WESTERN AND UKRAINIAN ROLE GROWING IN GEORGIAN-ABKHAZ NEGOTIATIONS.

Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 55

On March 15-16 in Yalta, Ukraine hosted the fourth session in as many years of the “Geneva process,” which is designed to internationalize the negotiations toward settling the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict. The years of nearly exclusive Russian mediation and solely Russian “CIS peacekeeping” conserved the conflict as a mechanism of pressure on Georgia. In the UN-sponsored Geneva process, the original “Friends of Georgia” group of countries–that is, the United States, Germany, Britain and France–as well as Ukraine have joined the mediating effort alongside Russia within the framework of a coordinating council. Its previous meetings were held in Geneva, Athens and Istanbul.

Under a facade of unity, the non-Russian mediators and Russia pursue two different visions and sets of goals. At this stage, the non-Russian mediators focus on practical steps to create psychological and political conditions for follow-up negotiations on the status of a self-governing Abkhazia within a sovereign Georgia. For its part, Moscow seeks to perpetuate Abkhazia’s de facto secession from Georgia through a “common state” formula under Russian protection.

The Yalta meeting produced a joint Georgian-Abkhaz political declaration and an action program on confidence building. The “Yalta Declaration” obligates both sides to observe earlier pledges on the nonuse of force. In the event of renewed hostilities or a “threat of their resumption,” the document authorizes the “CIS peacekeeping troops” to immediately intervene and separate the combatants along the 1994 demarcation line and in accordance with those troops’ 1995 mandate. That apparent blessing on the CIS-labeled Russian operation is the only success Moscow has scored in this round of negotiating, and will probably be invoked in the upcoming negotiations with Tbilisi on the Gudauta military base in Abkhazia. That base is due to be closed this year in accordance with Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) decisions and the treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe. Moscow, however, seeks to retain Gudauta by transferring it to the “peacekeeping” forces.

Under the Yalta declaration, Tbilisi and Sukhumi are to work out a mechanism for the safe return of Georgian refugees to Abkhazia’s Gali district “within its original territory” and as the “first stage” in an organized repatriation process. This wording signifies incremental progress. The Gali district’s population was overwhelmingly Georgian prior to the 1994 ethnic cleansing–an operation that guaranteed Abkhaz numerical preponderance in Abkhazia as a whole. The Abkhaz authorities afterward split the original Gali district, allowing its Georgian native residents to return to the southern part, but banning the return of Georgian refugees to the northern part of the original district and to all other parts of Abkhazia.

In the same document, Tbilisi and Sukhumi agree that the UN, the OSCE and the CIS can serve as guarantors of the nonresumption of hostilities and of the refugee repatriation process. That point offsets somewhat the blessing on Russian peacekeeping and can promote continuing internationalization of the negotiating process and of the mechanism to guarantee an eventual settlement.

The “Action Program for Confidence-Building Measures” envisages mainly a normalization of Georgian-Abkhaz relations at the level of social groups. In essence, the program presupposes civil-society building on both sides along with the political confidence-building measures. It calls for exchanges of visits and all types of contacts among Georgian and Abkhaz officials, business entities, professional and intelligentsia associations, and social groups ranging from youth to war veterans and village elders and for media coverage of those exchanges by both Tbilisi and Sukhumi. The underlying goal is to defuse the psychology of conflict and foster an atmosphere conducive to political negotiations among the central Georgian government and the Abkhaz authorities.

Georgia’s Minister of State [equivalent to prime minister] Giorgi Arsenishvili and Abkhazia’s would-be head of government Vyacheslav Tsugba led the respective delegations at these negotiations. While expressing satisfaction with the interim results, their concluding addresses also highlighted the persisting, major differences. Tbilisi’s main goals at this stage include the organized, safe, mass return to Abkhazia of Georgian refugees and forcibly displaced persons and the development of international mechanisms to guarantee peace and a political settlement. Successful repatriation of the refugees would, even before a political settlement, open the way to economic reconstruction aid for Abkhazia by Western countries.

Sukhumi, for its part, wants an internationally guaranteed “peace agreement” with Tbilisi, so formulated as to look like recognition of Abkhazia as a separate state. It seeks, furthermore, to set clear limits on the refugee repatriation and to obtain economic aid not tied to a commitment to the repatriation process. On March 10, Abkhazia held local elections, which were dismissed as invalid by all of the Coordinating Council’s member countries, including Russia. The Georgian population in the southern Gali district boycotted the voting. At the Yalta meeting, however, the Abkhaz side attempted to portray those elections as an opportunity for Georgians in Gali to participate in Abkhazia’s political processes.

The Yalta meeting did not propose to address the thorniest among the disputed issues–Abkhazia’s political status. Sukhumi refuses to discuss that issue at all on the grounds that its own constitution declares Abkhazia’s complete separation from Georgia. The Abkhaz idea of political status is an interstate treaty on an equal legal footing with Georgia. Moscow presses for a solution implying de jure recognition of Georgia’s integrity, de facto Abkhaz secession, and ample scope for Russian manipulation as political and military guarantor of those arrangements. Georgia, its Western friends, the OSCE and the UN’s General Secretary’s special envoy–German diplomat Dieter Boden–seek a solution based on delimitation of powers between Tbilisi and Sukhumi. At the UN, however, Russia has thus far successfully blocked the documents on delimitation of powers presented by Western diplomats. The Russian proposals are based in essence on the “common state” formula.

On the ground in Abkhazia, Moscow uses a number of instruments to cement the secession and potentially draw Abkhazia into Russia’s security and economic systems. The main instruments are, first, the Russian troops which both secure Abkhazia’s military gains and have created an Abkhaz army; second, the inclusion of Abkhazia de facto in the ruble zone; and, third, the recent decision to exempt Abkhazia–along with South Ossetia–from the visa regulations Russia has imposed on Georgia. Meanwhile, Russian border troops fully control–to the exclusion of Georgia–the Abkhaz sector of the Georgian-Russian border.

The Yalta meeting, chaired by Ukraine’s Foreign Affairs Minister Anatoly Zlenko and formally hosted by President Leonid Kuchma, highlighted Kyiv’s dual effort to play a mediating role and to distance itself in the process from Moscow’s position. Ukraine and Georgia are mutually supportive of each other’s independence from Moscow and are also close in their views on the desirability of peacekeeping efforts by GUUAM countries.

During the preparations for the Yalta meeting, Ukraine reactivated an earlier offer to contribute peacekeeping troops for a possible UN-authorized, international peacekeeping operation in Abkhazia. The Russian side opposes such offers. Moscow would accept peacekeeping troops from CIS countries including Ukraine only as part of a Russian-commanded, CIS-authorized operation, which it would use to substantiate Moscow’s own claim to a privileged “peacekeeping” role in the CIS. The Abkhaz side for its part wants the purely Russian operation to continue in its present form (Prime-News, Kavkasia-press, Iprinda, UNIAN, March 15-19).

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