May 15, 2008
Liz Fuller, Analyst, Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty
Since early May, Georgian officials have turned up to full blast the rhetorical heat of their arguments that the international community should unequivocally condemn recent Russian moves perceived in Tbilisi as tantamount to the creeping annexation of the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and that Russia's actions disqualify it from playing any further role in the search for a solution at least to the Abkhaz conflict.
But while affirming unconditional support for Georgia's sovereignty and territorial integrity, both the United States and the European Union have implicitly rejected the underlying Georgian argument that Russia bears the sole responsibility for the spiraling tensions, and the United States has dismissed as unfounded Georgian warnings that a new war is imminent. Meanwhile, a U.S. delegation visited Sukhum(i) on May 10 for talks with the Abkhaz leadership.
Speaking in Brussels on May 6 after two days of meetings with NATO and EU officials, Georgian State Minister for Conflict Resolution Temur Iakobashvili told journalists that as a result of the deployment of additional Russian troops to Abkhazia, Georgia is "very close to a war" that it is trying to avert.
Then, on May 12, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili told a delegation of four EU foreign ministers -- Dmitrij Rupel (Slovenia, which currently holds the EU Presidency), Carl Bildt (Sweden), Radek Sikorski (Poland), and Petras Vaitiekunas (Lithuania) -- that Russia's actions constitute "the most aggressive attempt to revise the world and European order since the end of the Cold War." Saakashvili compared the current situation with that in February 1921 when the international community failed to intervene to prevent the annexation of independent Georgia by the Red Army, and expressed the hope that "Europe will never again make a similar mistake, because the occupation of Georgia was followed by the attack on Poland, the occupation of the Baltic states, and the bloody war in Finland," according to civil.ge.
The United States has criticized as potentially destabilizing both former Russian President Vladimir Putin's April 14 edict on intensifying economic and humanitarian cooperation with the two breakaway republics and the subsequent deployment to Abkhazia of several hundred additional peacekeeping troops. During a press conference in Tbilisi on the eve of his trip to Sukhum(i), U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza described Russia's recent moves as "provocative" and as working against a peaceful solution to the Abkhaz conflict. But at the same time, Bryza added that Washington "[does not] believe that Georgia and Russia have been close to war; not at all." "Russia has taken some provocative steps...but thus far it says it has not recognized Abkhazia's independence; it claims it has only moved more so-called peacekeepers in accordance with the 1994 Moscow cease-fire agreement, still below the limit to which Russia is allowed. So under these circumstances there is no talk of war."
The EU, while repeatedly affirming its support for Georgia's territorial integrity, is clearly reluctance to jeopardize cooperation with the Russian Federation -- which is the EU's largest single supplier of oil and gas -- by openly siding with Georgia in its standoff with Russia. Indeed, Slovenian Foreign Minister Rupel said explicitly on May 9 that the EU will not take sides in that standoff. Ambassador Peter Semneby, who is the EU's special envoy for the South Caucasus, told RFE/RL's Georgian Service on May 13 that there is a "great deal of interest and concern" among the bloc's 27 members over the rising tensions between Russia and Georgia in general, and the situation in Abkhazia in particular. But at the same time, he stressed that Russia is, and will remain, Georgia's largest and most influential neighbor, and for that reason cannot be excluded from the ongoing search for a solution to the conflicts between Georgia and its breakaway regions. On the contrary, Semneby reasoned, Georgia can and must seek a modus vivendi with Russia.
The flaws in Georgia's argument that the ongoing crisis is entirely of Russia's making were expertly and elegantly laid bare by British expert Thomas de Waal in a commentary published on May 14 in "The Wall Street Journal." He noted that not only the Abkhaz, but also the Georgians, engaged in ethnic cleansing during the 1992-93 war that culminated in ignominious defeat for Georgia and Abkhazia's de facto independence. He further made the point that President Saakashvili, presented with the opportunity to play the role of a Caucasus Charles de Gaulle, instead "maintained a policy of economic isolation and moral outrage" vis-a-vis the secessionist would-be state. Finally, he expressed the fear that by unveiling his most recent peace proposal without prior consultation with the Abkhaz side, Saakashvili virtually guaranteed that they would reject it.
If the EU foreign ministers' visit to Tbilisi was little more than a PR exercise, that to Sukhum(i) by Bryza and U.S. Ambassador to Georgia John Tefft may at least have served to clarify what leeway, if any, exists for seeking rapprochement between the conflict sides. The two men undertook a similar mission two years ago, which Bryza told RFE/RL's Georgian Service afterward focused on "confidence-building measures, specific confidence-building measures that can reduce tension, reduce the risk of something bad happening, and lay the foundation of a peaceful settlement, frankly, that shows the entire international community how responsible an actor Georgia is, how committed Georgia is to a peaceful settlement, how important it is for us to help Georgia maintain its territorial integrity."
This time around, the U.S. diplomats' meeting with de facto Abkhaz President Sergei Bagapsh was reportedly difficult: Apsnypress quoted Bagapsh's spokesman Kristian Bzhania as describing it as "a very frank and sometimes sharp exchange of views." According to Bzhania, the U.S. side offered help in defusing tensions with Georgia but "did not make concrete proposals." But Abkhaz Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba for his part sounded cautiously upbeat, telling apsny.ru that "the U.S. delegation did not insist on the superiority of any principles" (meaning territorial integrity as opposed to the right to self-determination.) Shamba told RFE/RL's Georgian Service on May 12 that Bryza acknowledged that there are two alternative peace plans on the table, thereby implying that the United States does not reject out of hand the "Key To The Future" that Bagapsh unveiled in June 2006, and might even urge the Georgians to incorporate into President Saakashvili's most recent peace proposal selected elements from it. That peace initiative envisaged an official Georgian apology to Abkhazia for its "state policy of assimilation, war, and isolation"; an end to Georgian political and economic pressure on Abkhazia; signing a peace treaty guaranteeing security in the air, on the ground, and on the Black Sea; guarantees by the international community and the UN Security Council to preclude the resumption of hostilities between Georgia and Abkhazia; consultations between Bagapsh and Saakashvili on peaceful coexistence; cooperation in the fight against organized crime; and broad regional cooperation, including Abkhaz participation in multilateral cooperation within the parameters of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation Organization and the European Union's New Neighborhood Policy.
However, Bagapsh's position is probably weaker today, and his leeway for compromise narrower, than two years ago. Even if Russia is not, as Shamba claimed in an interview with "Izvestia" on May 6, planning to structure its future relations with Abkhazia on the model of U.S. relations with Taiwan, Bagapsh is apparently under domestic pressure: Raul Khadjimba, his Moscow-backed erstwhile rival in the disputed 2004 presidential ballot is still waiting in the wings for a chance to come to power. Meeting in emergency session on April 30, the Abkhaz parliament adopted a statement calling on Bagapsh not to resume talks with Georgia within the framework of the so-called Group of Friends of the UN Secretary-General until that body adopts an "objective" assessment of Georgia's recent "aggressive actions," and until Georgia complies with its obligations under the May 1994 UN-mediated cease-fire agreement, kavkaz-uzel.ru reported. The Abkhaz insist that that agreement precludes the presence of Georgian troops to the Kodori Gorge; the Georgians counter that it does not extend to the Interior Ministry forces deployed to Kodori in August 2006. The Abkhaz have nonetheless over the past 18 months pegged a resumption of UN-mediated bilateral talks with Tbilisi to the withdrawal of those troops from Kodori.
One possibly encouraging signal was a meeting in Sukhum(i) on May 12 between Shamba and Georgian Ambassador to the UN Irakli Alasania. The two men established a good, if short-lived, working relationship two years ago when Alasania served as Saakashvili's special envoy for the Abkhaz conflict. According to civil.ge, their May 12 meeting focused on unspecified "security issues." The lack of clear-cut security guarantees, and specifically Georgia's refusal to consider signing a formal pact abjuring the use of force against Abkhazia and South Ossetia, has been a weakness of successive Georgian peace proposals, as Brussels-based scholar Bruno Coppieters has pointed out.
International efforts to bring about a rapprochement between the two sides are not helped, however, by the comments of some Georgian politicians. For example, Nikoloz Rurua, the chairman of the Georgian parliament Defense and Security Committee, appears to rule out any Abkhaz input in resolving the conflict; he told RFE/RL's Georgian Service on May 13 that "we cannot be guided by [the Abkhaz] world view and their judgment because they are an illegal entity, and therefore most of their demands have one aim. As long as these kinds of demands are put forward by separatist groups, a real, rational dialogue with the potential of mutual compromise will never take place."
Former Georgian Foreign Minister David Bakradze for his part issued a thinly veiled warning to the Abkhaz on May 13 that Georgia is the sole guarantor of their survival as an ethnic group and the survival of their culture. It was, however, the Georgians who, after securing control of Sukhum(i) in October 1992, torched the building housing the Abkhaz national archive, which was almost completely destroyed.
Meanwhile, the military situation in the Abkhaz conflict zone remains unclear. On May 10, Iosif Chakhvishvili, a department head at the Georgian Reintegration Ministry, told kavkaz-uzel.ru that Russian moves over the past two months suggest that Russia plans to launch a military operation in the Kodori Gorge, and on May 12, Georgian Deputy Defense Minister Batu Kutelia was quoted by Caucasus Press as telling journalists that Russia has indeed deployed some 400 servicemen under the command of an Abkhaz deputy defense minister to the lower reaches of the gorge in Tkvarcheli Raion. U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Bryza was quoted by Georgian media on May 12 as saying that during his visit to Sukhum(i) he saw a large number of Russian forces, and also armor and artillery. And on May 13, Georgian Prime Minister Lado Gurgenidze commented on aerial photos released by the Georgian Interior Ministry that reportedly show a concentration of military equipment and personnel in Abkhazia's southernmost Gali Raion, Caucasus Press reported. The UN Observer Mission (UNOMIG) has not yet commented on those claims.