Progress on Abkhazia Hangs in Balance, in Need of Informed External Support

Reposted from Central Asia – Caucasus Analyst

In Summer 2005, the peace process in Abkhazia hung in the balance. Progress in economic projects and conciliatory remarks by both sides were offset by large-scale military maneuvers held in the breakaway Georgian province with an implicit nod from Russia. The window of opportunity for a settlement remains open, but for confidence-building to be successful, a multilateral mediation format must move beyond the Russia-first approach. By moving towards more active cooperation in economic projects and the security field, Abkhaz and Georgian leaders take political risks. Western involvement is necessary to reassure both sides and to create a more secure environment for further talks. 

In 2005, the new authorities of Georgia and Abkhazia have studied each other’s approaches towards the political settlement process. Several informal, closed-door meetings were held in Europe, under the patronage of various international agencies and NGOs. The meetings in a formal and slightly more publicized, UN-led “Geneva process” framework showed that there is room for progress in negotiations.

Notably, the Georgian authorities made practical steps to re-open railway communication with Russia via Abkhazia – a project economically beneficial for all involved sides, as well as for Russia’s regional ally, Armenia. Official Tbilisi has, for the first time, de-linked its agreement on the railway from the political issue of returning Georgian displaced persons to Abkhazia. Georgian and Abkhaz officials and professionals have also cooperated directly and productively on rehabilitation of the Inguri Hydropower station, wedged on the administrative border of Abkhazia and Georgia proper. Tbilisi also offered to sign an agreement on non-resumption of hostilities, to alleviate Abkhaz fears of imminent Georgian military invasion.

In a statement that comes closest yet to admitting responsibility for the Georgian authorities’ launching the armed conflict in Abkhazia in 1992, the Presidential Representative for the Abkhaz conflict, Irakli Alasania, said on the anniversary of the beginning of the conflict on August 14 that the Georgian government’s decision to send troops to Abkhazia in 1992 “was a big mistake which led to a huge tragedy.” In a similar, reluctantly conciliatory manner, one of the staunchest Abkhaz hardliners, the head of the Abkhaz security council Stanislav Lakoba, did not exclude a possibility of “some kind of confederation” with Georgia in his interview to Regnum news agency on August 8.

These positive gestures were tarnished by several statements of Abkhaz leader Sergey Bagapsh, made during and after his visit to Moscow in mid-August. Bagapsh argued that all ethnic Georgians that spontaneously returned to their homes in Abkhazia’s Gali province should accept Abkhaz or Russian citizenship to be able to remain in Gali.

If they want to maintain Georgian citizenship “they might cross the river” Bagapsh said, implying the river Inguri that divides Abkhazia from the rest of Georgia. He also spoke for toughening entry requirements to Abkhazia for “persons with Georgian passports.” Words were followed by deeds, as around a dozen Georgians, mostly loggers, were detained on charges of crossing the border illegally. The Abkhaz side also denied entry to Georgian experts in a trilateral Russo-Georgian-Abkhaz working group to assess the technical state of the Abkhaz portion of the railway, on the grounds that they were displaced persons from Abkhazia.

The Georgian foreign ministry protested this “discriminating action” to the Russian authorities, but Moscow accused Tbilisi of impeding the process by “politicizing economic issues.” The assessment continued without Georgian participation, seriously undermining the political position of official Tbilisi in support of re-opening the railway.

The large-scale military exercises held in Abkhazia on August 14-19 were most harmful for the budding détente. More than six thousand servicemen, heavy armament, tanks, artillery, navy and aviation participated in an exercise which simulated repelling a sea-landing invasion by Georgian troops. The training was arranged by the Abkhaz chief of staff, Russian general Anatoly Zaytsev who previously served as Soviet military advisor to Syria. Bagapsh stated that Abkhazia will welcome mid-ranking Russian officers into the Abkhaz army.

Tbilisi was irked by the inaction of the Russian peacekeepers, whose commander admitted to Kommersant daily that the exercises took place in restricted-weapons zone, but defended his acquiescence by the fact that “Georgians conduct the trainings too.” Officials also claimed that Abkhazia’s coffers could not afford two large-scale exercises in a space of several months, hinting at possible Russian financial support.

