Reposted from Central Asia–Caucasus Analyst
On January 31 President Vladimir Putin did not rule out political recognition of Abkhazia if the West recognizes Kosovo. Russia’s modification of its position on Abkhazia is significant, to the extent that it falls into the pattern of renewed muscular approach of the Kremlin towards its neighbors. It is underpinned by a determination to bend international principles to Moscow’s benefit in its immediate neighborhood. This new policy, however, is flawed as it provides no positive incentives that might generate Georgia’s interest in considering Russian participation in peacekeeping.
BACKGROUND: On January 30, President Vladimir Putin instructed Russia’s Foreign Minister to make sure that the solution on the status of Kosovo is “universal” in character, specifically noting that it should be applicable for the conflicts in the post-soviet space, including Abkhazia.
Speaking at a press conference on January 31 he elaborated on the issue and did not exclude recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia by Russia, in case Kosovo is granted full independence, quoting of Turkey’s recognition of Northern Cyprus as a precedent.
On January 31 the UN Security Council adopted a resolution on extension of the mandate of UN observer mission (UNOMIG) in Abkhazia.
In a coordinated move, the resolution, at Russian insistence, omits the paragraph affirming the commitment to Georgia’s territorial integrity, as well as the reference to the so-called “Boden Document” on “Basic Principles for the Distribution of Competences between Tbilisi and Sukhumi” which foresaw broad autonomy of Abkhazia within Georgia. The resolution also extends the mandate of peacekeepers for 2 months, instead of 6 months as requested by the Secretary General.
On January 23, Russia backed proposals of the Abkhaz de-facto president Sergey Bagapsh that foresees talks with Georgia on all issues except Abkhazia’s political status, based on assertion that the status is “already determined in a 1999 referendum” on independence of Abkhazia, in which the Georgian displaced persons did not participate. Such a proposal is fundamentally unacceptable for Georgia.
These Russian moves weakened the hand of the Georgian delegation and its western partners during the Georgian-Abkhaz talks in Geneva on February 2-3.
In these talks, Georgia hoped to secure a major breakthrough by setting a meeting date between the Abkhaz and Georgian presidents for signing a document on non-resumption of armed hostilities. The Russian position makes it difficult for President Saakashvili to agree to such talks, as he can be seen acquiescing with the modified Russian position.
IMPLICATIONS: In fall and winter 2005, Saakashvili’s administration undertook a multi-component diplomatic offensive. Tbilisi attempted to use the window of opportunity provided by the election of the new leadership of pragmatist Sergey Bagapsh in Sukhumi to foster direct communication with de facto authorities.
Saakashvili’s nominee as his special representative on Abkhazia, Irakli Alasania, managed to secure the personal trust and confidence of the de facto Abkhaz leaders.
Alasania has articulated a policy shift by Tbilisi, stating that Georgia would no longer seek the isolation of the Abkhaz leadership.
Georgian and Abkhaz authorities cooperated closely on a crucial project to rehabilitate the Inguri Hydropower Plant, which straddles the administrative border between Abkhazia and Georgia proper.
Tbilisi also withdrew its objections to the re-opening of the railway connection between Russia and Georgia through Abkhazia. Previously, Georgia insisted that re-opening the railway is only possible in coordination with the return of Georgian displaced persons to Abkhazia.
On the other hand, Georgia tried to put Abkhazia back on the radar of international organizations. Tbilisi focused attention on the violation of the rights of ethnic Georgian returnees in Abkhazia’s easternmost Gali district.
Cases of forced conscription to the Abkhaz army, refusal of the right to study in their own language, pressure to abandon Georgian citizenship, intimidation by the Abkhaz militias were well-documented and presented to international agencies. On this wave, Tbilisi demanded launching a Civilian Police Mission in Gali, and opening a UN/OSCE Human Rights Office in Gali.
These efforts brought in an unusual flurry of diplomatic activity in Sukhumi, which was repeatedly visited by U.S. Congress delegation, U.S. State Department officials and Western diplomats stationed in Tbilisi.
In November 2005, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan made an unexpected detour to Georgia, where he held closed-door talks with Saakashvili on Abkhazia. Annan stressed the rule of law aspect of the peace process in Abkhazia.
In its diplomatic efforts, Tbilisi concentrated in gaining Western support in Abkhazia to balance disproportional Russian influence there. To Moscow’s irritation, Tbilisi undermined Russia’s peacekeeping image. Citing recurring gang violence and pressure on local citizens in Gali, Tbilisi questioned the efficiency of the Russian peacekeeping troops stationed in the area.
