Abkhazia in the Context of Contemporary International Relations
Pitsunda, The Republic of Abkhazia: June 29 - July 1, 2004
Perspectives for Abkhazia in the Contemporary International Context
Dr. Natella Akaba
The forthcoming presidential elections this autumn in Abkhazia, and the consequences of regime change in Georgia, EU expansion and ongoing rivalry between Russia and the US in the South Caucasus – these and many other factors may well see an end to the status quo in the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict. Although it is hard to forecast the potential actions of the new Georgian leaders in the long term, recent events would indicate that Saakashvili does not intend to put the restoration of Georgia’s territorial integrity on the back burner. In Budapest recently he made the unambiguous statement that the next peaceful revolution could take place in Abkhazia. Terms such as a ‘humanitarian barrage’[*mne kazhetsia zdes nado obiasnit, chto eto znachit] are used more and more frequently by the Georgian leadership. At the last NATO summit in Istanbul, Saakashvili challenged Western leaders to ‘together defrost the frozen conflicts’.
People in Abkhazia are inclined to think that if official Tbilisi policy towards Sukhum has changed at all since Shevardnadze’s time, then it has not changed for the better. Abkhaz politicians and analysts consider the official rhetoric coming from Tbilisi to have become more sharp and populist. They are concerned that increased political and financial support from the US and Western Europe for the Saakashvili regime could encourage him to use force. The posthumous rehabilitation of Zviad Gamsakhurdia in the last few days is significant. It is clear that in Abkhazia and in South Ossetia in particular, this gesture will be interpreted as threatening, demonstrating the continuity of Georgian politics with all its negative consequences.
Having said this, Georgian political scientists are of the opinion that Saakashvili has already made a series of positive signals towards Abkhazia. Among these are:
1) The resignation of the offensive figure of Tamaz Nadareishvili. He ceased, in fact, to be taken seriously in Abkhazia a long time ago, so his departure from the political arena went almost unnoticed here.
2) The disbandment of paramilitary semi-criminal groups such as the ‘Forest brothers’ and the ‘White legion’. We are not convinced members of these armed formations have ‘re-qualified’ as peaceable workers. Most likely they will remain among the criminal circles that make their living in direct proximity to the river Ingur. In addition, recent reports suggest that these people have now turned up in South Ossetia, although there is no precise indication of their relocation.
3) For the first time in ten years the Georgian parliament has not extended the powers of the former members of the Georgian faction in the Abkhazian Parliament 1991-1996 (the so-called ‘parliament in exile’). Ten seats in the Georgian parliament were reserved for Abkhazia. However, the so-called ‘government of Abkhazia in exile’ continues to exist.
4) Statements were made in the Georgian parliament about the need for a political and legal review of the Kodor events of 2001. However, thus far there has been no sign of support for these suggestions.
In can thus be established that the positive signals from Tbilisi have been weak and insufficiently articulated. At the same time, the actions of the Georgian authorities in South Ossetia clearly bear witness to the new Georgian leaders’ mood of determination, applying pressure and provocation. To provoke one’s opponent into tit-for-tat responses, not leave them time to reflect and force them to take precipitate steps – this is the style and manner of Saakashvili and his team.
In spite of the fact that the Georgian leadership has repeatedly expressed its intention not to force the pace until after the presidential elections in Abkhazia, people in Sukhum do not exclude the possibility that the situation may escalate, possibly in response to some sort of provocation. On 26th May 2004, Georgian independence day, for example, an event was initiated by a Zugdidi youth organisation on the bridge over the river Ingur, in direct proximity to the line of separation of forces. This involved five- and six-year old children from a Zugdidi kindergarten, dressed in military uniform and carrying toy machine guns. It goes without saying that in such circumstances a stone thrown by someone, or worse, shots fired in the air by one or other side could easily reduce the achievements of the peace process to nothing. It is clear that any destabilisation in the situation would affect the population of the Gal region in a most dramatic way, as was the case in 1998.
These and many other events are evidence that Abkhazia has entered a new phase of instability. In our view, the destruction of the peace process must not be permitted. This goes not only for the official peace negotiations but also the return of refugees to the Gal region, and a number of civil diplomacy initiatives to restore trust between peoples. A new round of violence would set the negotiations’ process back.
It is generally considered that a sudden alteration in the balance of power in the South Caucasus is not in Russia’s interests, and that therefore Russia could hardly remain neutral in the event of a new outburst of widespread violence.
In such difficult circumstances, when the sides are balancing between the status quo and an unknown (and therefore dangerous) future, it would seem sensible to develop a series of measures that might perhaps lead to a decrease in tension and create a new impetus for developing mutually acceptable concepts for peaceful resolution:
1) The Georgian side could give an objective assessment of events in 1992-3 and their dramatic consequences for Abkhazia. A step like this would have significant positive impact in both societies and could help to create a more conducive atmosphere at the negotiation table.
2) The sides could come to an agreement to temporarily set aside discussions concerning political models [for coexistence]. At the present time, Abkhazia needs to concentrate on its internal problems – economic and social restoration and psycho-social rehabilitation of those who have suffered as a result of the war, irrespective of their ethnic identity. Georgia, as the initiator of military action, should *have a particular role in* undertake to address this set of issues. Moreover, Abkhazia and Georgia could together develop a programme for rehabilitation in Gal region and give the returning refugees the opportunity to register, which would enable the relevant international agencies to assist in settling* these people.
3) Particular attention should be given to the security situation in Gal region and the Kodor gorge, which continue to be areas of heightened danger and rampant criminal activity. This would be possible only in the event of an agreement between the Abkhaz and Georgian sides and in the presence of certain international guarantees.
4) Promoting the development of democratic institutions in Abkhazia is considered to be important not only for citizens of Abkhazia but for any parties interested in regional security. It is particularly important to focus on developing models for the coexistence of different ethnic communities on the territory of Abkhazia, including, of course, the Georgian community. Developing such a model could lay the foundations for a future model for peaceful coexistence between Abkhazia and Georgia and would assuage any fears and rule out reproaches over* discrimination against any particular ethnic community.
5) Abkhazia would be given thorough assistance by international organisations to develop the most acceptable electoral system, appropriate to local conditions and taking into account the multi-national make up of the population. Human rights offices could perhaps be established in various regions of Abkhazia.
6) Tbilisi could reject policies based on the principle ‘What is worse for Abkhazia is better for Georgia’, and could take the initiative in lifting the economic sanctions on Abkhazia. This would meet the needs not only of the population of Abkhazia but also of Georgia as it would undermine the criminal economy that developed as a result of the blockade. Georgia could stop preventing international development programmes in Abkhazia, and instead could promote them. With Tbilisi’s agreement, Russia, the UN and a number of European institutions could get involved in the long-term process of conflict transformation. This would include economic investment in Abkhazia and the economic and social rehabilitation of the regions, particularly those most affected by war.
7) As the Belgian academic Bruno Coppieters has suggested, in future some kind of participation for representatives from Abkhazia in the OSCE or even the Security Council of the UN could be envisaged on occasions where this might avoid further escalation of the conflict. This participation could form part of the mechanism for international guarantees for the non-resumption of hostilities.
8) Bearing in mind that remaining ‘one-on-one’ with Georgia is the least acceptable outcome of the conflict for Abkhazia, mediators and others interested in peaceful resolution could facilitate the process of institutionalising the traditional ties between Abkhazia and peoples and regions of the South and North Caucasus and Southern Russia.