International silence about the ethnic cleansing of Georgians from Abkhazia is a striking feature of the continuing debate on the Russia-Georgia conflict. Moscow’s overt moves in recent days to annex Abkhazia politically and militarily capitalize on that ethnic cleansing and would render it irreversible. The international silence on this issue resembles that surrounding the cleansing of Azeris with Russian support from Armenian-occupied districts of Azerbaijan.
The current crisis over Abkhazia offered Western officials and international organizations a chance to break their long silence and address this issue at the policy level. None did so, however, in contrast to the same officials’ and organizations’ successful insistence on reversing the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. Only the European Union’s External Affairs Commissioner, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, made a reference to EU humanitarian aid for “internally displaced persons” from Abkhazia, responding to questions during the debate just held the European Parliament on the Abkhazia crisis (EP press release, May 7).
Unwittingly the EU came close to condoning the forcible population and border shifts in Abkhazia by extending travel visa facilitations to Russian passport holders there, while denying those facilitations to all Georgian passport holders (including those driven out of Abkhazia). The EU can no longer plead absent-mindedness on this issue, and the Commission seems to be working now on visa facilitation for Georgian citizens, despite continuing reluctance of several European governments.
With Western governments seemingly reluctant to irritate Russia over Abkhazia, the unresolved issue of ethnic cleansing can be approached at this stage at the level of humanitarian law, human rights and property rights. A first initiative in this regard would seem particularly appropriate for the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe’s (PACE) session next month. Such an issue belongs indisputably to the core of PACE’s responsibilities. Even the Russian delegation’s usual allies there would find it hard to dispute that substantive point. Procedurally, its scheduling as an urgent item for the June session would seem a natural response from PACE to the current crisis in Abkhazia. The Russian veto can and does prevent the OSCE from addressing that issue, but Russia has no such power in the Council of Europe and PACE.
The Russian military, not the Abkhaz (17 percent of the region’s pre-conflict population) evicted the Georgian population (45 percent of the pre-conflict population) from Abkhazia by force. Yet Moscow has tried to put an Abkhaz face on that act, thereby turning the Abkhaz from ad hoc allies into long-term hostages to Russian policy. Using a similar method, Russia is now attempting to put an Abkhaz face on the downing of one or more Georgian unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) in internationally recognized Georgian air space.
Following the downing of one UAV on April 20, the only proven case in the current crisis, Abkhaz authorities claimed to have downed two Georgian UAVs on May 4 and another one on May 8, using “Abkhaz” ground-based antiaircraft installations. (Interfax, Itar-Tass, Apsnypress, May 4-8).
The three latter cases seem to be empty propaganda claims. In the April 20 incident, a Russian MIG-29 was filmed destroying the Georgian UAV and was then tracked flying into Russian air space (see EDM, April 21). In that incident, Russia initially denied the facts strenuously, then changed its story and attributed the shooting to “Abkhaz air defenses.” Abkhaz political and military authorities then took up that tack for the other purported incidents in that series.
Georgia has requested the United Nations Secretary General’s Special Representative for Georgia, Jean Arnault, the political head of the United Nations Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG) deployed in Abkhazia, to institute immediately an investigation regarding the presence and use of air defense systems by “Abkhaz” forces and to report on the investigation’s results (press release, May 5). UN action is paralyzed, however, by Russia’s veto power, which Moscow will use all the more because nominally Abkhaz combat hardware is, in fact, Russian-supplied and Russian-manned.
This situation raises major issue of international law and air safety that seem to be relegated to oblivion by international organizations and governments. Even the United States hesitated for two weeks before acknowledging through the White House spokeswoman that a Russian plane had, in fact, downed the UAV in Georgian air space (press release, May 6).
Moscow’s statements that the Abkhaz possess air defense systems need to be investigated for their ramifications. These statements signify that Russia is, by its own admission, arming an unlawful force, a non-state, rogue actor by any definition, with weapons that can potentially threaten the safety of any type of flight over that part of Georgia’s air space. The purported “Abkhaz” military cannot be assumed to use those missiles competently when they, or Russian crews on loan, decide to use them. It can be assumed that civilian flights are at risk. Along with Russia’s retention of the Gudauta base with its airport in the same area, from which the MIG-29 apparently took off, and the “unaccounted-for treaty-limited equipment” of Russian heavy weaponry in Abkhazia, the militarization of this region is another major issue that is overdue for open international discussion.