A routine six-month prolongation of UNOMIG’s mandate — the 13 year-old United Nations Observer Mission in Georgia — resulted in yet another political resolution on Abkhazia by the United Nations Security Council on April 13, after a week-long debate that punctuated a frozen “negotiating process.” Georgian diplomats fought successfully — with strong U.S. support this time — to avoid a repetition of the Russia-inspired, anti-Georgia resolution of October 2006 (see EDM, October 17, 2006). Yet some of that resolution’s offending formulations remain, along with the traditional evasions of responsibility, in the new resolution. The latter also contains some recommendations that might actually unfreeze the settlement process if Moscow allows their implementation, which seems as unlikely as ever.
Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Nogaideli’s speech to the UNSC confirmed Tbilisi’s intentions in this regard: “We are ready for direct dialogue with the Abkhaz side at all levels and without preconditions, including meetings at high levels. …. The Abkhaz society’s isolation is detrimental to all, and we wish to offer opportunities to break this isolation, to rebuild broken bonds, including through citizen-to-citizen exchanges.” At the same time, Nogaideli urged the UNSC to: exercise its own responsibility in introducing a civilian police component of UNOMIG; open a human rights office in Gali district to deal with abuses against Georgians there; press the de facto Abkhaz authorities to lift the ban on education in the Georgian language; and identify and condemn the perpetrators of the March 11-12 night-time helicopter attacks on the upper Kodori Valley (clearly by the Russian military — see EDM, March 19, April 6).
Ultimately, “We can never allow ethnic cleansing [of Georgians and others] to form the basis for [Abkhaz] claims to statehood or independence,” Nogaideli told the UNSC. Meeting separately with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Nogaideli again underscored that Abkhazia’s future status can only be determined by the entire population, after the refugees’ safe return to their homes throughout Abkhazia — a principle also reaffirmed by Georgia’s State Minister for Conflict Settlement Merab Antadze and UN Under-Secretary General for Peacekeeping Operations Jean-Marie Guehenno in a parallel meeting (Federal News Service, April 10; Rustavi-2 TV, April 11).
UNSC Resolution 1752 of April 13 amounts to a mixed bag of Russian formulations designed to freeze the resolution and Western-backed Georgian recommendations that Moscow and Sukhumi can continue stonewalling if they choose. On the Russian side of the ledger, the resolution defines the conflict as a “Georgian-Abkhaz conflict” — a wording that made its way into UNSC resolutions last year, replacing the earlier phrase, “the conflict in Abkhazia, Georgia.” The terminological change obscures the conflict’s basic nature, which is that of an interstate conflict conducted by Russia against Georgia. Moreover, the wording “Georgian-Abkhaz conflict” equates those two sides, serving Moscow and Sukhumi as an argument for demanding that the Abkhaz “side” be invited to the UNSC.
The resolution, moreover, reiterates the traditional praise of the “CIS peacekeeping force” for its “important stabilizing role” — a triple genuflection to Russia, whose troops are neither “CIS” nor peacekeeping (by any of the UN’s own criteria), nor stabilizing in any sense. Such formulations undermine efforts to transform Russia’s “peacekeeping” operation into a genuine international peacekeeping operation. As Russian Permanent UN Representative Vitaly Churkin observed, Georgia’s goal to change the format of the peacekeeping operation is being “removed from the [UN] agenda” through this formulation.
On the Georgian side of the ledger, the resolution calls on both sides [Tbilisi and Sukhumi] to resume a dialogue and finalize without delay certain documents that envisage confidence-building steps, non-use of violence, and the return of refugees. It endorses the 2001 “Paper on the Principles of Distribution of Competencies” between Tbilisi and Sukhumi [Boden Paper] for discussion, which Sukhumi turned down ever since with Moscow’s support. As with past resolutions, this one also endorses the right of refugees to return to Abkhazia and calls on both “sides” to implement that return, without, however, proposing a real mechanism to achieve this goal.
Georgian diplomats have now succeeded in neutralizing the damage done by UNSC Resolution 1716 of October 2006, which had criticized Georgia for restoring control in the upper Kodori Valley. The April 13 resolution welcomes “progress in implementing” the earlier resolution and Georgia’s full openness to joint inspections by UNOMIG and Russian “peacekeepers” there. The document condemns the helicopter attacks in the night of March 11-12 on the upper Kodori Valley, but stops shy of even hinting at the perpetrator; and the UNOMIG-led investigation is being equally shy thus far. While “reaffirm[ing] the commitment of all [sic] member states to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia within its internationally recognized borders,” the UNSC is tolerating Russia’s ongoing absorption of Abkhazia without objection in this or any of its documents.
In the six months to the next UNSC debate, Georgia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs proposes to work with the UNSC, UNOMIG, and the UN Secretary General’s Group of Friends (Russia, the United States, Britain, Germany, France) toward the following goals: Help start a direct Tbilisi-Sukhumi dialogue; work out a result-oriented plan for the safe return of refugees throughout Abkhazia and begin implementing it; open a UN/OSCE office for human rights in the Gali district; deploy a police component of UNOMIG in that district; and encourage UNOMIG to act not merely as a passive observer, but to contribute in practice to the resolution of the conflict. The onus will thus shift to Moscow and Sukhumi in practical terms on the ground.
Ultimately, the UNSC resolutions’ irrelevance should reinforce Georgian Permanent UN Representative Irakli Alasania’s argument back in Tbilisi — an argument essentially shared by Georgia’s leadership — that direct contacts and talks with a wide range of interlocutors in Sukhumi, including de facto authorities’ representatives and other groups, could become a more promising avenue than Russia-“facilitated” or UN-mediated talks toward an eventual political resolution of the conflict. Economic reconstruction assistance by the European Union to Abkhazia’s population via Georgia could support that political approach effectively.
(Civil Georgia, The Messenger, Interfax, UNSC documents, April 9-16)