 resolution, complete with praise for “CIS peacekeeping” in its existing, Russian form in Abkhazia. This has a long-sought precedent value for Moscow, and gives the measure of the UN’s abdication of its peacekeeping responsibility in the case of Georgia. By the same token it defeats Shevardnadze’s efforts to change the nature of that operation. Shevardnadze would have been better placed to pursue those efforts from a stronger internal political base. The erosion of that base, however, has increased his vulnerability to external pressure, and left him little choice but to try and sell this outcome as a success of his personal diplomacy.

In Moscow last week, Foreign Affairs Minister Igor Ivanov and Security Council Secretary Vladimir Rushailo took stock of the new situation with the visiting Abashidze. The Georgian presidential envoy made a point of declaring that Russia “plays the leading role” in the political negotiations on Abkhazia, and that “CIS peacekeeping troops cannot be replaced.” Beyond his Abkhazia purview, Abashidze called for a “return to the historically close ties between Georgia and Russia.” All those remarks reflect Abashidze’s own views, not those of the Western-oriented Shevardnadze, but the politically weakened president seems hardly in a position to remonstrate with his appointee now.

Until now, Shevardnadze has had to deal with Russia as participant in, as well as arbiter of, the conflict in Abkhazia. Now, Moscow seems set to add a third role through proxy, as a negotiator for Georgia with the Abkhaz side. Shevardnadze retains the chance to use his preexisting special envoy for conflict situations, Malkhaz Kakabadze, as the main negotiator with the Abkhaz. For now, Abashidze handles the direct channel to Moscow.

Shevardnadze and Abashidze are both invited to attend a self-styled congress in Tbilisi of Georgian refugees from Abkhazia. Boris Kakubava, leader of one refugee faction, and widely considered a Russian agent provocateur in Tbilisi, is the initiator of this congress. The idea is to legitimize Abashidze as the “main negotiator” and to offer conditional cooperation to Shevardnadze; and the premise is that Russia alone can ensure the refugees’ repatriation, if Tbilisi goes for a deal with Moscow. The refugees form a potentially flammable mass, which the authorities are preoccupied to keep calm. Shevardnadze yesterday appealed for postponing the congress.

Meanwhile, two openly pro-Moscow political groups are making themselves heard in recent days. One, calling itself “Together with Russia” and led by some members of the pre-1991 cultural establishment–traditionally strong in Tbilisi–is accusing Shevardnadze of damaging Georgia’s relations with Russia. It also claims that Moscow holds the key to the solution of Georgia’ s problems. The other group, calling itself “Russia My Neighbor,” is headed by Socialist Party leader and Parliamentary Vice Chairman Vahtang Rcheuleshvili, a Russia-leaning politician. This group proposes to “pressure the leaderships of both countries to restore close Russian-Georgian relations. In practical terms, however, it is only in a position to pressure Tbilisi into a one-sided rapprochement with Moscow on the latter’s terms (Prime-News, Rustavi-2 Television, Tbilisi Radio, Interfax, February 8-11).