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Analysis: Abkhazia Rejects New Georgian Peace Plan

  • Liz Fuller

Sergei Shamba, who is foreign minister of the unrecognized Republic of Abkhazia, has rejected the offer of "a state entity within Georgia with maximum powers" contained in a new proposal for resolving the conflict drafted by Georgian experts, Caucasus Press reported on 10 June. Shamba stressed that the people of Abkhazia have opted for independence and are prepared to tolerate economic hardship in the hope that the international community will one day grant formal recognition to Abkhazia.

A summary of the draft peace plan was posted on the website Civil Georgia on 21 May. The plan entails the creation of a two-member (Georgia and Abkhazia) federal state within which Abkhazia would be granted the "broadest possible degree of autonomy" in exchange for abandoning its insistence on formal independence. According to former Deputy Justice Minister Kote Kublashvili, "Abkhazia will have all the rights of a sovereign state except for one -- the right to [internationally recognized] independence." The Russian paper "Vremya novostei" on 10 June quoted Georgian legal expert Paata Zakareishvili, one of the co-authors of the draft, as saying that its definition of the relations between Abkhazia and the central Georgian government is similar to that between Catalonia and the central Spanish government.

The full text of the peace plan was published in the Georgian daily "24 saati" on 9 June. It comprises two documents: first, the Georgian and Abkhaz sides are to sign an "Agreement on Resolving the Conflict," which covers the nonresumption of hostilities and a pledge to resolve future disagreements exclusively by peaceful means, through negotiations. After that, the Federal State of Georgia and its co-member, the Abkhaz Republic, would sign an agreement on the distribution of powers between them, the "Constitutional Law -- Federal Agreement on the Special Status of Abkhazia." According to Kublashvili, neither side would be empowered to make subsequent amendments to that agreement without the consent of the other party.
The population of Abkhazia would have the right to determine whether the republic should have a president. While the Abkhaz would in all likelihood endorse that idea, the returned Georgians might very well reject it.

The initial draft identifies as falling under the jurisdiction of the central authorities defense and foreign policy, border defense, the customs service, and the fight against organized crime. All other issues would lie within the competence of the Abkhaz authorities. Abkhazia would not be entitled to maintain its own armed forces but would have its own police force. Young men from Abkhazia drafted into the Georgian Army would perform their military service in units stationed in Abkhazia, not elsewhere in Georgia.

Abkhazia would be a parliamentary republic, and the majority of parliament deputies would be ethnic Abkhaz, even though if all, or even a majority, of the Georgian displaced persons who fled the region in 1992-93 return to their homes, the Abkhaz will again become a minority. (As of early 1992, before the armed conflict erupted, the Abkhaz numbered some 95,000 or approximately 18 percent of the republic's population; the 240,000 Georgians were the largest ethnic group, accounting for some 45 percent of the total population.) Elections would take place only after the displaced persons' return. It is, moreover, not clear whether the displaced persons themselves would agree to a division of parliament mandates on ethnic lines that leaves them at a disadvantage. In addition, an unspecified number of mandates in the Georgian federal parliament would be reserved for ethnic Abkhaz. Those Abkhaz deputies would have the right to veto legislation directly concerning Abkhazia.

The population of Abkhazia would have the right to determine whether the republic should have a president. While the Abkhaz would in all likelihood endorse that idea, the returned Georgians might very well reject it. That provision thus constitutes one of the plan's "weak links," and could ultimately lead to its rejection by the Abkhaz unless the draft is amended to provide for the post of president. The draft stipulates that the president must not necessarily be Abkhaz, but should speak both Abkhaz and Georgian, a requirement that would rule out most former Georgian residents of Abkhazia. By contrast, the Abkhaz law on the election of the president passed last month stipulates that the president must be an ethnic Abkhaz, speak the Abkhaz language, and have lived in Abkhazia for five years prior to the ballot.

Central to the draft agreement is the right of those displaced persons who wish to do so to return to Abkhazia. But Kublashvili stressed that the repatriation process will be "gradual and voluntary." He also said it will be preceded by a census, conducted jointly by Abkhaz and Georgian officials, of the present population of Abkhazia and the displaced persons currently living elsewhere in Georgia. Kublashvili said the document "considers" monetary compensation for those displaced persons whose homes and property were destroyed. Following the repatriation, all residents of Abkhazia will be entitled to citizenship of both Abkhazia and the federal Georgian state; but only the latter citizenship will be internationally recognized.

As for the economy, the draft plan envisages the lifting of the economic sanctions currently in force against Abkhazia and the unrestricted resumption of rail and air transport between Tbilisi and Sukhum. Abkhazia will have the right to impose and collect dues and taxes, but will be required to transfer an unspecified percentage of those taxes to the federal budget. The Georgian lari will become the legal Abkhaz currency, but Abkhazia would have the right to issue, for circulation on its territory, lari- denominated notes and coins bearing Abkhaz symbols and with lettering in both Abkhaz and Georgian.

Insofar as the new draft peace plan defines Abkhazia as a sovereign entity within Georgia, it appears to be similar to the draft "Basic Principles for the Division of Competencies between Tbilisi and Sukhumi" drafted by former UN special representative for Abkhazia Dieter Boden. Details of the so-called "Boden Document" have never been made public. The Abkhaz authorities, however, have consistently refused even to accept a copy of the "Basic Principles" from either Boden or his successor, Ambassador Heidi Tagliavini. They argue that the region's population has already approved in a 1999 referendum a constitution that defines the Republic of Abkhazia as an independent sovereign state.

The Abkhaz strategy is presumably predicated on the assumption that Moscow will continue to uphold the status quo. Up to 70 percent of the Abkhaz have availed themselves of the offer of Russian passports, and the Russian State Duma repeatedly stresses Russia's obligation to protect Russian citizens in other CIS states. But the Russian government may prove less altruistic. Georgian commentators have raised the possibility that Moscow and Tbilisi may have cut a deal under which Moscow would support a formal settlement of the conflict and the repatriation of Georgian displaced persons in exchange for privileges for Russian businessmen wishing to invest in Abkhazia and the construction of an oil-export pipeline from Novorossiisk (on Russia's Black Sea coast) that would link up with the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline currently under construction, according to the daily "Rezonansi" on 27 May. Such a pipeline would provide an alternative export route for Russian oil that avoids the Turkish straits bottleneck. Abkhaz hopes that Russia may at some point recognize Abkhazia as an independent state seem utopian insofar as such recognition would strengthen the Chechens' legal claim to independence.

But even if the Kremlin withdraws its support for the Abkhaz and advises them to accept the offer of a federation with Georgia, two further factors could sabotage the proposed federal agreement. The first is the Georgian displaced persons who, as indicated above, may reject the proposed plan for a legislature in which they constitute a minority. The second factor is South Ossetia. The Georgian government apparently believes the predominantly Ossetian population of that unrecognized republic can be persuaded by a combination of threats and economic blandishments to denounce its present pro-Moscow leadership and acknowledge that South Ossetia is Georgian territory. Ossetians might, however, argue that any renunciation of the region's self-proclaimed independence should be contingent on the region's inclusion, together with Abkhazia, in a future Georgian federation. Finally, it should be noted that the draft agreement on the Georgian-Abkhaz federation does not mention the future status of Adjara, let alone make provision for providing a degree of autonomy to any other region that might in future demand it, such as the largely Armenian-populated region of Djavakheti in southern Georgia.