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German Plan Offers Chance On Abkhaz Conflict

  • Liz Fuller

Steinmeier (left) and Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili in Batumi on July 17

Steinmeier (left) and Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili in Batumi on July 17

On paper, the three-stage peace plan for Abkhazia that German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier took on his visit to Georgia and Moscow can hardly be faulted: It would remove the threat of a new war, permit Georgian displaced persons to return home, and provide international funding for the reconstruction of an isolated and dirt-poor region. And sponsor Germany enjoys the trust of both Tbilisi and Moscow.

But in practice, the plan has major flaws that call into question its acceptability to both Georgians and Abkhaz. And Russia, widely regarded by both Tbilisi and the international community as the covert third party to the conflict, has no interest in defusing a simmering situation that gives it leverage over the Georgian leadership.

The first stage of the plan entails a formal pact between Georgia and Abkhazia abjuring the use or threat of military force. This would pave the way for the repatriation of those Georgians who fled during the 1992-93 war and who remain displaced.

The second stage, beginning in early 2010, involves reconstruction, with Germany convening a donors' conference to raise funds. Only at the third and final stage, for which it appears no time frame has been set, would the key issue of Abkhazia's status within the Republic of Georgia be addressed.

At the same time -- possibly in order to avoid antagonizing Moscow -- the plan does not make any mention of the future role of the Russian peacekeeping force currently deployed in Abkhazia or what kind of international force could be deployed in its place. Georgia desperately wants Russia to withdraw its troops from Abkhazia sooner rather than later.

Both Georgian and Abkhaz officials had already registered objections to specific aspects of the plan ahead of Steinmeier's diplomatic tour. De facto Abkhaz President Sergei Bagapsh reiterated to a senior German Foreign Ministry official on July 14 that Abkhazia's self-proclaimed but unrecognized independence is not negotiable, while Steinmeier stressed in Tbilisi three days later that Germany's objective is to find a solution that would preserve Georgia's territorial integrity.

Bagapsh is, moreover, under domestic pressure from a political grouping dominated by veterans of the 1992-93 war who adamantly oppose any concessions to Georgia. And Moscow, which heavily subsidizes the moribund Abkhaz economy, is his sole international supporter.

Georgia, for its part, has long expressed reservations about a formal commitment to the non-use of force. On July 17, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili dismissed Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov's insistence on the need for such a pact as "senseless" and affirmed that "Georgia has no intention of attacking anybody."

A more serious risk is that Tbilisi will sabotage the German proposal by insisting it be amended to include explicit condemnation of Russia's relentless manipulation of the conflict in recent months and to circumscribe Russia's future role. Georgian National Security Council Secretary Aleksandre Lomaia hinted on July 17 that this is what Tbilisi wants to do.

But seizing on the German initiative to engage in gratuitous Russia bashing with the aim of scoring a public-relations victory would be both shortsighted and counterproductive. Georgia needs to abandon its moralizing tone and make a real gesture of reconciliation to Sukhumi -- such as complying with the Abkhaz demand for the withdrawal of the Georgian Interior Ministry forces from the Kodori Gorge -- if it truly wants to convince the Abkhaz of its good faith.

Though not perfect, the German proposal constitutes a belated, but realistic, attempt to reverse the dangerous escalation of tensions between Moscow and Tbilisi. Seeking to manipulate it to discomfort Russia will benefit neither Georgians nor Abkhaz. It would simply play into the hands of those in Moscow whose long-term aim is to weaken the Georgian leadership.