Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 161

Georgia and its separatist region of Abkhazia have marked the 13th anniversary of their civil war in understandably different ways. This difference, accompanied by challenging statements and moves from the Abkhaz leadership, suggests that a mutually acceptable conflict settlement remains a very remote prospect.

Last weekend Tbilisi held a wreath-laying ceremony at the memorial to the Georgian soldiers who died in the 1992-93 Abkhaz war. Afterwards, Irakli Alasania, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s representative to the Abkhaz conflict and chair of the Tbilisi-based Abkhaz government-in-exile, admitted that the government’s decision to send troops to Abkhazia in 1992 was a tragic mistake. It remains to be seen whether Alasania’s statement is a prelude to the current Georgian government admitting that the 1992 military invasion of Abkhazia was a mistake.

Meanwhile, the Abkhaz separatists marked the anniversary with unprecedented military exercises, which Anatoly Zaitsev, chief of the general staff of the Abkhaz army, had announced in May (see EDM, May 2, August 16). The exercises began on August 15 and will last until August 19. Zaitsev said the maneuvers are necessary to train Abkhaz forces in repelling a potential landing by enemy forces.

Sultan Sosnaliev, the Abkhaz defense minister, said that although the maneuvers are needed to formally test the combat readiness of the Abkhaz army, scheduling them to coincide with the anniversary of the war’s start was deliberate. “August and September are symbolic months for us,” he said. According to Sosnaliev, the maneuvers are a response to the intensive training of Georgian troops by American instructors.

The largest-ever military maneuvers in Abkhazia involve 6,000 servicemen (the Abkhaz army reportedly numbers 10,000), reservists, land, air, and naval forces. For the first time, the Abkhaz forces are expected to demonstrate the modern weaponry donated from Russia, and Russian military specialists reportedly will participate in the maneuvers. These exercises are actually the fourth Abkhaz military maneuvers this year. They embrace Ochamchire district, which, according to the 1994 ceasefire agreement, is incorporated in the restricted weapons zone.

Alasania claimed that Russia has sponsored all of the latest maneuvers in Abkhazia, because the Abkhaz government was unable to finance them. He also noted that having the “drums of war” in the background might undermine the fragile negotiating process.

On August 4, during the negotiations in Tbilisi between self-styled Abkhaz “foreign minister” Sergei Shamba and Giorgi Khaindrava, Georgian minister for conflict resolution, there was an attempt to make progress in the peace talks by discussing the Georgian draft declaration about the non-resumption of hostilities between Georgia and Abkhazia. The Abkhaz negotiators made their own comments on the proposal. According to Khaindrava and Alasania, both sides are refining the document to sign it. Some analysts, however, argue that the document, if signed, would mean that Georgia had obliquely recognized Abkhazia’s independence.

However, Abkhazia’s refusal to allow Georgian railway experts to join their counterparts from Russia and Abkhazia on August 9 to inspect the Abkhaz rail line suggests that Tbilisi may be overly optimistic about the possibility of ending the deadlock by political and economic means (see EDM, June 17). Yet again, talks have stumbled due to inflexibility over minor issues. The Abkhaz side refused to grant entry to the Georgian experts because they were internally displaced persons from Abkhazia. Sukhumi was ready to admit alternate experts, but Tbilisi refused to make any substitutions. The Russian Foreign Ministry’s spokesperson, Mikhail Kaminin, promptly accused the Georgian side of “holding an important economic project hostage to political ambitions.”

Today, the restoration of railway communications seems even more doubtful. From the outset, it was obvious that Tbilisi had agreed to resume the railway connection through Abkhazia mainly for political reasons. The Abkhaz authorities are only willing to synchronize the restoration of the railway with the repatriation of Georgian internally displaced persons, but only if they will register as citizens of independent Abkhazia. Some Georgian analysts are quite skeptical about the political benefits that Georgia might receive from this initiative.

Sergei Bagapsh, the self-styled president of Abkhazia, recently made a provocative statement in an interview with Regnum news agency on August 4. He said that, under Saakashvili, “Georgia has a unique opportunity to recognize the independence of Abkhazia.” Bagapsh also accused the Western states that are mediating the peace talks of simultaneously arming Georgia. “Georgia’s military budget amounts to $300 million. We ask foreign diplomats, and ourselves, against whom Georgia is arming itself?”

Meanwhile, the Abkhaz authorities are working to maintain their profile in Moscow. On August 14, Bagapsh left for four-day visit to Moscow. He has already met Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, who is known for his “humanitarian” gestures towards Georgia’s breakaway regions, and the two men discussed economic cooperation. In addition, last week more than 15 Abkhaz NGOs, collectively known as the “Coordinating Council of Russian Citizens in Abkhazia,” sent a letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin asking him to recognize Abkhazia as independent state and to incorporate it as associated member of the Russian Federation. “More than 80% of the Abkhaz population are Russian citizens,” the letter reads. But Tbilisi apparently does not consider this fact to be a deal breaker. “Russian citizenship of Abkhazians is an unpleasant factor, but it is not a tragedy,” Alasania commented.

The Abkhaz appear unwilling to take note of the conciliatory rhetoric from Tbilisi, which many analysts consider to be mainly for external consumption. Recent developments suggest the tactics both parties are now adopting, are simply “negotiations for the sake of negotiations.” Both sides are stalling for time until the situation changes in their favor. While Tbilisi waits for help from Washington, Sukhumi has directed its appeals toward Moscow.

(Caucasus Press, Apsynpress, August 15; Civil Georgia, August 14; Interpress News, RIA-Novosti, August 12; Vremya novostei, August 10; Regnum, August 4)