Progress in Abkhaz Peace Talks

The fact that Tbilisi and Sukhum come up with new peace initiatives is seen as a positive step, even if they continue to disagree on most issues.

Progress in Abkhaz Peace Talks

The fact that Tbilisi and Sukhum come up with new peace initiatives is seen as a positive step, even if they continue to disagree on most issues.

New life was breathed into the Abkhazian peace process this week when Georgian presidential adviser Irakli Alasania personally handed a peace plan to the Abkhaz authorities.

The plan presented by Alasania, together with an Abkhaz plan which President Sergei Bagapsh handed over in Tbilisi on May 15, represent the most detailed documents to be presented since the conflict ended 12 years ago with Abkhazia claiming independence from Georgia – a claim still unrecognised by the outside world.

Calling his plan a “key to the future”, Bagapsh told journalists that “goodwill on both sides is the key to success and… a lasting peace”.

Although the exchange of documents represented a step forward, each side was extremely cool about the other’s proposals.

Referring to Bagapsh’s plan, Georgia’s conflict resolution minister Giorgi Khaindrava told IWPR, “The name lacks two words: it should have been called a “key to the future of independent Abkhazia.”

Khaindrava said the plan was “basically a declaration of Abkhazia’s independence” – an idea that Tbilisi refuses to countenance.

After Alasania presented his plan on May 24, Abkhaz foreign minister Sergei Shamba said, “Having seen the Georgian plan, I don’t even see where we could begin a conversation.”

The Abkhaz plan was delivered a week earlier when the Georgian-Abkhaz coordinating council for the conflict met in Tbilisi after a break of more than four years.

The document calls on Tbilisi to recognise Abkhazia’s independence, end its economic blockade of the republic, apologise for previous policies, and agree to a series of security measures and peaceful co-existence.

According to Shamba, who led the Abkhaz delegation at the Tbilisi meeting, his government also envisages the return of all Georgian refugees to the southern Gali region (called Gal by the Abkhaz) within two years.

“The blood that was shed is hindering the solution of problems,” said Shamba, referring to the return of refugees. “Time heals things, and the time will come when the issue of refugees returning to the whole of Abkhazia will come onto the agenda”.

The contents of the Georgian plan, called a Road Map, have so far not been revealed in public.

Alasania, who is the Georgian president’s adviser on Abkhaz conflict resolution, told the coordinating council that his government’s priority was for the displaced Georgians – numbering about 250,000 – to go back to Abkhazia. The next steps would be to rebuild mutual trust and ensure security, with economic rehabilitation and the resolution of Abkhazia’s political status coming only at the end of the process.

Alasania said both peace plans would now be submitted to the Georgian parliament.

“Discussions on both schemes will take place behind closed doors, and only once they have been compared will a common plan be made public,” he said.

Prior to the new plans, there had been only one similar scheme for a gradual resolution of the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict – the so-called “Boden Plan”, drawn up under the supervision of Dieter Boden, a former special representative of the United Nations Secretary General in Georgia.

The Boden Plan proposed a division of constitutional powers between Sukhum and Tbilisi within a united federative state. The scheme was supported in Tbilisi, but the Abkhaz side refused to accept the terms, insisting on full sovereignty.

The latest plan from Bagapsh also has Abkhaz independence its a starting point – a position which, as officials in his government admit, may mean the Georgians refuse to discuss it.

“The document reflects the realities of the situation in Abkhazia,” the head of the Abkhaz parliament’s budget and economic policy committee, Ilya Gamisonia, told IWPR. “They are, of course, unacceptable for Georgia, but they clearly state our country’s position in the conflict.”

The Bagapsh plan contains two new elements. On the first page, it explicitly rejects the idea that Abkhazia’s future lies with Russia alone, and declares that it lies instead with integration into Europe. The document also proposes economic cooperation with Tbilisi. In recent years, economic contacts have been limited to smuggling.

The document reads, “The processes of economic integration in the Black Sea region, as well as prospects for a more intensive economic cooperation on the regional level within the framework of the European Union’s Neighbourhood Policy, can serve as guarantees for the sides’ adherence to the fundamental principles of good-neighbourliness.”

This explicit mention of Europe and the Black Sea region, rather than Russia, suggests a new line of thinking within Abkhazia.

“All of us have a feeling that Abkhazia’s isolation is becoming a thing of the past,” said writer Nadezhda Venediktova. “Despite all the problems, we have no alternative to integration within Europe. We are overcoming the view we inherited from our past that Europe is alien and hostile to us. And so the fact that the authorities are talking about integration with the Black Sea countries allows Abkhazia to look forward more confidently.”

Georgian political analyst Paata Zakareishvili noted, “In actual fact, the Abkhazians are already proposing rather interesting topics about which we can hold a dialogue. The most important thing is that they are ready to integrate into Europe without Russia. Actually, the Abkhazians are saying: let Russia stay, but let’s neutralise its influence [on us] with Europe.”

Referring to the idea of integration in the Black Sea region, Zakareishvili said, “That’s an excellent proposal, the only minus being that it’s not us who came up with it.”

Gamisonia and some other Abkhaz politicians agree that economic cooperation could start irrespective of the pace of political resolution. They say the sides could collaborate in environmental matters, as well as on large-scale projects like restoring the rail link from Russia to Georgia through Abkhazia.

However, some in Abkhazia warn that economic cooperation with Tbilisi could present a danger as long as Abkhaz independence remains unrecognised.

“There are certain plans in Georgia to swallow up Abkhazia by economic methods,” said Alyas Khajimba, a former activist for vice-president Raul Khajimba but now in opposition to the new authorities. “And they talk openly about it. That is why when we talk of the possibility of establishing economic contacts, we’re drowning ourselves.”

Currently, the most pressing issue for both Tbilisi and Sukhum is what happens if the peacekeeping force of the Commonwealth of Independent States, CIS – in fact manned only by Russians – is withdrawn from Abkhazia. That could happen if Georgia decides to leave the CIS as its dispute with Russia escalates.

Bagapsh has warned that if the CIS soldiers are withdrawn, “We will place the border with Georgia fully under the control of our armed forces.”

Alasania said that if that happened, “We ought to strengthen joint actions aimed at preventing possible provocative actions.”

He said discussions were already underway with the United Nations about changing the peacekeeping mandate for Abkhazia.

Although few expect an imminent breakthrough, the fact that two plans have emerged at the same time after such a long gap has inspired some hope.

“The documents are not a single package and should not be taken as a whole; they need to be worked on,” said Paata Zakareishvili. “The foundations for a dialogue have not been so favourable since 1997, when the biggest achievements were made in the process. The main thing now is to continue working and avoid spoiling everything.”

Anton Krivenyuk is a correspondent in Abkhazia for Panorama, the Caucasian newspaper supported by IWPR. Sofo Bukia is a correspondent with 24 Hours newspaper in Tbilisi.
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