Georgia ups the ante over Abkhazia

Originally published
From RFE/RL Caucasus Report Volume 6, Number 5
Two recent moves by Georgia appear to be aimed at pressuring the international community to take a firmer stand over the Abkhaz conflict and to express unambiguous backing for Georgia's position vis-a-vis both the leadership of the breakaway Republic of Abkhazia and its supporters in Moscow. The rationale for those moves is unclear, however, especially in view of signs of disagreement among the upper echelons of the Georgian leadership over what tactics to adopt and of growing domestic criticism of President Eduard Shevardnadze's failure to restore Georgian hegemony over Abkhazia.

On 26 January, Georgia's National Security Council finally met to discuss the optimum response to what Georgian officials perceive as Russia's counterproductive policies in Abkhazia. Following a five-hour discussion, members issued a statement listing the conditions under which Georgia will consent to an extension of the mandate, which expired on 31 December, of the Russian peacekeeping force deployed under the CIS aegis in the Abkhaz conflict zone. Tbilisi will do so only if the security zone patrolled by the peacekeepers is extended north to the Galidzga River, which forms the border between Abkhazia's southernmost Gali Raion and Ochamchira Raion to the north, and if Moscow halts the passenger rail service between Sochi and Sukhum that was resumed late last month and stops issuing Russian passports to Abkhaz citizens. The peacekeepers currently patrol a 12-kilometer zone on either side of the Inguri River that marks the internal border between Abkhazia and the rest of Georgia. In theory, the peacekeepers' mandate can be neither terminated nor amended without the consent of the Abkhaz side.

The National Security Council session was originally scheduled for 18 January, shortly after Transport Minister Merab Adeishvili returned from fruitless talks in Moscow with Russian Transport Ministry officials on the Sochi-Sukhum rail link. At that juncture, Adeishvili advocated that Tbilisi isolate the two Russian military bases in Georgia by blocking Moscow's land and air communications with them. The session was postponed, however, first until 22 January and then again, while no decision was taken on Adeishvili's suggestion pending the outcome of a 21-24 January visit to Moscow by a Georgian parliamentary delegation headed by speaker Nino Burdjanadze. During her talks with Russian officials, Burdjanadze repeatedly stated that Georgia would agree to extend the peacekeepers' mandate only on condition that Russia halted both rail communication with Sukhum and the distribution of Russian passports to Abkhaz citizens.

The Georgian parliament has consistently adopted a hard line with regard to the Russian peacekeepers. In October 2001, deputies voted 163 to one in favor of their withdrawal. But UN representative Dieter Boden argued that the departure of the Russian contingent would endanger the unarmed UN observers stationed in Abkhazia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 October 2001).

In December 2001, Burdjanadze said in an interview with "Nezavisimaya gazeta" that renewal of the peacekeepers' mandate should be made contingent on the expansion of the designated conflict zone northward to the Galidzga River (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 December 2001).

President Shevardnadze, for his part, has alternated between hinting that the peacekeepers will be asked to leave and warning that they should not do so before an alternative force is found to replace them. At least one local Georgian official concurs with the latter argument: Caucasus Press on 30 January quoted Gali Raion administration head Ruslan Kishmaria as expressing relief that Shevardnadze had not signed an official request for the peacekeepers' withdrawal. Kishmaria said their departure would trigger new bloodshed between the conflicting sides.

The National Security Council's decision thus raises the question: Did the other members overrule the president, who chaired the session? Or was the strongly worded ultimatum to Moscow adopted unanimously in order to strengthen Shevardnadze's position on the eve of his meeting in Kyiv with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the informal CIS summit on 28-29 January? In that case, why did the meeting last five hours? And why did Shevardnadze cancel his traditional Monday radio interview the following day -- something he has done only half a dozen times since he began giving such interviews in August 1992?

The National Security Council decision, however, is just the latest in a series of indications that the position of key political players vis-a-vis Abkhazia is hardening and that various political factions are openly trying to use the Abkhaz issue to weaken Shevardnadze.

