Abkhazia: A Long Bridge to Cross

A number of potential flashpoints could destabilise the precarious Georgia-Abkhazia peace process this year

Abkhazia: A Long Bridge to Cross

A number of potential flashpoints could destabilise the precarious Georgia-Abkhazia peace process this year

Thursday, 21 February, 2002

Shielded from the rain with small umbrellas, groups of women carrying shopping-bags dodged the puddles on the bridge, as they threaded their way through the checkpoints.

The long steel bridge across the river Inguri, dividing Georgia and Abkhazia, bears a daily stream of Georgian refugees, who are tentatively trying to rebuild their homes in the Gali region, almost ten years after the war that broke Georgia apart.

The human traffic across the bridge is a fragile sign of some progress in the unresolved dispute between Georgia and Abkhazia. But it is the one ray of hope in what could be a turbulent year in the conflict zone.

As I crossed the bridge two weeks ago, I was forced to join the women on foot, trundling my luggage around the puddles. A group of Georgian protestors had pitched a large tarpaulin tent on their side of the bridge, blocking all traffic by United Nations convoys and international vehicles.

"It's been eight years and there's been absolutely no progress on the return of refugees," said Gia Lomia, one of the leaders of the protest, giving me shelter from the rain by a wood burning stove inside the tent.

Lomia is an agricultural economist from the Gali region, just fifteen minutes walk across the river, but as a man who used to work for the Georgian authorities before the war, he is not allowed to go back to his former home.

Generally, only women and old people make the journey back into Abkhazian-administered Gali, to tend their hazelnut trees and fields. The area, the southernmost part of Abkhazia, had an overwhelmingly Georgian population before the war of 1992-3.

Lomia said he was part of a small delegation who had travelled to Tbilisi the week before for a three-hour meeting with Georgia's president, Eduard Shevardnadze. He said they were unimpressed because Shevardnadze had declined to meet their central demand, a withdrawal of the Russian peacekeeping force from Abkhazia.

On February 11, the day after I crossed, the protestors abandoned their picket. They said they might resume it later in the year. But the protest on the bridge was just one of several potential flashpoints, any of which could weaken the governments in both Abkhazia and Georgia and lead to new instability.

Shevardnadze is being forced to make unpopular moves over Abkhazia, just as his popularity is at an all-time low and his domestic opponents increasingly use the issue as a stick to beat him with.

Georgia is home to an estimated 200,000 Georgian refugees who fled the fighting in Abkhazia in 1992-3. They have their own "government in exile" and hundreds of them have turned into partisans, who cross the Inguri river into Gali and attack Russian peacekeepers and Abkhaz officials. The refugees are a growing factor in domestic Georgian politics.

Several opposition leaders, including the flamboyant former justice minister, Mikhail Saakishvili, gave their support to the picket on the Inguri bridge. The colourful governor of the western Imereti region, Temur Shashiashvili, has gone one step further, saying that if there is no progress on the Abkhazia issue by St George's Day, May 6, this year the Georgian government should give its full support to the partisans and move back into the region.

Against this background, Shevardnadze, under pressure from the United Nations, gave his approval on January 31 to an extension of the Russian (formally Commonwealth of Independent States, CIS) peacekeeping mandate in Abkhazia.

International officials say that no one else is currently prepared to take on the burden of policing the border zone, and that the Russians also provide security for the UN monitoring force, UNOMIG. The peacekeeping mandate is due to be renewed at the upcoming CIS meeting in Kazakstan on March 1.

But the Russian military is deeply unpopular in Georgia because of the assistance it gave to the Abkhazians during the war. Even relatively loyal politicians, such as the deputy speaker of the Georgian parliament, a former Abkhaz deputy, Vakhtang Kolbaia, are pressing for the peacekeepers to be pulled out or at least to have their mandate changed. "While they are there, the conflict will not be fully resolved," Kolbaia said.

Shevardnadze is also feeling the heat from the UN to stick to the terms of a 1994 agreement and pull Georgian troops out of the upper part of the Kodori Gorge. Dozens died in skirmishes in this mountainous region, scene last October in the worst violence in Abkhazia for years. The Georgians have agreed to withdraw their soldiers from the gorge and allow UN patrols in, but they may try to send border guards into the region, arguing that they technically do not count as "troops".

Abkhazia itself also faces a year of uncertainty. The elected president of the unrecognised state, Vladislav Ardzinba, is sick in hospital in Moscow. The authorities refuse to disclose what is the source of his ill health, but he has not spoken in public since last autumn and many speculate that he will be forced to step down by the end of the year.

Abkhazia's de facto leader in Ardzinba's absence is the prime minister Anri Djergenia, a grey and sombre bureaucrat. Djergenia lacks Ardzinba's popularity and now also faces a new problem in the shape of a well-organised and articulate political movement, called Aitaira or Revival, which is contesting the breakaway republic's parliamentary elections on March 2.

Revivial has picked up support amidst an atmosphere of general depression prevalent in Abkhazia, eight years after the breakaway republic emerged from the war with Georgia. Many buildings in the Abkhazian capital Sukhumi are still in ruins. Pensions are worth a symbolic one US dollar a month. International observers say the population of the republic, 530,000 in the late Soviet period, has sunk to around 200,000.

Revival's leaders do not dissent from the official position that Abkhazia should strive for full independence, but accuse the authorities of being undemocratic and inflexible.

"Revival is more flexible, more pragmatic," said Natela Akaba, one of the leaders of the movement. "We want more room for manoeuvre. We ought to do what the population wants. The style of Ardzinba and Djergenia is very closed."

The prime minister dismissed Revival as a group of intellectuals who were ready to sell out to Georgia. "We just have to be patient and wait a month and discover that [Revival] has no role to play in our state," he said.

Perhaps to buttress his uncertain domestic position, Djergenia takes an implacable line on Abkhazia's proclamation of independence from Georgia. He rejected outright a framework document on "the distribution of competencies between Tbilisi and Sukhumi" drawn up by the United Nations envoy for Abkhazia, Dieter Boden, because it stipulates that Abkhazia is part of Georgia.

To the Abkhazians' discomfort, their biggest friends, the Russians, have given their assent to Boden's document, thereby confirming their support for Georgia's territorial integrity. This is one element in a modest New Year thaw in Russian-Georgian relations.

Analysts agree that the key to progress in the Abkhazia dispute may lie in Moscow. But Russian approval of the UN document is only a small step down a very long road.

"It's an encouraging step that Russia has agreed to these general principles," said David Darchiashvili, a specialist with the Caucasian Institute for Peace, Democracy and Development in Tbilisi. "The pragmatic part of Russia understands that you can't keep this conflict going forever. There is a need for real negotiations, but real negotiations can also inflame the situation inside Georgia. And Russia is always able to raise new questions, like military bases and energy supplies."

Darchiashvili said that the fundamental problem was that the Georgian authorities had still not come up with a "defined position" on Abkhazia, beyond a general offer of "high autonomy". That in turn gave the Russians room to meddle, if they wished to

"If Georgian policy was based on sounder principles, it would help Russia to define its position," he said.

Thomas de Waal is IWPR's new Caucasus Editor.

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