Georgia Seeks Changes in Abkhazia

As Moscow strengthens relationship with the breakaway republic, Tbilisi says it is time to review the Russian’s role as peacekeepers.

Georgia Seeks Changes in Abkhazia

As Moscow strengthens relationship with the breakaway republic, Tbilisi says it is time to review the Russian’s role as peacekeepers.

Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili has announced that he is preparing “new, important and radical proposals” to end the dispute over Abkhazia, following Kosovo’s declaration of independence and Russia’s withdrawal from sanctions imposed on the breakaway territory.

Saakashvili was speaking during a trip to the United States, where he met United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-Moon and was due to meet President George Bush on March 19.

At the UN, the Georgian president said he wanted a change to peacekeeping arrangements for Abkhazia. At the moment, Russian troops operating under a mandate from the Commonwealth of Independent States, CIS, are the sole peacekeepers operating in the conflict zone.

Saakashvili described Russia’s decision on March 6 to withdraw from CIS sanctions against Abkhazia as a “demarche against the US, the West and NATO”.

Western leaders have made it clear they view the recognition of Kosovo’s independence as a unique case which has no bearing on the separatist conflicts in the Caucasus.

Moscow, however, has used developments in Kosovo as a pretext for reviewing its relationship with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, both of which claim independence from Georgia.

Temur Yakobishvili, Georgia’s recently appointed “minister for reintegration” (the post replaces the ministry in charge of “conflict resolution”), spelled out the new official line at greater length in an interview for IWPR, warning that Russia risked provoking changes it would not be able to control and explaining why Tbilisi wanted a different peacekeeping arrangement.

“If from Russia’s point of view the situation has changed so much that there is a need to lift sanctions, then why does the changed situation not permit exchanging the existing peacekeeping mechanisms for more effective ones?” he asked.

“We have begun the process, and the next step will be a review of the mechanisms.”

Yakobishvili said Russia had made a grave error by lifting sanctions on Abkhazia.

“These mistakes obviously hurt the state interests of Russia itself,” the minister told IWPR. “They themselves don’t conceal the fact that these steps were an asymmetric response to the US and western recognition of Kosovo’s independence, and also a way of punishing us [Georgians] for being a ‘vassal’ of the US.”

He added, “There are also people in Russia who make masterful use of the problems in Russian-Georgian relations for their own narrow, mercantile purposes, which they try to politicise. And they often succeed.”

According to Yakobishvili, Georgia will take steps to assert its legal rights over Abkhazia, including over property there.

“We are obliged not to permit a ‘creeping economic annexation’,” he said.

Georgia is worried that the unresolved issue of Abkhazia and South Ossetia could hurt its chances of being offered a Membership Action Plan for eventual NATO membership when the grouping meets for a summit in Bucharest next month.

Yakobishvili turned the argument round, insisting, “Georgia’s move to a Membership Action Plan means that [Abkhazia and South Ossetia] should forget about independence.”

Other experts say the situation is more complex than that, and Russia is still keeping its options open.

David Darchiashvili, a political analyst who heads the Open Society Institute in Tbilisi, argues that “Russia’s use of the Kosovo precedent is a risk for Georgia, but it not yet a clear danger”.

Darchiashvili said Russia had so far been restrained in its attitude to Abkhazia and South Ossetia and had not opted for outright recognition of them. There were, he said, three reasons for this, one of which was that recognising their independence would suggest that “Russia has very contradictory policies on the international scene – first it supports the territorial integrity of states [eg. Serbia] and then it undermines it.”

He went on, “Secondly, Russia does not want to burn all its bridges with Georgia, against which it now has a lever of influence that it does not want to lose. Thirdly, Russia is no less interested in relations with the West than in having influence in the post-Soviet space.”

Darchiashvili said that it was possible that people in Abkhazia and South Ossetia might one day would look towards a Georgia that was moving towards European integration, rather than to a Russia that was disappointing them.

Archil Gegeshidze, an expert with the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies agreed that Moscow was likely to hold off on recognising the secessionist territories indefinitely, instead firming up its relationship with them without approving full independence.

“Russia will never recognise Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but it will never say so directly,” he said.

In its dealings with the breakaway territories, said Gegeshidze, Russia would aim for “further liberalisation and broadening of relations, creating the conditions for pseudo-sovereignty”.

“But it will not be real independence,” he insisted. “Lifting sanctions and having a ‘deferred status’ will not change the current picture.”

Dmitry Avaliani is a reporter with 24 Hours newspaper in Tbilisi.

Support our journalists