In recent weeks, several prominent politicians have called on the Georgian authorities to provide support for the Georgian guerrilla formations that operate in the Abkhaz conflict zone. The Georgian government has consistently denied any connection with, or influence over, those armed groups. The UN Security Council has called on the Georgian leadership in its resolutions on Abkhazia -- No. 1339 of 31 January 2001, 1364 of 31 July 2001, 1393 of 31 January 2002, 1427 of 29 July 2002, and 1462 of 30 January 2003 -- "to continue its efforts to put an end to the activities of illegal armed groups."

On 6 January, however, Tamaz Nadareishvili, chairman of the Tbilisi-based Abkhaz parliament-in-exile that comprises the Georgian deputies elected to the Abkhaz parliament in late 1991, argued that the Georgian government should provide both moral and financial support to the guerrillas, who, he said "need food and ammunition" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 January 2003). "These people were driven out of their houses. Their relatives and friends were killed. And they are trying to wrest back the right to live in their own homes," he argued.

Opposition United Democrats leader Zurab Zhvania, Burdjanadze's predecessor as parliament speaker, argued on 17 January that if the Georgian authorities had moved earlier to provide support for the guerrillas, Moscow would not have risked resuming the passenger-train service between Sochi and Sukhum, according to Caucasus Press. Zhvania too urged Georgian authorities to provide the guerrillas with all the support they need and to include representatives of the Tbilisi-based Abkhaz government-in-exile in delegations chosen to negotiate with the Abkhaz leadership.

Then on 20 January, Zhvania and National Movement head Mikhail Saakashvili accused Shevardnadze at a press conference in Tbilisi of preparing to begin a new war in Abkhazia in order to furnish a pretext for postponing the parliamentary elections due this fall, which, they argued, Shevardnadze's Union of Citizens of Georgia would lose. Zhvania and Saakashvili further expressed their support for Georgian veterans of the Abkhaz war who were picketing the Russian Embassy in Tbilisi to demand the withdrawal of the CIS peacekeeping force from the Abkhaz conflict zone (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 January 2003).

The tiny Christian-Democratic Party issued a statement demanding that the guerrillas be officially designated a national-liberation movement, Caucasus Press reported on 23 January. It is not clear, however, whether the Christian Democrats have succeeded in their stated attempt to secure Zhvania's support for that demand.

Georgian parliament speaker Burdjanadze, who despite her official position is politically close to Zhvania, differentiated between what she called "terrorists" and "people who have lost everything and who for 10 years have been looking for any positive steps leading to repatriation." She went on to liken Forest Brothers guerrilla formation leader Dato Shengelia to Zoya Kosmodemyanska, the Ukrainian girl who died of torture at the hands of Nazi occupiers during World War II rather than reveal the whereabouts of a partisan group and whom generations of Soviet children in the 1960s and 1970s were taught to revere as the epitome of heroism and self-sacrifice.

One opposition politician has even sought to mobilize the Georgian displaced persons from Abkhazia (whose numbers the UN estimates at 140,000-160,000) to overthrow Shevardnadze. Addressing displaced persons in western Georgia, parliament deputy speaker Djemal Gogitidze of the Revival faction argued, "The main responsibility for losing Abkhazia lies with Shevardnadze.... We shall not win Abkhazia back as long as Shevardnadze is president" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 January 2003). In his 20 January radio address, Shevardnadze admitted, as he has done on previous occasions, that the August 1992 invasion of Abkhazia by undisciplined National Guards troops under the command of then Defense Minister Tengiz Kitovani was a mistake that he was powerless to prevent.

On 28 January, Shevardnadze met in Kyiv as planned with Russian President Putin to discuss Abkhazia. Shevardnadze told journalists on his return to Tbilisi the following day that he and Putin agreed to set up a bilateral commission to study the National Security Council's demands and the expediency of extending the peacekeepers' mandate. Addressing journalists in Kyiv on 29 January, Putin sought to rationalize both the resumption of the passenger-train service to Sukhum and the granting of Russian citizenship to residents of Abkhazia. He depicted the former as an anticorruption measure to obviate the need for Abkhaz traders to bribe Russian border guards to let them enter the Russian Federation in order to sell their agricultural produce. And he argued that, having granted Russian citizenship to some 650,000 former citizens of Georgia who have settled permanently in Russia, Moscow could not then deny citizenship to those Abkhaz -- also citizens of Georgia -- who requested it. Putin also said Moscow will not insist that the peacekeeping force remain in Abkhazia "at all cost."

