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Georgia: Failure Of Abkhaz Mediation Talks Deepens Moscow's Quandary

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

Earlier this week, the two main contenders for the presidency in Georgia's breakaway republic of Abkhazia went to Moscow for emergency talks aimed at settling their postelection dispute. The consultations ended inconclusively, with both men looking more than ever entrenched in their positions. As prospects for a solution to the Abkhaz political stalemate look dimmer, the apparent failure of Moscow's mediation efforts raises many questions.

Prague, 4 November 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Government candidate and former Prime Minister Raul Khadjimba was the first to comment on the secretive talks he and opposition contender Sergei Bagapsh had in Moscow.

Abkhazia's Central Election Commission has officially pronounced Khadjimba the loser of the 3 October election.

However, upon his return from Moscow yesterday, the former prime minister made it clear he would not concede defeat. He also mocked Bagapsh's plans to go ahead with his inauguration early next month.

"What will happen in December is what is contained in the presidential decree [dated 29 October]," Khajimba said.

Khajimba was referring to a demand by outgoing President Vladislav Ardzinba that a new national election be held within weeks.

Ardzinba's decision, which is based on Khajimba's claims of election fraud, has raised hackles among Bagapsh's supporters.

The opposition maintains the presidential decree contradicts the country's election laws. It also accuses the presidential camp of recently forcing the Supreme Court to reverse a ruling that had confirmed Bagapsh as the winner of the polls and to agree to a re-vote.

Russia helped Abkhazia forcibly secede from Georgia in the early 1990s and maintains close economic and political relations with the Black Sea province.

Moscow has kept a low profile throughout the postelection drama. But that does not mean it remains indifferent to the Abkhaz crisis.

Georgian political analyst Shalva Pichkhadze said he believes this week's emergency talks testify to the quandary that Russia finds itself in.

"Whatever Russia's denials, it is perfectly clear that it had bet on Khajimba," Pichkhadze said. "Therefore, Bagapsh's victory -- and I believe he won this election, everything indicates he did -- reflects, if not Moscow's failure, at least its miscalculation. Russia put all its eggs in one basket. This is why it summoned [Bagapsh and Khajimba]. I believe it is not in Russia's interests to let the situation degenerate. Should the standoff take a more serious twist, including that of an armed confrontation, Moscow would be in an even more difficult situation than it is now."

Some analysts see Ardzinba's failure to have his heir apparent elected as a major threat to Russia's Caucasus policy. They say that despite his strong nationalist backing, Bagapsh may prove more prone to dialogue with Georgia that than the current Abkhaz leaders.

Other experts disagree, arguing that both camps have rather similar agendas.

Bagapsh and his allies, for their part, say relations with Russia would remain a priority if they were to accede power.

In a 22 October interview with the Russian "Vremya Novostei" newspaper, former Abkhaz Interior Minister Aleksandr Ankvab said Moscow would eventually find Bagapsh as reliable an ally as Khajimba.
Some analysts see Ardzinba's failure to have his heir apparent elected as a major threat to Russia's Caucasus policy.

Ankvab, who runs the Aitaira opposition movement, would likely be named prime minister were Bagapsh confirmed as the new leader of the Black Sea province.

Speaking to reporters late yesterday, however, Bagapsh alluded to Russian pressures to impose Khajimba as prime minister in exchange for official endorsement of his victory.

"It is up to us to decide who should be, or should not be, prime minister," Bagapsh said. "We attach great importance to Moscow's opinion. This is something I understand and acknowledge. Moscow has always been important to us. But with whom we should work and how we should work, we will decide ourselves."

Bagapsh also suggested Russian officials had tried to force him to agree to a re-vote.

"Khajimba and many in Russia believe we should have a new election," Bagapsh said. "We in turn believe we are lawfully right. We won the election. There is a CEC decision; there is a Supreme Court decision. What else is possibly needed to recognize the validity of the vote? We have our own priorities. Russia is our priority; what Russia thinks is of great importance to us. However, of no less importance to us is what our people think. Our people have made their choice and voted accordingly."

Georgian political analyst Pichkhadze told RFE/RL that Moscow's apparent refusal to recognize the choice of the Abkhaz people remains a mystery.

"Even if Bagapsh eventually becomes president, Russia will retain a very important leverage -- economic, political, and even military -- on Abkhazia," Pichkhadze said. "The Russians' stubbornness [in refusing to recognize Bagapsh's victory] makes one suspect that they may consider him as being pro-Georgian, although no one in Georgia believes he is. He is seen as being more 'pro-Abkhaz' than Khajimba, whereas the latter is considered as being more closely tied to Russia and its secret services."

With whom the two presidential contenders met in Moscow remains shrouded in secrecy.

An unconfirmed "Vremya novostei" report said both men had joint talks with the deputy secretary of the Russian Security Council in charge of Abkhazia, Yurii Zubakov. Russia's information website reported that the consultations also involved higher officials, including Security Council Secretary Igor Ivanov and Federal Security Service (FSB) Director Nikolai Patrushev.

The administration of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who has vowed to restore Tbilisi's authority over its secessionist provinces, has condemned the Moscow talks.

Addressing reporters in Moscow, visiting Georgian Conflict Resolution Minister Giorgi Khaindrava said on 2 November that the consultations were further evidence that Abkhazia is not the master of its own destiny.

"As has been invariably the case over the past 10 years, which of [the two contenders] will be Abkhazia's next leader will be decided in Moscow," Khaindrava said. "This is precisely why they came here."

But Pichkhadze said the situation is not as simple as it may look from Tbilisi. He said Russia may find it difficult to persuade either of the rivals to agree to a compromise.

In his opinion, neither candidate is completely free to do as he chooses.

"Khajimba has commitments toward Russia, which supported him during the presidential race and continues to support him," Pichkhadze said. "But Bagapsh has commitments toward those [nationalist] organizations that decided to support him to get rid of Ardzinba and his team."