Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 196

The United Nations Security Council has approved a routine prolongation of the U.N. Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG) mandate to operate in Abkhazia (United Nations, Report of the Secretary-General, October 15; Civil Georgia, October 16; Georgia Today, October 19-25). The Security Council’s resolution is less biased against Georgia and less replete with Moscow-inspired formulations, in comparison with previous resolutions, particularly that of October 2006 (see EDM, October 17, 2006). Following the new resolution’s adoption, however, some Moscow representatives sent out trial balloons testing some unprecedented excuses for holding on to Abkhazia indefinitely, irrespective of any U.N. processes.

The new resolution’s most significant innovation consists of supporting the right of all refugees and internally displaced persons to return to their homes in Abkhazia and reclaim their property there. Moreover, these rights are now being recognized as valid on the entire territory of pre-1993 Abkhazia, not just the Gali district. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon seems more receptive to this notion than any of his predecessors in that post. This recognition is the first real political step by an international organization to begin addressing the 1993 mass ethnic cleansing of Georgians from Abkhazia, particularly north of Gali. However, an actual mechanism to reverse that ethnic cleansing has yet to be devised.

Furthermore, the resolution enlarges UNOMIG’s area of responsibility by authorizing its personnel to monitor the territory between the mainly Russian-controlled “conflict zone” and the Georgian-controlled Upper Abkhazia (Kodori Gorge). The enlargement is slight, but the territory is critical, and the UNOMIG monitoring there can help prevent Russian and Abkhaz illicit activities, such as their September 20 raid into the upper Kodori Gorge.

Along with these innovations, the Security Council’s resolution incorporates the traditional bows to the 1994 Moscow “agreement” and its product, the “Commonwealth of Independent States peacekeeping force,” although that agreement was imposed on a prostrate Georgia and the Russian force is neither CIS nor peacekeeping by U.N. standards. These points in the resolution fully satisfied Moscow as well as its Abkhaz protégés. The latter, meanwhile, refuse to return to the political dialogue with Tbilisi, which the Abkhaz side broke when Tbilisi reestablished its control in Upper Kodori in July 2006. Sukhumi wants Georgia to evacuate Upper Kodori as a condition to resuming the political dialogue. Such a demand seems a calculated non-starter to avoid a political dialogue with the Georgian government.

During the negotiations on the resolution, Georgia insisted on the need for a comprehensive analysis of the Abkhazia conflict and fundamental change in the peacekeeping and negotiations mechanisms. President Mikheil Saakashvili called for such analysis and such changes in his September 26 speech to the U.N. General Assembly. There he also offered self-governance for those living in Abkhazia within Georgia’s borders, under constitutional and international guarantees for language rights and preservation of ethnic identity, and including a robust role for the European Union (see EDM, October 1).

According to the ministers of Foreign Affairs and Conflict Settlement, Gela Bezhuashvili and Davit Bakradze, Georgia’s follow-up steps at the U.N. will be to promote a reassessment of the entire negotiating process so as to identify the reasons for its ineffectiveness and change its decade-old format. Georgia also wants the U.N. to actually express a position on the ethnic cleansing in next year’s resolutions and also to internationalize Russia’s 1,500-strong “peacekeeping” operation. UNOMIG’s presence, with only 152 personnel and a strictly circumscribed mandate, dependent on the Russian military for security and mobility, scarcely makes a dent into Russia’s “peacekeeping” monopoly.

In the wake of the new U.N. resolution, a Russian diplomat and two prominent Moscow analysts raised some new issues to their Georgian and Western counterparts during an international conference on October 19-21 in Tbilisi. One Russian warning, voiced in the Chatham-rule-based conference, said explicitly that Moscow would officially recognize Abkhazia’s separation from Georgia in the event that Georgia successfully persists with its quest for NATO membership.

Another warning said that Russia’s ultimate decision on Abkhazia could depend on whether the Russian navy retains or gives up the Sevastopol base in Ukraine by 2017, when the current lease expires. The implication is that Moscow considers the possibility of building a naval base in Abkhazia as a partial substitute for Sevastopol (the Novorossiysk base has a limited potential).

A third warning, voiced in parallel with the conference, claimed that Georgia was failing to fulfill a commitment to host Russian-Georgian “joint anti-terrorist centers” on Georgian territory, as part of the 2005 and 2006 agreements on closing the Batumi and Akhalkalaki bases. This claim apparently seeks to excuse Russia’s continuing retention of a third base, Gudauta, which was to have been closed, along with Batumi and Akhalkalaki, under the 1999 Istanbul agreements. In reality, Georgia never agreed to host Russian-Georgian “joint anti-terrorist centers.” Russia failed in 2005-2006 to extract that price for the closure of the two bases (see EDM, March 14, 2005 and May 22, 2006).

These new ideas seem designed to test Georgian and Western reactions to a continuation of Russia’s control of Abkhazia on pretexts that have nothing to do with “ethnic” conflict, the Abkhaz as such, or a political settlement of the conflict, let alone U.N. negotiating processes. Moreover, those rationalizations have no relation to any “Kosovo precedent” and demonstrate that Moscow does not need any “precedent” for pursuing its policies in Abkhazia. Rather, it holds Abkhazia’s remaining population hostage to those policies.