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Abkhazia: Prospects For Peace Plummet

By RFE/RL analyst Liz Fuller

In his latest half-yearly report to the UN Security Council on the situation in Abkhazia, which was released on January 23, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon noted with regret that efforts to mediate a political settlement of the conflict are "at a standstill," and that "reliable observers on both sides of the cease-fire line have commented that the relationship between the two sides was in 2007 at its lowest point since the large-scale violence of 1998."

The tensions that persisted throughout 2007 are in part the logical continuation of the deterioration registered the previous year as a result of the deployment of Georgian special forces in July 2006 to the Kodori Gorge to quash an apparent insurrection masterminded by renegade local official Emzar Kvitsiani. Since then, the Abkhaz authorities have repeatedly said that a resumption of peace talks is contingent on the withdrawal of those Georgian forces, even though the UN has concluded that their presence does not, as the Abkhaz claim, violate a UN-mediated cease-fire agreement signed in 1994. And a series of disquieting incidents in which Russia was perceived to have played spoiler -- including the firing in March by unidentified aircraft of rockets at a Georgian-populated village in the Kodori Gorge, and a standoff in western Georgia in late October between Russian peacekeepers and Georgian forces that was defused only with the advent of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili -- only contributed to a hardening of the Georgian position.

The timing of that latter incident was all the more infelicitous in that it occurred less than a week after then-Georgian Minister for Conflict Resolution David Bakdradze traveled to Sukhum for talks with Abkhaz Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba. The talks lasted far longer than scheduled, and Bakradze was quoted as saying they might have paved the way for a resumption of dialogue. Similarly, in June 2006, President Saakashvili's envoy for Abkhazia, Irakli Alasania, who enjoyed a good working relationship with Shamba, was named Georgia's envoy to the UN less than a month after the resumption of talks with Abkhaz officials after a four-year hiatus.

At those talks in Tbilisi, Shamba and Alasania discussed the possibility of the two sides signing a formal agreement on the nonresumption of hostilities, a move that Tbilisi now categorically rules out. Speaking at RFE/RL's headquarters in Prague in June 2007, then-Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli said that Georgia would sign such a pact only as part of a broader set of agreements that would permit Georgian displaced persons to return to Abkhazia and provide guarantees of their security. Moreover, in the wake of the October standoff, Georgian officials are now demanding first, that the Russian peacekeeping force deployed in the conflict zone under the CIS aegis since July 1994 be replaced by an international force under the UN aegis, and second, that the UN undertake an in-depth evaluation of the effectiveness of the ongoing mediation process in which Russia plays a key role.

Ban identified a number of interrelated trends as contributing to the perceived further deterioration over the past six months in relations between Tbilisi and Sukhum(i), including a consistent pattern of "disinformation and misrepresentation" by the media that only serves to reinforce the existing "image of the enemy." Ban acknowledged that "a measure of disinformation is understandable and unavoidable in an environment where real apprehensions exist, tensions abound, and means of independent verification are scarce. But such disconnect as illustrated in the present report, between, on the one hand, realities on the ground and, on the other hand, media or official statements, is a matter of concern."

Elsewhere in his report, Ban similarly referred to "a large number of allegations concerning military deployment on both sides of the cease-fire line and incidents involving the Abkhaz militia or the CIS peacekeeping force." He noted that the UN Observer Mission in Georgia followed up on those allegations and found most of them to be "baseless or exaggerated," and he recalled his December 12 appeal to "all parties concerned" to demonstrate restraint and refrain from "acts of provocation," including militant rhetoric.

Ban cited as a further negative influence the political crackdown by the Georgian authorities in early November 2007 and the subsequent preterm presidential election held on January 5, to which the Abkhaz authorities responded with enhanced security measures along the cease-fire line. He also noted continued uncertainty over the future of Kosovo, insofar as the Georgian authorities fear Russia could respond to international recognition of a declaration of independence by the Kosovo leadership by similarly recognizing Abkhazia and other breakaway unrecognized republics as independent states.

In an apparent bid to dispel such fears, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stressed at a press conference in Moscow on January 23 that "the Russian leadership has never affirmed that as soon as Kosovo [is recognized as an independent state] we shall immediately recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia. I stress that the Russian leadership has never said this." Lavrov continued: "I have the impression that the idea has become firmly rooted in many peoples' minds that Russia is taking such a firm stance on Kosovo, warns that it will set a precedent, but at the same time is secretly waiting for this to happen in order to begin recognizing all [the unrecognized states] on its borders. Nothing could be more wrong with regard to the Russian position. We understand perfectly the destabilizing effect of any separatist tendencies. It was not so long ago that we experienced this threat acutely ourselves, and for that reason you can suspect us of anything at all, but not of [encouraging separatism]. It is in our interests to preserve stability, not to permit separatism, not to permit any violations of international law. That will remain our position."

Ban concluded his report to the Security Council by referring to both the Georgian demands for a revision of the peacekeeping and negotiation formats, and to Abkhaz objections to any fundamental change. He proposed a "reassessment of the peace process," while at the same time making clear that Russia, which Georgia hopes to sideline if not exclude, will, in its capacity as a member of the "Group of Friends of the Secretary General" group of countries, participate in that reassessment.

Copyright (c) 2008. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org



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