Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Georgian-Abkhaz Truce Barely Holds
An armed clash broke out between Georgian and Abkhaz soldiers in the Kodori Gorge in the mountains of Abkhazia on August 13 – another low point in several months of wrangling over the territory.
The incident in the Marukhi Pass was also a reminder of the ever-present danger of a resumption of all-out war between the Georgians and Abkhaz, exactly ten years after fighting first broke out between them on August 14, 1992.
The conflict began when the Georgian National Guard, under its then commander Tengiz Kitovani, occupied the city of Sukhumi. Fighting lasted for more than a year, ending in September 1993, when the Abkhaz armed forces took control of the whole republic, driving out almost its entire Georgian population. Up to eight thousand people had been killed.
Since then, Tbilisi and Sukhumi have endured an uneasy peace, supervised by a Russian-led peacekeeping force and a UN monitoring mission.
The mountainous Kodori Gorge is a flashpoint because it is the only region of Abkhazia where Tbilisi still maintains a foothold. Dozens of men were killed in fighting there last October, and now the Abkhaz accuse the Georgians of keeping armed men there in contravention of agreements signed in 1994 – a charge Tbilisi denies.
The current state of play between the two sides has been called a “dynamic non-peace process.” There has been no progress on the three main issues – the return of more than 200,000 Georgian refugees, the final status of Abkhazia and the economic future of the republic – and the whole issue is further complicated by the continuing quarrel between Tbilisi and Moscow.
For Georgians, the paramount issue is that of the refugees. Almost half of the pre-war population of Abkhazia – around 250,000 people – was ethnically Georgian. Only around 40,000 Georgians are living there now, all in the southern Gali region, where there are Russian peacekeepers and UN monitors. Opinion polls suggest that the rest do not believe they will see their homes any time soon.
“Every refugee has an unshakeable right, underpinned by international norms: the right to return home,” Heidi Tagliavini, UN special envoy for the dispute, told IWPR. “But enforcing that right is a difficult process.”
Tagliavini said that steps are being taken to ensure the security of those people wanting to return to the Gali region.
“The sides in the conflict made a joint proposal, and the UN responded,” she said. “No later than the beginning of September, it will send a group of experts to the Gali region, who will assess the situation and devise a raft of measures needed to ensure the security of the returning Georgian population and the stabilisation of the situation in this part of Abkhazia.”
In October, the leaders of the Caucasus Four – Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Russia – are due to discuss a series of practical proposals, including the possible reopening of the railway that links Moscow and the Caucasus through Abkhazia.
However, the Georgian side links the issue of the economic regeneration of Abkhazia to the return of refugees. Tbilisi has been at the forefront of efforts to blockade the rebel republic in order to force concessions from it.
“We fully agree that Abkhazia’s inhabitants ought to receive more than humanitarian aid and that strengthening the economy is a required element of the peace process,” Malkhaz Kakabadze, Georgia’s minister for special assignments and main negotiator with Abkhazia, told IWPR.
“However, all this should be done within the framework of the special economic regime in force against Abkhazia, in accordance with the decision of the council of heads of state of the CIS on January 19, 1996.”
This document states that any economic and political contacts with Abkhazia by any of the CIS countries should be agreed with Tbilisi. However, Russia is openly breaking this agreement: several Russian regions have signed economic and cultural agreements with Abkhazia, and Moscow’s foreign ministry recently helped tens of thousands of Abkhaz obtain Russian passports.
For several years, the Abkhaz negotiated over various possible constitutional arrangements with Georgia, but they toughened their position in 1999 by holding a referendum in which they proclaimed their complete independence. The current leadership now insists this position is non-negotiable.
“Over the past ten years, our country has solved its political problems,” Abkhazia’s prime minister Anri Djergenia told IWPR by telephone. “There are still economic difficulties, but we are addressing them also.”
Djergenia has further antagonised the Georgians by raising the issue of Abkhazia having what he calls “associated relations” with Russia.
Georgia continues to insist on its territorial integrity, a position affirmed by the outside world. However, more and more Georgians have conceded in recent years that the Abkhaz as an ethnic group have no other homeland and have the right to special territorial and political status guaranteeing their survival.
Georgian president Eduard Shevardnadze has spoken more than once of giving Abkhazia “exceptionally wide powers,” within Georgia, although he has not specified what this might mean.
Analysts from Georgia’s Republican Party have come up with another concept, which they call “asymmetrical regionalism.” The idea is for a “United States of Georgia” consisting of the republics of Georgia and Abkhazia.
The Abkhaz diaspora in the USA has come up with a similar plan, under which Abkhazia would be part of a Georgian state but with its own political institutions and security forces. The president of Abkhazia would have power of veto over any acts of legislation passed in Tbilisi with regard to his republic.
Many Georgians evidently believe that while a solution is possible, interference by outside powers may be hindering progress.
A recent poll conducted by the Tbilisi International Centre for Conflicts and Negotiations found that 45 per cent of respondents believed international organisations played an important role in the peace process. However, 67 per cent said that the Georgians and Abkhaz would work much more successfully on resolving the conflict without any outside mediators.
Margarita Akhvlediani is IWPR’s regional coordinator and Georgia editor. Thomas de Waal in London contributed to this report.
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