Implications: The future of the peace process in Abkhazia hangs in a precarious balance. On one hand, new leaders recognize the need for normalization and are willing to move beyond old political clichés. On the other, suspicions and mistrust persist, impeding the process. The conflict was a painful experience for both nations, and gave rise to recalcitrant hard-line positions. On the Abkhaz side, this is expressed in extreme, exclusive nationalism and dragging out peace negotiations with the aim of maintaining a beneficial status quo. From the Georgian side, hardliners usually speak of military action as the only possible solution to the conflict.

The new elections brought pragmatist politicians to power both in Tbilisi and Sukhumi. They discern the practical shortfalls of the hardliner views and are willing to move beyond them, the political environment permitting. But radical views enjoy strong following in both Abkhazia and Georgia, forcing leaders who cannot afford to lose face to demonstrate that there are tangible benefits to be delivered by a détente. Under these conditions, confidence-building and the role of external mediators is vital.

Russia is not a trusted mediator in this process. Tbilisi saw covert Russian participation in the 1992-94 conflict as a decisive factor for the conflict’s outcome. Peacekeeping forces stationed in the conflict zone are not considered to help reconciliation, but to effectively guard the Abkhazia’s border with Georgia. Heavy Russian investments in Abkhaz real estate, political ties, and recent actions regarding the railway leave no room in Georgia to consider Russia an honest broker. Russian military advisors and possibly mercenaries are thought to play an important role in propping up the hardliner agenda in Abkhazia.

Both Abkhaz Defense Minister Sultan Sosnaliev and chief of staff Anatoly Zaytsev are Russian citizens and former military officers, something that can become a destabilizing factor in peace talks. Bagapsh recently stated that Abkhazia’s maximum military budget is around US£ 2.9 million, while some 10% of its eligible voters are in the military. Even if exaggerated, these numbers indicate the extent to which military expenditure is a drag on the devastated Abkhaz economy.

While the Georgian administration understands the need for Russian participation in any Abkhazia settlement, Tbilisi sees the involvement of other powers in the negotiating process as a necessary precondition for reducing the risk of a resumption of hostilities, and for reaching a political solution. But Western participants have maintained a “Russia-first” approach, and have so far done little either to react to the apparent stalemate or to realize the potential for progress.
The new, pragmatic leaderships emphasize new sets of agendas and the negotiation process needs to adapt accordingly.

For Abkhazia, economics now top the agenda. For its part, Tbilisi wants to see the rights of ethnic Georgians in Abkhazia better protected. Economically, Abkhazia is overwhelmingly dependent on Russia, something Moscow has not failed to exploit. During the contested Abkhaz presidential elections of October 2004, Russia forced the winner at the ballot box – Bagapsh – into an unholy alliance with Moscow’s favorite, his rival Raul Khajimba, by simply blocking the border for several days.

Western involvement in conflict resolution can hence also be of an economic character. In a recent meeting with the Ambassadors of the Group of Friends, the Abkhaz leader expressed interest in investment projects, hinting that Russia’s overwhelming political role was a result of its superior participation in helping Abkhazia recover. Western financial assistance to Abkhazia has a chance of winning Tbilisi’s approval, especially if it is conditional on non-discrimination of Abkhazia residents of Georgian ethnicity.

Abkhaz authorities also signal their willingness to expand and legalize cooperation with Turkey, where many ethnic Abkhaz reside. Allowing for the legalization of such contacts can also be a subject of negotiations, whereas currently the Georgian Coast Guard is tasked to detain any ships that head towards the Abkhaz capital of Sukhumi without clearing Georgian customs.

Faced with what appears to be European inaction on Abkhazia, Georgia pins its hopes on the new U.S. Ambassador John Tefft, who during his confirmation hearings in Washington D.C. prioritized the resolution of “frozen conflicts” in Georgia. Outgoing Ambassador Richard Miles confirmed during a meeting with Abkhaz officials that the U.S. is planning to play a “more active role” in the negotiating process.

Conclusion: By moving towards more active cooperation in economic projects and the security field, Abkhaz and Georgian leaders take political risks. Western involvement is necessary to reassure both nations and to create a more secure environment for further talks. Russia’s peacekeeping role has managed to “freeze” the conflict, but has failed to achieve political progress. New avenues for “unfreezing” the conflict non-violently present themselves as the focus of attention of the Abkhaz politicians shifts towards economic security, while Georgian authorities are concerned with human rights situation in Abkhazia, mainly related to the rights of the ethnic Georgian returnees.

Author’s bio: Jaba Devdariani is the founder of Civil Georgia (Civil.Ge) and works at the OSCE mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina.