Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 68

Abkhazia’s “president” Sergei Bagapsh

For reasons undeclared, the United Nations Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG) is procrastinating with its investigation into the March 11 shelling of Georgia’s upper Kodori Valley by helicopters that flew in from Russia and returned there. On the morrow of the attacks, direct as well as circumstantial evidence indicated that Russian helicopters with sophisticated night-time navigation equipment had flown through high-altitude passes and fired precision shots from clearly identified Russian ordnance at Georgian government buildings there (see EDM, March 19).

On March 12 UNOMIG convened a quadripartite Joint Fact-Finding Group (JFFG) consisting of representatives of the Georgian government, Abkhaz de facto authorities, Russian “peacekeepers,” and UNOMIG chairing the group. The JFFG went on to conduct two inspections at the locations of the attacks. All sides, including the Russian and the Georgian ones, expected UNOMIG to release the findings during the week of March 19-24 (Interfax, March 16; Imedi TV, March 21). However, UNOMIG only issued a brief press release on April 3 and only to announce a further postponement of the publication of its findings.

According to UNOMIG, “Consensus has been reached on a number of aspects of the incident. The JFFG has also agreed that further progress requires additional information” (Press Release, April 3). This formulation would seem to suggest that the JFFG operates on the consensus principle and that publication of its findings would be subject to reaching consensus within the group. In that case, however, the value of this quadripartite investigation would be compromised. So would UNOMIG’s own credibility if it lends its aegis to a report where political consensus with Russia overrides the facts.

The procrastination may also be related to the United Nations Security Council’s (UNSC) upcoming April 10 debate on UNOMIG’s mandate, which is subject to renewal at six-month intervals. What used to be during many years a routine exercise turned last year into a Russian exercise in intimidation of the UN and certain European countries. The Russian side last April and October threatened to veto the mandate’s prolongation unless it got its way on the wording of the UNSC resolution. Russia received full satisfaction in the UNSC’s latest resolution on Abkhazia (see EDM, October 17, 2006).

This maneuver last April and October successfully derailed a genuine debate in the UNSC on the actual issues within UN responsibility in Abkhazia. These are: first, the transformation of Russia’s unlawfully deployed “peacekeeping” operation into a genuine international operation corresponding to the UN’s own criteria; and, second, relaunching the negotiations on Abkhazia’s political status within Georgia — a process formally placed under the U.N.’s aegis, although deadlocked since the Russia-backed Abkhaz side refuses to discuss that issue.

To prevent Georgia and its supporters from pursuing those issues in the UNSC, Russia has changed the subject by seemingly threatening to pull the plug on UNOMIG. Although the threat is clearly not credible, it seems designed to unnerve UNOMIG and the West European countries involved in the UN-led Geneva Process of political negotiations on Abkhazia. Some of those countries were the first to accept Moscow’s wording in the UNSC resolution last October — ostensibly as a price for prolonging UNOMIG’s mandate, though more likely reflecting their own priorities on a bilateral level with Russia.

Thus, UN weakness seems to embolden the Abkhaz leaders in the aftermath of the Russian helicopter attack on upper Kodori and in the run-up to the UNSC session. In their latest statements, “president” Sergei Bagapsh, “foreign minister” Sergei Shamba, and other leaders refuse to re-start any negotiations with Tbilisi unless Georgian authorities withdraw from upper Kodori. They also threaten to refuse any dialogue with international organizations that establish contact with the Tbilisi-backed Abkhaz authorities located in upper Kodori. In the coming days, possibly timed to coincide with the UNSC session, Sukhumi plans to host an unprecedented “summit” meeting of post-Soviet secessionist leaders, complete with a “parliamentary assembly” of those territories.

The night-time attack by Russian helicopters seemed intended to damage rather than destroy buildings or kill residents. Thus it rather carefully calibrated the level of provocation to Georgia and internationally. This apparent calculation suggests that Moscow may be considering the possibility of escalation — for example, by attacking with intent to destroy next time, or by orchestrating a guerrilla operation after the onset of spring. Moscow may feel emboldened to escalate if the UNOMIG-led report turns out to be evasive or if the UNSC resolution takes Russia’s side against Georgia as in October 2006.

(Interfax, The Messenger, Kavkas-Press, March 29-April 5)