Shevardnadze has shed no light on what arguments he adduced during his talks with Putin. But events at the 30 January UN Security Council session that focused on Abkhazia suggest Tbilisi might have been relying on the UN to exert pressure on Russia to agree to Georgia's conditions for renewing the CIS peacekeepers' mandate. Georgia's ambassador to the UN, Rezo Adamia, asked in advance to be allowed to address the Security Council session, but that request was refused, RFE/RL's UN correspondent reported. Russia had at that juncture already rejected a move by the other four member countries (the United States, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom) of the "Friends of the UN Secretary General" group that is trying to mediate an end to the Abkhaz conflict to include in Security Council Resolution 1462 a reference to recent Russian moves that have served to exacerbate tensions with Georgia.

Adamia then wrote to Security Council President Jean-Marc de la Sabliere condemning Abkhazia's repeated refusal to accept as a basis for negotiations the UN-drafted document "Basic Principles for the Distribution of Competencies Between Tbilisi and Sukhumi"; Abkhazia's alleged "ethnic cleansing and genocide" of the region's Georgian population; and Russia's support for the Abkhaz leadership, which, Adamia argued, should disqualify it from playing any role in trying to mediate a solution to the conflict. Adamia further suggested that the Abkhaz leadership's intransigence constitutes a valid reason for the UN to launch a "peace enforcement" operation in line with Chapter 7 of the UN Charter to restore the Georgian central government's control over the breakaway republic.

Abkhaz parliament-in-exile Chairman Nadareishvili, who for years has lobbied for such a UN peace-enforcement operation, told Caucasus Press on 26 January that he presented to the Georgian National Security Council session earlier that day a draft document demanding such UN intervention and that council members agreed to convey that demand to the UN (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 2, No. 26, 1 July 1999 and "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 February and 11 November 2002). But a Georgian state chancellery official subsequently said the draft document would not be considered at the Security Council session (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 January 2003).

So what could Georgia have hoped to achieve by raising the possibility of a UN intervention in Abkhazia? Does the Georgian leadership really believe that with a war on Iraq looking increasingly inevitable, the UN could find the personnel to mount a military operation in Abkhazia? Or should Adamia's letter be construed simply as an expression of Tbilisi's displeasure that the Security Council failed to adopt a more strongly worded condemnation of Russia's recent actions in Abkhazia? Is Tbilisi hoping that the United States will pressure Russia to make concessions to Georgia that would enable the Georgian leadership to agree, without losing face, to a renewal of the peacekeepers' mandate? (Meeting with Shevardnadze in Kyiv on 28 January, Ambassador Rudolf Perina, who is the special representative of the U.S. president for the resolution of conflicts in the South Caucasus, said Washington does not consider the withdrawal of the CIS peacekeeping force from the conflict zone at this juncture expedient.)

Yet another possible explanation is that Adamia's letter was intended to discredit and neutralize Nadareishvili by demonstrating that the international community does not support his calls for military intervention.

Whatever the motives of the Georgian leadership, Shevardnadze has gained a brief respite, until 15 February: The UN Security Council is to review its decision on extending the mandate of the UN observers in Abkhazia if Russia and Georgia fail to reach agreement by that date on extending the mandate of the CIS peacekeeping forces. Even prior to the Security Council meeting, Deputy Defense Minister Gela Bezhuashvili announced that the Georgian Armed Forces General Staff has prepared a contingency plan to deploy Georgian troops "to maintain the status quo" in the Abkhaz conflict zone should the Russian peacekeeping contingent be withdrawn (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 January 2003). (Liz Fuller)

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