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Abkhaz Flip-Flop On Georgian IDPs Reflects Leadership Split

  • Brian Whitmore

Sergei Shamba

Talk about your policy flip-flops: Abkhazia's two top foreign-policy officials this week made diametrically opposed statements about one of the most contentious issues dividing Georgia and the separatist republic -- the return of hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs) to the region.

De facto Abkhaz Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba recently raised eyebrows by saying that Sukhumi is ready to negotiate the return of the IDPs.

"We are prepared to discuss the issue of refugees," Shamba told RFE/RL's Georgian Service on July 28. "We have been discussing this issue for years. We have never rejected discussing this. We will not discuss the issue of [Abkhazia's] status. But we have been discussing the refugees."

In fact, Abkhazia has steadfastly refused to negotiate the issue, despite Tbilisi's consistent demands that it be a cornerstone of any settlement.

Some 250,000 Georgians fled Abkhazia when war broke out in the early 1990s after the pro-Russia region broke away from Tbilisi's control. Abkhaz officials and their patrons in Moscow fear their return would overwhelm the much smaller Abkhaz population and tilt the republic back decisively toward Tbilisi.

But when asked about Shamba's comments a day later, Stanislav Lakoba, secretary of Abkhazia's Security Council, said the refugee issue is not on the table.

"Right now the discussions are exclusively about security and the rejection of military activity. We are not looking at the issue of refugees," Lakoba told RFE/RL's Georgian Service on July 29.

Authorities in Sukhumi have offered no explanation for the different positions by Abkhazia's top foreign-policy officials.

Western Attention

The confusion over Abkhazia's position on the return of displaced persons comes amid a frenzy of diplomatic activity surrounding the region, with senior officials from Germany and the United States visiting in an effort to jump-start the stalled peace process. Observers say Western attention appears to have influenced the position of some Abkhaz officials -- but not others -- causing a split to emerge in the separatist republic's leadership.

"There is a divergence of opinions," Georgia's Reintegration Minister Temur Iakobashvili says. "Mr. Shamba...meets more frequently with representatives from the West and therefore assesses the situation more realistically. Mr. Lakoba and others are more insular and focused on local concerns."

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier visited Georgia, Abkhazia, and Russia from July 17-19. Steinmeier was in the region to push a peace plan drafted by the five-member Friends of the UN Secretary-General for Georgia, a group made up of Germany, the United States, Britain, France, and Russia.

The multistage plan begins with confidence-building measures, including the return of the Georgians displaced by the 1992-93 war and a pledge by Tbilisi not to use force to retake the republic and to remove a police contingent from the Kodori Gorge, the only part of Abkhazia controlled by Tbilisi. Later stages call for long-term pledges for reconstruction and a final-status resolution for Abkhazia.

Steinmeier's visit was followed by one by Matthew Bryza, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs.

But while Georgia has embraced the plan drafted by the Friends grouping, Abkhazia -- backed by Moscow -- has rejected it, instead insisting that Georgia pledge not to use force before talks can even begin.

Moscow Favors Status Quo

If the increasing internationalization of the Abkhaz conflict is leading to splits in the Abkhaz leadership, it is also making Russia wary.

Moscow has long been the key international player in Abkhazia. But with the United States and the European Union becoming increasingly engaged, analysts say Russia is doing everything possible to avoid losing any of its considerable influence in Abkhazia.

Aleksandre Rondeli, president of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies in Tbilisi, tells RFE/RL that at this stage Moscow is simply seeking to drag the process out and prevent Western initiatives from gaining any traction.

"They are trying to prolong everything. I think the Russians are interested in keeping the status quo," Rondeli says. "The Russians are afraid that the internationalization process has started. The Russians want to conduct [negotiations] in a way that they are the main players. They will reject everything in which they do not play the main role. And I think they have told the Abkhaz: reject everything in which Russia is not playing a leading role."

Both Sukhumi and Moscow, for example, have rejected out of hand a U.S. proposal to internationalize a Russian-dominated peacekeeping force in Abkhazia.

Georgian and Abkhaz officials were due to meet in Berlin under the auspices of the UN Group of Friends on July 30-31, but the meeting was postponed at the Abkhaz side's request.

On July 31, de facto Abkhaz President Sergei Bagapsh proposed holding the meeting from August 15-20. He stressed, however, that Abkhaz officials will not meet with Georgian officials, but only with Germany and other members of the Friends grouping. Citing a scheduling conflict, Georgian officials have proposed that the Berlin meeting take place in September.

Meanwhile, on July 30 Russia withdrew approximately 400 unarmed Defense Ministry troops from Abkhazia who were completing repairs on a rail line. Moscow deployed the troops in May and June in a move Georgia called an aggressive step.

Eka Tsamalashvili of RFE/RL's Georgian Service contributed to this report from Tbilisi

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