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Georgia: Analysis From Washington -- A Test Of International Seriousness

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 29 July 1998 (RFE/RL) -- A Georgian request that the United Nations Security Council condemn ethnic cleansing in Abkhazia confronts the international community with yet another test of its willingness and ability to prevent such violence not only in the Caucasus but elsewhere as well.

Tomorrow (Thursday), the Georgian government will ask the Security Council to condemn as ethnic cleansing the actions of the Abkhaz authorities and people against ethnic Georgians in Abkhazia. A fragile ceasefire is being maintained in that breakaway region of Georgia by predominantly Russian forces operating under the mandate of the Commonwealth of Independent States.

Tbilisi has made similar requests more than half a dozen times over the last four years, but in the past, the United Nations has only taken note of these complaints and not been willing to denounce the Abkhaz activities as the Georgian authorities have requested.

But a new outburst of violence earlier this year led to the numerous deaths and the flight of more than 40,000 ethnic Georgians from that region has convinced the Georgian government that it must once again seek an international condemnation.

And both because of that and because of a spreading conviction in Georgia and elsewhere that the past silence of the UN has contributed to the continuation of the violence, the Georgian government is once again appealing to the international community to take a public stand.

The reasons the international community has not spoken out in the past and may not do so now are clear. First, the genocide in Abkhazia is only one of many now taking place, and the amount of attention any one of them gets appears to be a function of the political influence of the parties involved and even more of the coverage such violence receives. >/a>

When neither side has significant political influence or where one party to the conflict has a vested interest in making sure that little or nothing is said, international media tend to give that episode of violence relatively little attention. Where the situation is complicated, the media also find it easier not to give these events the attention they merit as a human tragedy.

The situation in Abkhazia demonstrates both of these points. Neither the Abkhaz nor the Georgians have significant influence in the world, and one major player in this situation -- the Russian Federation -- has done what it could to keep international attention away from this tragedy. Even more, the history of this region is extraordinarily complicated and little known.

Second, the international community remains uncertain how it should respond to incidents of ethnic aggression within as opposed to between countries. In such situations, as the crisis in Yugoslavia's Kosovo region has highlighted, the international community often concludes that it cannot act since to do so would require it to oppose a government on its own territory.

Tbilisi does not have effective control over the territory of Abkhazia. Instead, that breakaway region is dominated by local authorities who are backed by Russian peacekeepers.

And third, the international community has often been especially reluctant to act or even speak out when to do so might appear to challenge what other major powers consider their effective spheres of influence.

While neither the United Nations nor the international community more generally has recognized the territory of the former Soviet space or that of the Commonwealth of Independent States as Russia's "sphere of influence," both have been reluctant to challenge Moscow on this point particularly when Russia has committed troops in the name of peacekeeping.

That is what the Russian authorities have done in Abkhazia, and indeed some Russian officials have complained that no other country was willing to get involved even as others in Moscow have sought to keep them from doing so.

But whatever contribution Russia's involvement has brought to Abkhazia, it also has another less attractive face, one that the international community has been reluctant to consider. By preventing the Georgian authorities from intervening, the Russian forces have in effect provided protection to the very people who have conducted genocidal actions against ethnic Georgians living there.

Moreover, Russia's maintenance of troops in Abkhazia, something many in Georgia actively oppose, allows Moscow to exert what many Georgians as well as others believe is an unhealthy influence on the Georgian government and Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze.

And finally, the Russian forces in Abkhazia appear to be part of Moscow's larger effort to influence decisions about where the pipeline carrying Caspian oil to the West should be built. As long as its forces are in Abkhazia alone and largely unmonitored by international bodies, it will be able to continue to play a role.

Given Moscow's interests here and its power as a permanent member of the Security Council, that body may once again ignore Georgia's appeal for a denunciation of Abkhazian activities. But if that happens, the UN will have done more than yield on an important moral point. It may despite its best intentions be contributing to even more ethnic cleansing in the future.