Germany Seeks To Kick-Start Georgian-Abkhaz Peace Talks
July 17, 2008
By Liz Fuller
Prominent on the agenda of visiting German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier's talks in Tbilisi on July 17, Sukhumi on July 18, and Moscow on July 19 will be the new three-stage Abkhaz peace proposal drafted by Germany in its capacity as one of the five members of the Friends of the UN Secretary-General for Georgia group of countries. The others are the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and Russia.
The full text of the peace plan has not been made public, but according to a summary published by "Der Spiegel" earlier this month, the first stage encompasses the signing by both sides of a formal agreement abjuring the use of force, to be followed by the return to Abkhazia of the remaining Georgians displaced by the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict in 1992-93.
The second stage, which would begin in early 2010, focuses on postconflict reconstruction, for which Germany proposes to convene a donors' conference to raise funding, and unspecified joint economic projects.
Only at the third and final stage, for which no time frame has been set, would Abkhazia's status within the Republic of Georgia be addressed. In that respect, the German plan is very similar to the "Basic Principles" drafted by the OSCE Minsk Group for resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, which postpone for up to 15 years a referendum on Karabakh's future status.
Successive proposals for resolving the Abkhaz conflict have foundered on the Abkhaz rejection of Georgian hegemony. The leaders of the unrecognized republic of Abkhazia point out that the population voted overwhelmingly in a referendum in October 1999 to endorse the constitution adopted by the Abkhaz parliament five years earlier.
That constitution defines Abkhazia as a sovereign democratic state and a subject of international law. Consequently, Abkhaz leaders argue, their republic fully merits international recognition as an independent state, no less than did Kosovo. For that reason, they have consistently rejected any formal proposal for resolving the conflict that includes discussion of Abkhazia's status vis-a-vis the central Georgian government rather than endorsing Abkhaz independence as a fait accompli.
Following the UN-mediated cease-fire agreement in the spring of 1994, Russia assumed the leading role in seeking to mediate a formal political solution to the Abkhaz conflict that would preserve Georgia's territorial integrity, rather than create a precedent for secession of part of an OSCE member state that could be adduced as substantiating the legal argument in favor of Chechen independence.
In June-July 1997, the Russian Foreign Ministry mediated several rounds of talks between Abkhaz and Georgian leaders in Moscow, but failed to persuade them to sign a draft protocol intended to serve as a basis for a political settlement of the conflict. And the abortive Georgian military incursion into Abkhazia in May 1998 put an end to further efforts to find a political solution to the conflict.
Back And Forth
In late 2000, the Group of Friends of the UN Secretary-General drafted a document entitled "Basic Principles for the Distribution of Competencies between Tbilisi and Sukhumi" that defined Abkhazia as "a sovereign entity" enjoying "special status" within Georgia. But the Abkhaz side refused even to accept a written copy of that document as a basis for further talks.
Abkhazia similarly rejected a proposal by Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili in September 2004 for resolving the conflicts with both Abkhazia and South Ossetia. That plan offered the two regions only "the fullest and broadest form of autonomy" within Georgia -- a formulation that is anathema to both.
In early 2006, de facto Abkhaz President Sergei Bagapsh unveiled his own proposal for resolving the conflict. Entitled "Key to the Future," it envisaged an official Georgian apology to Abkhazia for its "state policy of assimilation, war, and isolation"; an end to Georgian political and economic pressure on Abkhazia, and to the blockade imposed by the Commonwealth of Independent States in 1996; signing a peace treaty guaranteeing security in the air, on the ground, and on the Black Sea; guarantees by the international community and the UN Security Council to preclude the resumption of hostilities between Georgia and Abkhazia; consultations between Bagapsh and Saakashvili on peaceful coexistence; cooperation in the fight against organized crime; and broad regional cooperation, including Abkhaz participation in multilateral cooperation within the parameters of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation Organization and the European Union's European Neighborhood Program.
Georgia rejected Bagapsh's proposal on the grounds that it would formalize Abkhazia's self-declared independence, and in June 2006 unveiled a new road map for resolving the conflict. The first paragraph defined Georgia as a federation within which Abkhazia would enjoy "broad internal sovereignty"; the second envisaged the unconditional return to Abkhazia of all Georgian displaced persons and measures to protect their safety and civil rights, including the opening in Gali of a UN human rights office; the third underscored Georgia's readiness to sign an agreement on the nonresumption of hostilities; and the fourth called for assistance from international organizations in postconflict rehabilitation.
But as in May 1998, any prospects that existed in the early summer of 2006 for resuming talks on a peaceful solution to the conflict ended with the deployment of Georgian troops to the upper reaches of the Kodori Gorge to quash a threatened insurrection. The Abkhaz refuse to return to the negotiating table until those forces are withdrawn, on the grounds that their presence violates the UN-mediated cease-fire agreement of May 1994. (Georgia maintains that its Interior Ministry personnel remain in Kodori only to protect local civilians.)
In March 2008, President Saakashvili announced a new peace plan that offered Abkhazia only "unlimited autonomy," rather than the federation envisaged in the earlier road map. But it sought to compensate for that diminished status by amending the Georgian Constitution to create the post of vice president, which would be held by an Abkhaz, and to give the Abkhaz leadership power of veto on decisions by the central authorities that could negatively affect Abkhazia's constitutional status. It also included the creation of a Georgian-Abkhaz free economic zone in the Gali and Ochamchira districts of Abkhazia, together with unspecified security guarantees.
Whether any of those components have been, or could be, incorporated into the new German blueprint is not yet clear. The "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" on July 9 claimed that U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice endorsed the draft plan during talks in Berlin earlier this month with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. And EU Special Ambassador for the South Caucasus Peter Semneby assured Abkhaz National Security Council Secretary Stanislav Lakoba on July 14 that the EU too supports the Group of Friends' blueprint.
Bagapsh was quoted by apsny.ru as telling Semneby that Abkhazia's status cannot be a subject of discussion, but he did not reject the entire plan out of hand. Georgian National Security Council Secretary Aleksandre Lomaia told the television channel Rustavi-2 on July 16 that the new plan has "positive elements," but still requires "polishing." Specifically, Lomaia said that the repatriation process cannot get under way until the Russian peacekeeping force currently deployed in the conflict zone is withdrawn. Tbilisi hopes for its replacement by a joint Georgian-Abkhaz force under international supervision. Lomaia also argued that the plan "should take into consideration Russia's negative role" and specify "what kind of role Russia can have in the future," according to civil.ge.
But any attempt by Tbilisi to parlay the new proposal into an explicit condemnation of Russian policy, for example by insisting on including a demand for the annulment of then-Russian President Vladimir Putin’s April 16 directive to the Russian government to intensify cooperation with both Abkhazia and South Ossetia, would inevitably trigger a definitive rejection of the entire plan by both Abkhazia and Russia.
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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