UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan this week expressed concern about the fragility of the peace process between Georgia and its breakaway region of Abkhazia. In Georgia itself, politicians and political analysts say an agreement cannot be reached soon unless Moscow and Tbilisi manage to normalize their long-standing conflicting relations. Some also see an obstacle to the peace process in the lucrative smuggling business that flourishes in an area that separates Georgia from Abkhazia. RFE/RL correspondent Jean-Christophe Peuch reports from Tbilisi.
Tbilisi, 4 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Despite recent efforts by the United Nations to revive peace talks between Georgia and its breakaway region of Abkhazia, there is little hope that an agreement to settle the nine-year-old conflict will be reached soon.
On 30 April UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan expressed his concerns about the fragility of the peace process.
In a report released a few days after the UN Security Council held a special session to examine progress in the peace talks, Annan said negotiations on the future status of Abkhazia within Georgia had reached a stalemate that threatened the entire settlement process.
The conflict broke out in 1992 when the autonomous republic of Abkhazia seceded from Georgia and asked to be integrated into the Russian Federation. The secession prompted Georgia to launch a large-scale military offensive against the separatists.
With the active military support of Russia, Abkhaz troops eventually succeeded in repelling the Georgian army beyond the Inguri River that separates the region from the rest of Georgia. In July 1993, the two sides signed a cease-fire agreement, and the international community subsequently sought to help them agree on a peace treaty. But today they are still formally at war.
Russia has always denied any direct participation in the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict. But it is widely believed that no peace deal can be reached without Moscow's consent.
There is also a consensus among Georgia's political elite that any settlement of the Abkhaz issue depends on an improvement in relations between Georgia and Russia.
Ghia Nodia heads the nongovernmental Caucasian Institute for Peace, Democracy, and Development in Tbilisi. In an interview with RFE/RL, Nodia said Russia can play a major role in resolving Georgia's conflicts with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, another separatist region that receives support from Moscow.
"Russia is of course the main player. These [territorial] entities border on Russia. Their populations have much more contact with Russia than they have with Georgia. Russia's position is therefore of decisive importance. This does not mean that if Russia modifies its position, it will be easy to find a solution to these conflicts. It will not be easy to solve them in any event. But given the present state of Georgian-Russian relations, which are very bad, it is absolutely impossible to find a solution."
Russia played a decisive role in bringing Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze to power in early 1992. But relations between Moscow and Tbilisi have substantially worsened since then -- particularly after 1995 when Shevardnadze first said Georgia would seek membership in NATO by 2005.
NATO has never formally responded to repeated calls for membership from Shevardnadze and other high Georgian officials. But Russia has warned the alliance not to move into what Moscow openly describes as its sphere of influence.
Russia reluctantly agreed to withdraw from two of its four Georgian military bases -- in Vaziani and Gudauta -- after Georgia announced 18 months ago that it no longer would share its quotas with Russia under the 1990 Conventional Forces in Europe disarmament treaty. Negotiations over the fate of Russia's remaining two bases, in Akhalkalaki and Batumi, are under way.
Recent steps taken by Russia contradict Moscow's claims that it supports Georgia's territorial integrity.
Five months ago, Moscow introduced a visa requirement for most Georgian citizens travelling to Russia. The Russian leadership justified the measure -- which does not apply to residents in Abkhazia and South Ossetia -- by saying it was taken to prevent Chechen fighters it says are hiding in northeastern Georgia from entering Russia.
But some analysts say the move is part of a much wider campaign to force Shevardnadze to adopt a more compliant policy toward Russia. Georgian analyst Nodia says that by introducing the visa requirement, "Russia has in fact peacefully annexed Abkhazia and South Ossetia."
Along with the United States, France, Britain, and Germany, Russia is part of the so-called Group of Friends of the UN Secretary-General, a body which has a formal role in the Georgian-Abkhaz peace talks. As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, Russia has the right to veto any decision made by this body.
In contrast to the pessimism expressed in Secretary-General Annan's latest report, the UN's special envoy in the Southern Caucasus, Dieter Boden, says that last week's Security Council hearings produced some positive results.
In an interview with RFE/RL, Boden said that now, for the first time, all five members of the Group of Friends have agreed in principle on the outlines of a draft document defining the separation of powers between Tbilisi and Sukhumi, with Abkhazia remaining in Georgia. Once a consensus is reached on its wording, he said, the draft will be submitted to the conflicting sides and will then serve as a framework for further negotiations.
Boden says Russia's endorsement of the draft document on the separation of powers between Tbilisi and Sukhumi could have a dramatic impact on the peace process.
"I think that what was an achievement is that the Russian Federation as well accepted this draft paper that we've worked out, in all its paragraphs, as a valid draft for this matter. That had not been the case formerly. But this time, I think, we've reached an agreement to accept this paper in principle. Here I see -- certainly after the New York meeting -- a certain, I would say, rapprochement among all members of the Group of Friends."
But Georgia's Special Affairs Minister Malkhaz Kakabadze, who represents his country in the peace negotiations, told our correspondent in Tbilisi that Russia has been responsible for repeated delays in agreeing on a document defining the separation of powers between Tbilisi and Sukhumi.
"We've been working on this document for almost two years now. But we've been unable to attain any result for a very simple reason: one of the countries belonging to the Group of Friends -- namely, Russia -- has always disagreed on the definition of Abkhazia's legal status. Each time we get closer to a solution and to taking concrete steps, Russia moves forward with its arguments."
But Kakabadze confirmed that Russia had apparently "softened its stance" on the Abkhaz issue at last week's hearings in New York. He said this had come about after some members of the Group of Friends -- especially France -- had urged Russia to alter its position.
It is still not clear, however, whether the draft document will be approved unanimously by the Group of Friends. On 30 April, a spokesman for Russia's mission to the UN said his country is proposing a change in the draft's wording that does not refer to Abkhazia within Georgia.
Among other factors that hamper a peaceful solution to the Abkhaz issue, analysts generally mention the situation in the Gali district that stretches on both sides of the Inguri River. Despite the presence of some 100 UN military observers and of a 1,800-strong Russian peacekeeping force, the region has been the scene of deadly skirmishes between armed groups that both Georgia and Abkhazia describe as "uncontrolled elements."
Since early April, tensions have escalated in the Gali district in a series of fatal incidents. UN special envoy Boden, who sought to defuse the tensions in a meeting between the two sides in the town of Gali earlier this month, says nine people were killed and 13 others abducted over the last three weeks. He also says five children were mutilated by landmine explosions.
An estimated 90,000 people left the Gali district in the early stages of the war. Georgian authorities say between 40,000 and 60,000 internally displaced persons have already returned to the area, some temporarily, others permanently.
Ada Marshania is one of the 13 deputies who represent Abkhazia in the Georgian parliament. Although they were elected in 1992, just before the war broke out, Marshania and her colleagues have had their mandate regularly prolonged since Abkhazia seceded from Georgia.
In an interview with RFE/RL, Marshania said she believes most fighters who operate in the Gali area are not politically motivated. Rather, she says, they are gunmen smuggling drugs, gasoline, tobacco, or alcohol with the support of Georgia's Security Ministry and, to some extent, with the tacit complicity of the Russian peacekeepers. Some also see an obstacle to the peace process in the lucrative smuggling business secretly backed by corrupt politicians from both sides which flourishes in an area that separates Georgia from Abkhazia.
"It is a two-way street. [The contraband] goes from [Georgia] into [Russia] and from [Russia] into [Georgia]. Everything is shared between the [Abkhaz] regime and some representatives of [Georgia's] current authorities. It is impossible that our state security organs, our judiciary, and our Interior Ministry are unaware of what is going on there. Why is nothing being undertaken to put an end to this scandal? Obviously, a lot of people have no interest in doing so."
Analyst Nodia agrees that corrupt politicians and criminal gangs are "not particularly interested" in restoring peace in the region. But he says it would be wrong to see them as the sole obstacle to a peaceful settlement of the Abkhaz and South Ossetian conflicts.
Nodia sees the new U.S. administration as focusing all of its attention in the region on the Armenian-Azerbaijani dispute over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave. He thinks this is an additional reason not to expect a quick settlement of what he describes as a "well-frozen and well-forgotten" conflict.