On January 31, the UN Security Council adopted a resolution that leaves Georgia fully dependent on Russia for a solution to the Abkhazia problem. The resolution nevertheless makes it possible for President Eduard Shevardnadze to shelve, without excessive loss of face, his recent appeals for international support in overcoming the Russian-imposed deadlock in Abkhazia.
On February 1, Russia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry chief spokesman Aleksandr Yakovenko declared that “Moscow hails the Security Council’s resolution,” having indeed co-authored it. And on February 4, Shevardnadze told his country on radio about his decision to prolong the Russian “peacekeeping” contingent’s mandate, without having achieved the three goals that he had proclaimed last October: internationalizing that contingent, mandating those troops to repatriate Georgian refugees to their homes in southern Abkhazia and keeping a Georgian army unit in the Kodori Gorge (see the Monitor, January 25).
As the president and other officials have summarized it, the resolution reaffirms the UN’s known support for Georgia’s territorial integrity within its internationally recognized borders and for the return of refugees. It calls on the Georgian government and the Abkhaz authorities to begin negotiations toward defining Abkhazia’s status of autonomy within a single Georgian state. It endorses a framework document on the delimitation of the respective competencies, which was recently drafted by the UN Secretary General’s Friends of Georgia group of countries–that is, Russia, the United States, Germany, Britain and France. (This originally Western group used to be called simply Friends of Georgia, before Russia’s entry modified its title and nature). The resolution urges Sukhumi to take that document under consideration, and both Tbilisi and Sukhumi to begin negotiations taking that document as a basis. It also makes it clear that the framework document is not definitive. As previous UN documents did, this resolution calls for the return of refugees and notes the Abkhaz authorities’ responsibility for the repatriates’ safety.
Endorsement of that document is a sweetener for Georgia and a face-saver for Shevardnadze. The Abkhaz leaders have all along refused any discussion on political status within a federalized Georgia. Instead, they insist on a status close to full-fledged statehood, and on a treaty-based relationship with the rest of Georgia as two coequal parties. Moscow has discreetly encouraged the Abkhaz to maintain that stand, while publicly declining responsibility for changing its proteges’ mind. Until now, Moscow repeatedly used its veto power in the UN Security Council to block Western-backed draft resolutions and framework documents on a political status for Abkhazia within Georgia and the return of the refugees.
The January 31 resolution seems, on the whole, as toothless as any emanating from the UN Security Council with regard to conflicts in the post-Soviet area. The framework document is intended to be negotiable and elastic. It entails ample leeway for the Abkhaz leaders to negotiate and renegotiate the terms of the framework document in pursuit of some “mutually acceptable” solution. It leaves Russia in control on the ground, wielding as before its official and unofficial veto at every negotiating level, as well as the only enforcement power in sight.
That enforcement monopoly also applies to the issue of the return of Georgian refugees. The UN resolution leaves Georgia in its position as helpless supplicant for the Russian “peacekeeping troops'” assistance in repatriating the refugees and ensuring their safety. That situation, in turn, hands Russia a powerful lever of influence over Tbilisi in matters of the latter’s national policy. And the impasse fuels exasperation and unrest among the flammable mass of refugees in Tbilisi and on the Georgian-Abkhaz demarcation line.
The Security Council’s resolution demands that Georgia withdraw its 350-strong military unit, deployed since last October in the upper Kodori Gorge, the sole corner of the pre-1993 Abkhazia not seized by Abkhaz forces. The UN military observers would resume patrolling of the gorge once the Georgian unit withdraws from it. This demand reflects the view of the UN Secretary General’s special envoy, Dieter Boden, and other diplomats who cite the 1994 Moscow ceasefire agreement and urge strict observance of its provisions. Citing that same document, the Abkhaz leaders refuse to resume talks with Tbilisi as long as the Georgian unit remains in the gorge.
While a case may be made for Tbilisi to make that concession so as to restart the negotiations, basing that case on an alleged need to observe the integrity of the 1994 “agreement” can only contribute to the deadlock. Imposed on Georgia through a war waged by Russian, Abkhaz and Chechen forces, the 1994 document has well served its purpose of perpetuating an unresolved conflict and the Russian arbitration thereof. It belongs in another era, and remains a major impediment to a solution of the problem.
The resolution renews the UN military observers’ mandate for another six months, and gives Georgia until February 15 to prolong the mandate of Russian “peacekeeping troops.” Failing this, the UN warns that it may withdraw its 105 military observers from the conflict theater. The UN has already warned Georgia several times in recent months on that account, in the knowledge that Georgia fears being left face-to-face with the Russian-armed Abkhaz, not to mention the Russian military itself.
In the established practice, both of those mandates are being routinely renewed every six months. Georgia had served notice last October that it would allow the Russian “peacekeeping troops'” mandate to expire on December 31, reserving the right to send them home; but that it would allow those troops to continue their operation de facto, pending renegotiation of their mandate, so as to include assistance with the repatriation of refugees. Such de facto continuation has in fact occurred several times in recent years, for a few months at a time, when Tbilisi tried in vain to renegotiate that mandate.
This time, however, Russia insisted on the prolongation of the existing mandate unchanged, refusing to continue the operation de facto. The UN supported Moscow’s position, even reinforcing it through the threat to withdraw the UN observers, unless Tbilisi prolongs the Russian troops’ mandate. Boden took the position that the observers cannot safely operate without the security provided by peacekeeping forces–in this case, Russian troops. But the UN is not known to have seriously tried to internationalize that operation by adding bona-fide peacekeepers from countries other than Russia (Prime-News, Tbilisi Radio, Interfax, Rustavi-2 Television, January 30-February 4; see the Monitor, December 7, 2001, January 10, 18, 25).
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