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Analysis: Abkhazia, South Ossetia Reject Georgian President's New Peace Plan

  • Liz Fuller --> Georgian President Saakashvili (file photo) Addressing the UN General Assembly on 21 September, Mikheil Saakashvili outlined a three-stage plan for resolving Tbilisi's conflicts with the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia by exclusively peaceful means, RFE/RL's UN correspondent reported.

That plan comprises confidence-building measures; the demilitarization of the conflict zones, to be followed by OSCE monitoring of the Roki tunnel linking South Ossetia and Russia as well as the deployment of UN observers along the border between Abkhazia and Russia; and the granting to the two republics of "the fullest and broadest form of autonomy." Saakashvili said that autonomy would protect the Abkhaz and Ossetian languages and culture, and guarantee self-governance, fiscal control, and "meaningful representation and power-sharing" at the national level.

But within hours, senior officials in both Abkhazia and South Ossetia categorically rejected Saakashvili's proposed plan. Abkhaz presidential aide Astamur Tania said none of the points contained in Saakashvili's proposal, even the proposed "broad autonomy with wide-ranging powers," is acceptable to Abkhazia, which, he stressed, is an independent state. Murat Djioev, foreign minister of the Republic of South Ossetia, similarly said that South Ossetia "will under no circumstances become part of a Georgian state," ITAR-TASS reported on 22 September. Djioev also affirmed that the conflicts between the Georgian central government and South Ossetia and Abkhazia "are in no way internal Georgian conflicts."
Within hours, senior officials in both Abkhazia and South Ossetia categorically rejected Saakashvili's proposed plan.

It was highly unlikely that either of the two would-be independent statelets would have considered Saakashvili's offer attractive. First, as Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov's representative, Akhmed Zakaev, pointed out in a detailed analysis (posted on on 17 August) of the legal implications of the Chechen-Ingush ASSR's moves in 1991 to secede from the Russian Federation, the very term "autonomy" is irrevocably discredited in the eyes of residents of former autonomous formations within the USSR. In their collective experience, that "autonomy" provided only minimal concessions to the needs of the local population, giving the impression that they were, as Zakaev puts it, "second-class citizens" compared with the titular nationality.

Second, Saakashvili's "one-size-fits-all" approach, in contrast to the "asymmetrical autonomy" proposed by his predecessor Eduard Shevardnadze, fails to take into account that under the Soviet system, Abkhazia enjoyed a larger measure of what passed for "autonomy" than did South Ossetia. As Abkhaz Prime Minister and presidential hopeful Raul Khadjimba pointed out in an interview published in "Sovershenno sekretno" (No. 9, 10 September 2004), Abkhazia was part of the Russian Federation from 1917-21, and after the Soviet takeover of Georgia in 1921, Abkhazia had the status of a union republic. That status was downgraded by Stalin in 1931 to that of an Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic. South Ossetia, by contrast, only ever had the status of an Autonomous Oblast within the Georgian SSR.

Third, Saakashvili's proposal would grant Abkhazia less control over its affairs than would an alternative draft peace plan unveiled earlier this year and submitted to Georgia's National Security Council for discussion. That 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 one of its authors, 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" (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report" 10 June 2004).

The earlier peace proposal envisages the signing by the Georgian and Abkhaz sides of agreements on the non-resumption of hostilities and on resolving 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. According to Kublashvili, neither side would be empowered to make subsequent amendments to that agreement without the consent of the other party.

The 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.

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.

That earlier proposal makes no provision for South Ossetia, however. Nor does it comprise the element of international control by either the OSCE or the UN included in the Saakashvili plan. Finally, the UN has devoted considerable time and effort to drafting its own blueprint for resolving the Abkhaz conflict, the "Basic Principles for the Distribution of Competences between Tbilisi and Sukhumi," which the Shevardnadze leadership accepted as the basis for a settlement. The text of the "Basic Principles" has never been made public, but the Georgian daily "Rezonansi" claimed on 13 November 2003 that they provide for a federative system with horizontal ties between the central government and those of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Caucasus Press reported.

In two separate analyses published on 18 and 22 September, Stratfor argued that the deployment to the internal border with South Ossetia of several thousand Georgian troops (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 September 2004) and the recent creation of a unified military command for those troops suggest that a new Georgian offensive against South Ossetia is imminent, and that President Saakashvili is simply awaiting the most advantageous moment. The rejection of his new peace proposal could serve as the rationale for that offensive. Stratfor suggested that the primary Georgian objective will be to occupy Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian capital, after which the remaining South Ossetian fighters will retreat to the mountains to wage a guerrilla war. It predicted that North Ossetia is too preoccupied with the aftermath of the Beslan hostage taking to send volunteers to defend its co-ethnics in Georgia, especially as Russian intelligence sources anticipate further Chechen attacks in North Ossetia.

Stratfor suggested that Russia too would be reluctant to provide assistance to South Ossetia in the event of a Georgian assault. But Georgian and Russian allegations that Chechen militants have taken refuge in South Ossetia could serve as the pretext for a counterstrike by Russia against South Ossetia. How accurate such a strike would prove to be, and whether Moscow is prepared to endanger the lives of South Ossetians to "prove" to the international community that Tbilisi cannot prevent "international terrorists" from using its territory, remains to be seen.