US drawn in as Russia, Georgia debate Abkhazia

By Jaba Devdariani: Repost from EurasiaNet 3/06/03

Georgian leader Eduard Shevardnadze opened two days of talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin on March 6 at the Black Sea resort of Sochi. Discussions aim to ease bilateral tension on a variety of issues, with the Georgian leader focusing much of his attention on the Abkhazia issue.

Russia and Georgia have sparred over separatist-minded Abkhazia in recent months. On March 3, Shevardnadze sought to downplay expectations of a major advance. "Although I do not expect the meeting to result in any miraculous and sensational breakthrough, on the whole, such contacts have always been useful," Shevardnadze said in his weekly radio interview March 3.

Developments over the past week, in particular Georgian accusations about assorted Russian transgressions in or near Abkhazia, appear to confirm that significant progress on the Abkhazia question is unlikely.

On February 27, Georgian television reported that a Russian military jet violated Georgian airspace. The same day a Georgian official complained that Russian military advisors had helped train Abkhaz armed forces, the Prime News Agency reported. Georgian National Security Council Secretary Tedo Japaridze also repeated a government warning that Tbilisi reserved the right to use force if efforts toward a political solution to the Abkhaz issue remained deadlocked.

Abkhaz leaders rejected the latest diplomatic initiative aimed at bringing a formal close to the 1992-3 civil war, Caucasus Press reported March 4. The initiative, sponsored by the Friends of the UN Secretary General group, reportedly called for Abkhazia to enjoy broad autonomy under Georgian jurisdiction. Abkhaz leaders insist their territory should be recognized as an independent entity. The Friends group of states includes France, Germany, Great Britain, Russia and the United States.

Despite bilateral tension over Abkhazia - as well as ongoing differences over the timeframe for the closure of two Russian military bases in Georgia, and ongoing instability in the Pankisi Gorge - Shevardnadze maintains that his relationship with Putin is "developing in a constructive way."

"Our joint efforts have resulted in the creation of a certain patter of cooperation," Shevardnadze said March 3.

Political observers in Tbilisi believe that during the Sochi talks, Shevardnadze may probe Putin's willingness to revise the Russian/CIS peacekeeping mandate in Abkhazia. Changes in the composition of the peacekeeping force could hasten the return of internally displaced persons (IDPs). The Georgian leader's chief aim is to find a way to promote the return of IDPs to at least the Gali District. The fighting in Abkhazia caused the displacement of hundreds of thousand of Georgians. Accommodating those IDPs has strained Georgia's social infrastructure. And with the approach of parliamentary elections in late 2003, IDPs potentially could form an influential voting bloc.

As an incentive for Russia to accept the Georgian proposal, Shevardnadze has indicated that Tbilisi might be willing to sanction the reopening of a rail link connecting Sokhumi, the Abkhaz capital, and Sochi. According to Georgian analysts, such a move would reinforce the economic interests of Russia in Abkhazia, and would also help to improve overland links with Russia's regional ally, Armenia.

In the end, though, all of Shevardnadze's proposals - no matter how potentially lucrative - would be hard to sell to the Georgian opposition and people. Without progress in negotiating the political status of Abkhazia, citizens, especially IDPs, will remain restive.

There are indications from both Russia and Georgia that the United States may play a key role in promoting improved Georgian-Russian relations. Georgian leaders would like the United States to exert influence on Russia to soften its Abkhazia stance. On February 19, however, Richard Miles, the US ambassador in Tbilisi, told reporters that Washington did not seek a larger role in the search for an Abkhaz political settlement.

Russia, meanwhile, seems to be crafting its own appeal to the reluctant United States. During contentious bilateral talks February 18-19 on the Russian bases issue, Russia reportedly asked Georgian officials for $260 million to cover the costs of withdrawing troops from facilities in Batumi and Akhalkalaki, as well as for constructing relevant backup bases on Russian territory.

Local political analysts say Russia, in staking out such a negotiating position, clearly hopes that Washington will pick up the bill for the base withdrawals. Stephen G. Rademaker, US assistant secretary of state for arms control, reportedly said on February 10 after meeting Shevardnadze in Tbilisi that Washington might help "facilitate" the Russian withdrawal, without going into details.

Even if American money solves the basing question, the intransigence of the self-styled Abkhaz government will be harder to break. Russian officials say that Abkhazia's negotiating position has proven intransigent since Genadi Gagulia replaced Anri Jergenia as the separatist region's "prime minister" in late 2002, according to a January report published by Vremya Novostei.

Jaba Devdariani is editor-in-chief of Civil Georgia


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