Russia, Georgia again at odds over Abkhaz settlement

In the run-up to the 31 January United Nations Security Council session to be devoted to the ongoing search for a political solution to the Abkhaz conflict, Georgia and Russia are pushing widely diverging approaches. In addition, Georgia has sought to pressure Moscow by threatening to end the mandate of the Russian peacekeeping force that has been deployed under the CIS aegis in the Abkhaz conflict zone since mid-1994.
As it has done for the past two years, Georgia continues to insist that Abkhazia should be constrained to begin discussion of the "Basic Principles for the Distribution of Competencies between Tbilisi and Sukhumi" drafted by former UN special envoy Dieter Boden. Russia for its part is pushing for confidence-building measures between the two sides, including the resumption of economic ties. The UN hopes that confidence-building measures and talks on Abkhazia's future status could take place in tandem, Boden's successor, Ambassador Heidi Tagliavini, told RFE/RL last month (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 13 December 2002).

Tagliavini visited Sukhum on 10 January, where she met with Russian First Deputy Foreign Minister Valerii Loshchinin, who is Russian President Vladimir Putin's special envoy for the Abkhaz conflict. Tagliavini was subsequently quoted as having told Georgian journalists in Tbilisi that she and Loshchinin discussed convening a new meeting of the UN-sponsored Coordinating Council that serves as a forum for discussing confidence-building measures between the Abkhaz and Georgian sides. The Abkhaz suspended participation in the council's sessions last April, demanding that Georgia first withdraw its forces from the upper reaches of the Kodori Gorge. Loshchinin, for his part, said in Moscow on 13 January that while in Sukhum he presented to Abkhaz Prime Minister Gennadii Gagulia unspecified new Russian proposals aimed at breaking the stalemate in the talks. Loshchinin said the Abkhaz side undertook to consider those proposals.

Meanwhile, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze said during his traditional Monday radio broadcast on 13 January that he will oppose the renewal of the Russian peacekeepers' mandate unless Moscow suspends the recently resumed train service between the Russian city of Sochi and Sukhum and stops issuing Russian passports to residents of Abkhazia. That threat was, however, as Shevardnadze must have been aware, a hollow one: The peacekeepers' mandate cannot be terminated without the consent of the Abkhaz, who have repeatedly insisted that the peacekeepers must not be withdrawn as they constitute the sole deterrent to a new Georgian offensive. And any agreement on the peacekeepers' mandate must be approved by the presidents of all CIS states.

Moreover, subsequent reports called into question the circumstances surrounding the resumption of rail traffic between Sochi and Sukhum and whether in fact the wholesale distribution of Russian passports to residents of Abkhazia has taken place. During talks in Moscow on 14-15 January, Russian Ministry of Transport officials disclaimed responsibility and assured their Georgian counterparts that the train service is being run by an unidentified commercial company. They urged the Georgian delegation to raise the issue with the Russian Foreign Ministry (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 January 2003).

As for the passports dispute, Georgian National Security Minister Valeri Khaburzania admitted on 14 January that reports that Russian passports have been distributed in Abkhazia are premature and based on erroneous information circulated by Tamaz Nadareishvili, the head of the Tbilisi-based Abkhaz parliament in exile. Abkhaz Prime Minister Gennadii Gagulia said on 31 December, and Abkhaz presidential aide Astamur Tania on 10 January, that, although some 70 percent of the population of Abkhazia have applied for, and been granted, Russian citizenship, they have not yet received new Russian passports. Abkhaz State Security Minister in exile Levan Kiknadze told "Nezavisimaya gazeta" of 15 January that in 2002 the Abkhaz received either special inserts for their Soviet-era passports or a special stamp confirming their Russian citizenship.

It is not clear whether Khaburzania's identification of Nadareishvili as responsible for a major misunderstanding (other senior Georgian officials including Foreign Minister Irakli Menagharishvili have publicly criticized the Russian leadership over the alleged distribution of passports in Abkhazia) was undertaken specifically to compromise him. Nadareishvili has consistently adopted a far tougher line than other Georgian officials toward resolving the Abkhaz conflict, arguing in favor of lobbying the UN to mount a "peace-enforcement operation" in the breakaway republic and calling for Georgian government support for the Georgian guerrilla formations operating in the Abkhaz conflict zone (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 January 2003). And Nadareishvili told journalists that during a meeting on 13 January with Tagliavini, he demanded that she inform the UN that his parliament in exile insists that the peacekeepers' mandate be changed.

It is not clear whether Shevardnadze plans to attend the informal CIS summit in Ukraine on 28 January that will presumably address the issue of whether or not the CIS peacekeepers' mandate should be renewed. Caucasus Press reported on 14 January that Shevardnadze may travel to New York to address the 31 January UN Security Council session. (Liz Fuller)


Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty
© RFE/RL, Inc. All Rights Reserved.