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'Bring back the UN' - Any mediator will be hamstrung unless it is acceptable to all parties, by Inal Khashig

IISS Caucasus Security Insight

An initiative of the Georgian-Russian Dialogue Project

Inal Khashig is founder and editor of Chegemskaya Pravda, an independent newspaper in Abkhazia.

Following the August 2008 war between Russia and Georgia, and Russia’s subsequent recognition of Abkhazia, the situation at the Georgian-Abkhaz border has undergone notable change.

The United Nations Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG) is no longer present, nor are Russian peacekeepers. On the Abkhaz side of the border, they have been replaced by Russian border guards for whom the ‘line of separation of forces’ has become the national border between the Republic of Abkhazia and the Republic of Georgia, albeit without the latter's recognition of the former.

The EU Monitoring Mission (EUMM), unable to monitor the situation on the Abkhaz bank of the Ingur river, has taken up position on the Georgian side of the border. The absence of mediators acceptable to both parties has inevitably had an impact on assessment of conditions in the conflict zone as well as on talks within the format of the Incident Prevention and Response Mechanism (IPRM), which is under the auspices of the Geneva talks.

The consequence has been widely diverging forecasts about a possible resumption of large-scale hostilities. There have been several occasions in the past two years when Georgian experts were unanimous in predicting that a new war was imminent, with Russia's participation taken as a certainty. Their Abkhaz counterparts firmly believed the opposite – that there existed no basis for the start of new hostilities.

The view of these Abkhaz experts has remained unchanged and is based on a number of premises. These include:

1. The recognition of Abkhazia's independence has provided it with security guarantees by Russia.

2. With the thorny issue of Abkhazia’s security resolved, Abkhaz public interests have shifted away from Georgia towards consolidating Abkhazia’s domestic situation and its relationship with Russia.

3. The dramatic turn of events in August 2008 took both Russia and Georgia by surprise, so much so that neither player is likely to rush headlong into another military adventure. Moscow was taken aback not just by the reaction of the international community but also by the behaviour of countries it had always counted among its allies. The precarious situation in the North Caucasus and the approaching date of the Sochi Olympics are a warning to Moscow against any rash actions. As for Georgia, the August conflict caused not just the loss of the two territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia but the loss of its positive image in the eyes of the US and many EU countries. It is unlikely that Georgia would be ready to embark upon any decisive steps without iron-clad guarantees of success.

4. Despite the absence of a joint document on the non-use of force in the region, unilateral statements were made by all parties in November-December 2010. These could provide an impetus for drawing up a joint document with relevant guarantees.

For its part, the IPRM, despite inheriting its main features from its August predecessor – the quadripartite weekly meetings in Chiburkindja under the auspices of the UN – has been turned into a superficial institution by the total absence of confidence enjoyed either between the parties or between the mediators. The parties found no common ground on any of the serious crimes committed in the Gali district of Abkhazia over the past two years. These included the murder of the head of the Abkhaz Customs Post and the head of local administration of one of the Gali villages, events that took place within a few days of each other. The Abkhaz insist that the perpetrators took cover on the Georgian side of the border.

Despite a noticeable improvement in the crime rate of the region, the key to this is not the activities of the IPRM. The parties themselves have an interest in improving law and order on their own soil.

Without viewing the issue of law and order through a political prism, one can say that the development of border infrastructure, due to be completed in two years’ time, has had a positive impact. If  carried out properly, it will help stem the flow of criminal activity facilitated by the porous border. A reinforced border infrastructure would also help curb smuggling. Another initiative that could cut crime (particularly in Gali district) would be the launch of social and economic rehabilitation programmes.

Road and school repairs, among other improvements, should provide more jobs for Gali residents. A will to integrate Gali residents into the common Abkhaz space, currently absent in Abkhaz society, would be positive. However, a united approach on this issue is lacking. The decision by the Abkhaz Parliament, in July 2009, to revoke its decision to provide all Gali residents with the opportunity to obtain Abkhaz citizenship, following pressure from opposition parties, is a case in point. Following the announcement that elections would take place in December 2009, discussion on citizenship became noticeably less heated. This gave more employment to construction teams from the Gali district in other towns and villages of the Abkhaz republic.

In the eyes of all parties, assessing whether the EUMM can successfully engage the Russian and Abkhaz governments in creating an effective IPRM depends largely on resolving a series of political problems. In both the Russian and Abkhaz theatres there is a lack of confidence in the EUMM, and this is unlikely to change for the foreseeable future. It appears, therefore, that the EUMM not only has a Sisyphean task ahead but that it may also be doomed to political failure.

In light of this, the conflict parties should turn their sights back to the UN. The latter is much less partisan than the EU. Its considerable experience in conflict-resolution should breathe some energy into the monitoring process and make this more suited to the situation on the ground.

Inal Khashig is founder and editor of Chegemskaya Pravda, an independent newspaper in Abkhazia.

Source: The International Institute for Strategic Studies

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