Writing on August 9 in "The Moscow Times
" to mark the second anniversary of the Russia-Georgia war, Moscow Carnegie Center Director Dmitry Trenin proposed a new approach to resolving the deadlock between Georgia and the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Trenin suggests that Abkhazia should cede its southeastern Gali province to Georgia in return for formal recognition by Tbilisi of the rest of Abkhazia as an independent state. South Ossetia, by contrast, would have a status similar to that of Andorra, retaining "the trappings of formal independence," but with Georgia maintaining a legal presence and serving as guarantor of the security of Georgian displaced persons who choose to return to the region.
Several longtime observers of the South Caucasus, including Dennis Sammut of the British NGO Links, have repeatedly stressed the need for the international community to demonstrate greater imagination and intellectual boldness in formulating approaches to resolving the region's deadlocked conflicts that have never been applied before, but that would satisfy all parties concerned in terms of an acceptable balance between benefits and concessions.
The EU's new policy with regard to Abkhazia, which entails engagement without formal recognition, is a welcome first step in that direction. But Trenin's "thinking outside the box" goes much further.'Thinking Outside The Box'
Trenin differentiates clearly between the two breakaway regions, pointing out that Abkhazia could survive and prosper as an independent state, whereas South Ossetia has little hope of doing so. That Moscow too sees the two regions differently is clear from Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's visit to Abkhazia on August 8. No senior Russian political figure paid a comparable visit to South Ossetia.
Trenin does not present his options for Abkhazia and South Ossetia as a two halves of a composite whole, let alone suggest the optimum time frame and sequence for their implementation, or how such agreements should be negotiated and whether they should be put to a referendum among the population of the entities concerned. But insofar as the chances of Georgia agreeing to cede most of Abkhazia are negligible, at least as long as Mikheil Saakashvili remains president, it would make sense to regulate relations with South Ossetia first.
Nor does Trenin discuss in detail what each of the conflict parties, and Russia, would stand to gain and lose. Georgia would lose face by accepting de jure that de facto it lost control of Abkhazia 17 years ago and has little hope of ever regaining it. But partitioning Abkhazia would enable those Georgian displaced persons who have not yet done so to return to Gali. This would remove a potential threat to Georgian political stability, insofar as protests have been reported almost daily
in recent weeks by displaced persons summarily evicted from their temporary accommodation. The population of Gali prior to the 1992-93 war was overwhelmingly Georgian.
While the Abkhaz leadership would similarly be reluctant to cede Gali, doing so would avert the prospect of the Abkhaz becoming a minority on their own territory following the repatriation of 150,000-180,000 Georgians. That is one of the arguments the Abkhaz adduce against allowing all Georgian displaced persons to return to Abkhazia.
Giving up Gali would, however, move the border between Abkhazia and Georgia closer to Sukhumi, which would thus become more vulnerable to a new Georgian aggression. Trenin does not discuss the possibility of either making Gali an international protectorate for a limited period prior to ceding it to Georgia, or of deploying an international (preferably EU) peacekeeping contingent along the new border. Either or both might make a partition more palatable to the Abkhaz side.
Tiny, impoverished and isolated, South Ossetia, which is currently dependent
on subsidies from Russia for 98 percent of its annual budget, has little hope of surviving as an independent state. Whether its Ossetian population, haunted by memories of the Georgian offensive two years ago, would willingly accept the Andorra-like status and concomitant Georgian presence Trenin proposes is questionable, however. But neither Georgia nor the international community would countenance the only viable alternative -- unification with North Ossetia, either as an independent state or within the Russian Federation.
Russia, which over the past two years has systematically enhanced its long-term military presence in both Abkhazia and South Ossetia, would likewise lose out under Trenin's scenario. Trenin affirms that Georgian recognition of Abkhazia would render a Russian military presence there "less relevant," but does not explain why. That line of reasoning holds up only if one rules out the possibility that a future Georgian leadership might renege on the formal recognition of Abkhaz independence.
Similarly, under the status Trenin proposes for South Ossetia, Russia would have to withdraw its forces north of the Roki Tunnel, although it "would retain the right to protect South Ossetians." That formulation too implies that Tbilisi might renege on any agreement it signed.
For all its flaws, however, Trenin's blueprint is arguably more realistic and more workable than Georgia's "State Strategy for the Occupied Territories" that both Abkhazia and South Ossetia have rejected out of hand.