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Abkhazia: Rumors Of Peace Amid Drums Of War

  • Brian Whitmore --> The Abkhaz chess match continues (ITAR-TASS) With tensions simmering between Georgia and Russia over Abkhazia, a new effort is under way to jump-start peace talks in the separatist region.

Earlier this month, Mathew Bryza, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, visited the Abkhaz capital Sukhumi. Bryza's Abkhaz visit was followed by one by Irakli Alasania, Georgia's ambassador to the United Nations.

Bryza said his efforts at shuttle diplomacy are aimed at building on a peace plan proposed earlier this month by Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili that offers Abkhazia broad autonomy but not independence.

"What I was doing was trying to convince the leadership in both Sukhumi and Tbilisi that there is not only an urgent need but a real possibility to rejuvenate a real peace process," Bryza told RFE/RL in a May 21 interview.

Bryza added that the peace process, which is taking place under UN auspices, has been "bogged down" because of a lack of direct talks between the Abkhaz and Georgians.

"And to put it mildly, we had the impression that our Russian colleagues and friends were not enthusiastic about those sorts of direct talks," Bryza said. "So what I was trying to do was to offer our thoughts in the U.S. government about what a new rejuvenated peace process that complements the UN effort could look like."

Verbal Fusillade

Bryza's visit followed weeks of military and diplomatic tension between Georgia and Russia over the pro-Moscow separatist region. Russia deployed paratroopers and moved heavy artillery into Abkhazia under the auspices of a CIS-sanctioned peacekeeping mission. Georgian aerial drones, meanwhile, stepped up their reconnaissance missions over the territory.

Since coming to power in 2004, Saakashvili has vowed to bring Abkhazia, which achieved de facto independence following a vicious war in the early 1990s, back under Tbilisi's control. His efforts have been fiercely resisted by Abkhaz authorities and their patrons in Moscow.

But Saakashvili, who is trying to secure a NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP) for Georgia, has recently appeared willing to seek a negotiated settlement to the conflict. In April, he offered Abkhazia broad autonomy in exchange for recognizing Tbilisi's rule.

Under the plan, the post of Georgian vice president would be created and given to an Abkhaz official who would have veto power over legislation affecting the region. Abkhazia would also be given control over an unspecified number of government ministries and a free economic zone would be established in Gali and Ochamchire, two districts left devastated by the war.

Abkhaz officials rejected the proposal. Russia then established closer legal ties with Sukhumi, unilaterally lifted trade sanctions that the CIS imposed following the 1992-94 war, and beefed up its peacekeeping forces in the region.

In a televised address to the people of Abkhazia on April 29, Saakashvili sharply criticized Russia for fanning the flames of conflict.

"The more we speak about peace, the more this [third] force speaks about war," Saakashvili said. "We're speaking about demilitarization, but this force is speaking, on your behalf, about intensive militarization. We're speaking about free economic zones, but this force is speaking about new military bases and new checkpoints. We're speaking about developing economic ties and opportunities, but this force -- again, on your behalf -- is speaking about increasing the military contingent."

Arguing that Moscow is not an impartial arbiter of the conflict, Georgia has been pushing for the CIS peacekeeping contingent in Abkhazia to be reconfigured to include non-Russian, CIS troops.

'Internationalizing' The Problem

On May 15, Georgia persuaded the UN General Assembly to adopt a resolution upholding the rights of hundreds of thousands of Georgian refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) -- uprooted by the war -- to return to Abkhazia.

Speaking to RFE/RL's Georgian Service after the resolution was passed, Alasania -- who is the Georgian official most trusted by the Abkhaz -- said the resolution was "not a one-sided document" in that it protects not only Georgian IDPs and refugees, but the Abkhaz people as well.

"This is a [very] big step toward resolving the conflict in the right way," Alasania said. "But I can also say very frankly that these documents enable us to stand firm on the foreign political front. A real progress with the process is up to the dialogue between Georgian and Abkhaz [peoples]. This is the main thing, if we want to really resolve this issue."

At a press conference in Yekaterinburg the next day, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov slammed Tbilisi for what he called "internationalizing" the Abkhazia conflict.

"The purpose of internationalizing these problems, in my opinion, is clearly propaganda, which was also the purpose of Tbilisi's recent steps in proposing a resolution on refugees and displaced persons from Abkhazia at the UN General Assembly," Lavrov said.

Lavrov continued this line of argument in remarks to reporters on May 21, blaming Georgia and its allies in the West for exacerbating tensions in Abkhazia and South Ossetia -- another pro-Moscow separatist region in Georgia.

"It is not in Moscow that one should be looking for ways to prevent a military scenario in Georgia, or in Abkhazia, or in South Ossetia, but in Tbilisi and in those capitals that are trying to drag Georgia into NATO," Lavrov said.

Is NATO The Target?

In his interview with RFE/RL, Bryza said that despite the bluster, he believes there are officials in Russia who are interested in resolving that Abkhazia conflict. But others in Moscow seek to keep the conflict simmering as a way to scuttle Tbilisi's efforts to join NATO.

"I know there are reasonable people, people I deal with all the time in the Russian Foreign Ministry for example, who do seem to want to get to a peace settlement that allows Russia to achieve one of its longest-standing goals, which is stability along its southern border, especially in the volatile North Caucasus," Bryza said. "But you never know what other people in the political system want to do. We certainly know there are people in Moscow who have tried to use a simmering conflict in Abkhazia -- and South Ossetia -- to try to block Georgia's NATO aspirations. I don't know who is carrying the day these days."

Bryza allowed that the sides in the conflict are "a long way from an agreement." He added, however, that "the process is under way" and there is a "certain degree of receptivity, not only in Tbilisi and Sukhumi, but also in some quarters of Moscow." He also said that military tension -- after a period of sharp escalation -- has decreased noticeably in recent weeks.

"We have to be sober in analyzing the situation in Abkhazia and it is quite tense politically and militarily," Bryza said. "But the military alert level has gone down substantially in the last couple of weeks and that is good news. I think that as the parties have begun to explore a new and credible initiative to pursue peace agreement and a political settlement, the militaries of all parties have begun to reduce their alert levels, so that's good."

RFE/RL's Georgian Service contributed to this report