Several cases of Russian servicemen involved in smuggling or turning a blind eye on harassment of locals were also reported.
In October 2005, the Georgian parliament voted to review the performance of the Russian peacekeepers on July 1, 2006 and in case no progress is reached, to demand their withdrawal starting July 15, 2006.
Moscow reacted angrily to Saakashvili’s attempts to diminish Russian influence in peacekeeping and to internationalize the political and military aspects of the operation in Abkhazia.
With Putin’s new statements and Russia’s position at the Security Council, Russia seems to be moving from simple reaction to a more proactive, solidified policy. However, this policy lacks long-term vision and seems to be aimed at stalling western involvement in Abkhazia, rather than at finding an acceptable new format for the peace process.
Linking Abkhazia with Kosovo is a rhetorical reinforcement of Russia’s concept of “near abroad.” Putin considers that if the Western powers will recognize “their protégé” Kosovo, then Russia has the full right to do so in Abkhazia. However, this view is simplistic and will be hard to translate into real action.
Russia has no real political muscle to prevent the “conditional independence” scenario in Kosovo. Moscow is not involved in the political or military aspects of the Balkans. At the same time, the EU can offer significant incentives to the Serbian authorities in exchange for their recognition of Kosovo, such as the membership. Russia, in turn, can offer no incentives to Georgia.
The Kosovo administration has acted under international patronage for ten years. There is a significant NATO presence, complemented with civilian police operations and virtual control of international agencies over the autonomous administration of Kosovo.
Tbilisi may well demand to use these aspects of the Kosovo operation as a “universal precedent” rather than merely its final status negotiations – a scenario unacceptable both to Russia and the Abkhaz leadership.
The Georgian leadership has succeeded in casting Russia as an unfair broker in the peace process in the eyes of international community. Russia has distributed its own passports in Abkhazia, supplies arms and ammunition to the breakaway states and directly interferes in their politics. The sole leadership of Russia in any revised peacekeeping format will thus be hard to negotiate.
But there are things the new Russian position can do to prevent conflict resolution, or trigger escalation. Moscow’s current position reinforces the sense of security and protection from Moscow on the part of the breakaway Abkhaz leadership.
This might lead to the growing influence of hardliners in Abkhaz government, including vice president Raul Khajimba and defense minister Sultan Sosnaliev. Both are prone to support increased pressure on Gali residents, which might trigger armed confrontation with Georgian forces or revival of the armed resistance movement in Gali.
Activism on Kosovo and new muscle at the UN Security Council is aimed at minimizing the degree of participation of the EU and UN, respectively, in any future political format of negotiations. Russia’s veto power at OSCE means that this organization is virtually incapable of devising effective policy on conflict issues.
A tactical move not to extend the UNOMIG mandate by the full term is an attempt to provide a credible threat of withdrawing all international presence from Abkhazia in case Georgia moves to vote for withdrawing the Russian peacekeepers. As an additional threat, in late January the “Confederation of the Mountainous Nations of the Caucasus” was revived in Sukhumi.
The “Confederation” played an active role in recruiting and training of the Russian citizens to fight against Georgian troops during the 1992-94 conflict in Abkhazia. Tbilisi might thus consider the possibility that voting out the Russian troops means no international presence and facing the mercenaries that are not bound by any law or treaty.
CONCLUSIONS: The new Russian proposals are a tactical political tool for securing a better bargaining position as the revision of the peacekeeping format in Abkhazia seems to become a realistic possibility. This will not affect the situation on the ground much in the medium term, although the potential for isolated incidents, especially with participation of Russian peacekeepers increases. Propensity for conflict escalation will increase as the July deadline for the Georgian parliament to vote on further presence of the Russian peacekeeping troops in Abkhazia nears.
Russia signals a more solidified policy on post-soviet conflicts, but it provides mainly for preventing Western participation and articulates no long-term vision of the conflict settlement and no political incentives for Tbilisi to agree to a Russian-dominated compromise. Georgian authorities will be compelled to more actively seek the internationalization of the political and military aspects of conflict resolution, while the vote on Russian peacekeepers is likely to be in favor of their withdrawal.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Jaba Devdariani is the founder of Civil Georgia (civil.ge) and works at the OSCE mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina.