Russia's preferential treatment of the separatist-minded Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia is stoking renewed tension between Moscow and Tbilisi. This latest round of the long-running bilateral row has caused further erosion to Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze's domestic image at a time when the country is preparing for pivotal elections in late 2003.
Russian-Georgian tension over Abkhazia has long simmered. But the issue largely remained in the background as the two countries feuded over Moscow's ongoing military presence in Georgia, and the security of the Pankisi Gorge. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Over approximately the past year, Russia has granted citizenship to a significant portion of Abkhazia's population. More recently, Moscow established visa-free travel for residents of both Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Then, in December Moscow reopened a rail connection between the southern Russian city of Sochi and the Abkhaz capital Sukhumi -- a move that prompted an outcry in Georgia. Shevardnadze characterized the unilateral Russian action as "unlawful."
In advance of a late January CIS summit in Ukraine, Shevardnadze raised expectations that he could reach a compromise with Russian President Vladimir Putin on an array of Abkhazia-related issues, including the rail link, dual-citizenship and the ongoing presence of Russian peacekeepers in the separatist province.
At the same time, Georgian officials issued several threats, including reducing access and services to Russian military bases on Georgian territory and making Georgian acceptance of the renewal of the CIS peacekeeping mandate for Abkhazia conditional on Russian concessions on the rail and citizenship issues.
At the summit, however, Putin praised Shevardnadze, while providing the Georgian leader no assurances of a change in Russia's policies towards Abkhazia. "We will further support Georgia's aspiration for territorial integrity, however, we should do so carefully, and take into account also the interests of the Abkhaz side," the Itar-Tass news agency quoted Putin as saying January 29.
The Russian president also called Georgia's bluff regarding the CIS peacekeepers. "If there aren't any peacekeepers there [Abkhazia]... the [peace] settlement process will get more complicated and it goes without saying the situation will deteriorate," Putin said in a January 29 television interview.
Shevardnadze, meanwhile, was forced to admit that Georgia had little leverage to compel a change in Russia's stance. "We must definitely be aware of what might happen if the [Russian/CIS] peacekeepers were to leave, what tragic consequences this might have," the Georgian leader told Itar-Tass on January 29.
The lack of summit results dealt a serious political blow to Shevardnadze, according to Georgian political observers. "The only result of the summit was a picture given to Shevardnadze by Putin to commemorate his [Shevardnadze's 75th] birthday," mocked political analyst Revaz Bakhtadze in an analysis published in the 24 Hours newspaper.
On February 1, the Georgian parliament appeared to seize the initiative in the dispute with Russia, adopting a resolution that denounced Moscow for "encroaching upon our country's sovereignty and territorial integrity." The resolution went on to "rule out any possibility of neighborly relations and mutually beneficial cooperation" unless the outstanding Abkhazia issues were quickly resolved. If Russia did not respond appropriately, the parliament resolution pledged that Tbilisi would turn to Western states "to provide Georgia with support and to respond to the problem in an appropriate way."
Meanwhile, on January 30, the United Nations Security Council conditionally extended the CIS peacekeeping mandate until July 2003. The Security Council left open the possibility that it would review its decision on February 15, if Georgia has not consented to the extension by then. On February 3, Shevardnadze proposed replacing the CIS force with European Union peacekeepers.
Despite Shevardnadze's EU proposal, many local observers believe he has lost the initiative to parliament over the Abkhazia issue. This could have significant ramifications for Shevardnadze's party, the Citizen's Union of Georgia (CUG), as it gears up for what promises to be an intense campaign ahead of parliamentary elections in October.
Opinion polls show the CUG's popularity remains at or near an all-time low. The party had a disastrous showing in local elections last year, failing to win seats in the Tbilisi City Council. Shevardnadze's poor CIS summit performance may compound the difficulties for the CUG as it tries to regain support and retain control of parliament.
Shevardnadze's own authority would likely come under increased pressure if opposition parties managed to seize control of the legislature following the elections. Indeed, the Abkhaz issue and the CIS summit setback appear to be fueling a debate in Tbilisi over whether Shevardnadze should exit the political stage, and pave the way for a younger generation of Georgian politicians to assume leadership positions.
Editor's Note: Giorgi Kandelaki is a senior at the Department of Political Science at Tbilisi State University. He is a member of the Youth Atlantic Council of Georgia.
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