Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 18

The festering problems in Russian-controlled Abkhazia have become a troublesome factor in Georgia’s internal politics, undermining the position of President Eduard Shevardnadze, and bringing to the fore certain aggrieved or adventure-prone elements in Georgian society.

This is an unintended, but perhaps predictable result of Western passivity vis-a-vis Russian strong-arm tactics at the United Nations, in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and on the ground in Abkhazia. There, tensions are mounting in connection with the status of Russia’s “peacekeeping forces,” the problem of Georgian refugees and a dispute over the Kodori Gorge, the scene of last autumn’s armed clashes.

On January 15, Abkhaz troops in the Gali district raided a Georgian village, killing one and arresting several residents under “antiterrorist” pretenses, in full view of Russian “peacekeepers” within their patrolling area. On the Georgian side of the demarcation line, refugees from Abkhazia responded with vociferous protests around the Russian military post on the Inguri River bridge, thus blocking the main road linking Abkhazia with the rest of Georgia. The pickets are continuing since January 18, with the bona-fide refugees being joined by diehard Zviadists and Mkhedrioni, and the “White Legion” guerrilla group threatening to mine the approaches to the bridge on both sides. That group’s bark is stronger than its bite, but its rhetoric inflames the atmosphere and its showman-commander Dato Shengelia is taken more seriously by the Abkhaz and the Russians than he may deserve.

The 200,000 Georgian refugees from Abkhazia, and growing sections of the public at large, are exasperated by the Russian troops’ failure to protect the remaining Georgians in the Gali district and to ensure the return of most refugees to their homes. The large number of refugees in Tbilisi represents a source of constant political pressure on Shevardnadze and a headache to the security authorities. On January 21 after dark, refugees and other Tbilisi residents blocked, for several hours, the road to the capital’s elegant suburb of Tskhneti, where nouveau-riche officials and businessmen live. The demonstrators were protesting against the authorities’ perceived ineffectiveness regarding Abkhazia, but their choice of location pointed as well to a social subtext of the protest.

Since December 31, Russia’s “peacekeeping” contingent has lost even the semblance of legal status. On that date, the mandate of that force–ostensibly a CIS mandate–elapsed because Georgia would no longer renew it unconditionally. Tbilisi had for years sought an internationalization of that contingent, not by eliminating the Russian troops but by adding non-Russian ones, and rotating the command instead of allowing Russia to monopolize it.

Moscow has strenuously opposed internationalization, and the UN Secretary General’s Office–which oversees the Abkhazia situation–could do little more than take note of Russia’s opposition and adjust itself to it. The UN secretary-general’s envoy, German diplomat Dieter Boden, has been pressing Tbilisi to renew the “CIS peacekeepers” mandate. He argues that internationalization is unrealistic, and that the UN military observers in Abkhazia would have to pull out if deprived of the Russian “peacekeepers'” protection, thus leaving Georgia face-to-face with Russia and the Abkhaz.

This argument would carry greater credibility if accompanied by indications, or at least reassurances, that the UN Secretary-General’s Office–or the Friends of Georgia group of countries, which functions under the auspices of that office–are taking some steps toward creating a genuine international peacekeeping force. Such indications or reassurances, however, are conspicuous by their absence. The net result is to weaken Tbilisi’s already unenviable bargaining position vis-a-vis Moscow.

In this situation, Tbilisi seeks to change the mandate of the existing Russian contingent. It wants its functions more clearly defined, including the responsibility for the safe return of Georgian refugees to their homes. And it wants the contingent’s zone of operations extended inside Abkhazia up to the Galidzga River, which forms the boundary between the Gali and Ochamchira districts. Since 1994, that zone has been confined to a 12.5 kilometer strip on either side of the Inguri River.

Shevardnadze describes the return of refugees to their homes as “the questions of questions” regarding Abkhazia. Once that question is solved, the way would be clear for a far-reaching autonomy of Abkhazia within a federalized Georgia. The refugees’ return would reverse the 1993 Russian-assisted ethnic cleansing, as a result of which the Abkhaz minority seized the entire region. For their part, the Abkhaz resist a mass return of the refugees, and Moscow resists any involvement of Russian troops in such repatriation.

The Kodori Gorge’s upper part, populated by Svan Georgians, is the only corner of the pre-1993 Abkhazia not controlled by Abkhaz forces. For years, the Georgian villages there were at risk. Last autumn, the Kodori Gorge was the scene of provoked armed clashes, Abkhaz raids, and Russian air incursions. In October 2001, Georgia’s army sent 350 crack soldiers to guard the villages in the upper Kodori Gorge. Also in the gorge is a segment of the Kavkasioni high-voltage electricity transmission line that supplies Tbilisi. The line has repeatedly been disabled in Kodori, most likely by Abkhaz saboteurs, interrupting Tbilisi’s already precarious electricity supply.

Abkhazia and Boden are now demanding the withdrawal of that Georgian unit. On January 17, Shevardnadze’s special negotiator on Abkhazia issues, Malkhaz Kakabadze, signed with the Abkhaz a protocol, interpretable–certainly by Moscow and the Abkhaz–as requiring the Georgian soldiers to withdraw from Kodori next month. According to the UN envoy, the protocol should promote and “restore mutual confidence among the sides.”

The document’s signing has boosted Abkhaz confidence, but triggered a political storm in Tbilisi, sapping the UN’s credibility, embarrassing Shevardnadze and forcing him to beat a hasty retreat. On November 19, Parliament Chairwoman Nino Burjanadze summed up her and the parliament’s predominant view: “No normal and sensible person in Georgia can take such a decision. I held consultations with the president to express the parliament’s and my own stand. Georgian armed units should be in Kodori in order to prevent anyone from intruding and attacking the Georgian population. This is an absolutely unequivocal stand.”

Shevardnadze has since veered toward that position, amid signs that he is buffeted by countervailing political forces, having lost in November the political support of the parliamentary majority. It is a measure of Shevardnadze’s political predicament that he felt compelled to cite approvingly Jaba Ioseliani’s latest musings about the situation in Abkhazia, evidently hoping to calm down Ioseliani’s Mkhedrioni. Also this week, Shevardnadze publicly solicited the good offices of Ajaria’s leader Aslan Abashidze to defuse the tensions with the Abkhaz leaders. A beleaguered Shevardnadze had already (last November) offered Abashidze–a pro-Moscow politician, centrifugal vis-a-vis Tbilisi–the position of presidential envoy for negotiations with the Abkhaz leaders. But Abashidze has yet to take up the assignment. This week, his representatives in the Georgian parliament publicly criticized Shevardnadze for showing insufficient flexibility toward the Abkhaz.

The tensions over Abkhazia illustrate the built-in inadequacies of UN- and OSCE-sponsored mediating efforts. In this and other cases–the Moldova-Transdniester case is a mirror image–the international mediators’ goal of promoting mutual confidence between the sides translates into endless tactical appeasement of the secessionist side, in the absence of a strategy. This is perhaps inevitable when the international mediators themselves represent institutions–the UN and the OSCE–in which Russia, itself a party to these conflicts, has the right of veto over the mediators. The festering situation in Abkhazia is now beginning to seriously affect Georgia’s fragile internal political situation (Prime-News, Kavkasia-Press, Rustavi-2 Television, Tbilisi Radio, Interfax, January 18-24; see the Monitor, October 23-25, 30-31, November 29, December 7, January 10, 18).