But those talks have effectively been deadlocked for the past six months, since the deployment of Georgian Interior Ministry forces in late July to the Kodori Gorge with the stated aim of apprehending Emzar Kvitsiani, a maverick former local official said to have declared his open opposition to the Georgian authorities.
The Abkhaz leadership has pegged its renewed participation in those talks to a Georgian withdrawal from Kodori. For its part, Tbilisi appears more concerned to secure the withdrawal of the Russian peacekeepers currently deployed in both the Abkhaz and South Ossetian conflict zones and their replacement by an international peacekeeping contingent.
The Georgian operation in Kodori in July failed to apprehend Kvitsiani, but Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili nonetheless hailed it as reinforcing Georgia's presence in the gorge, which straddles the territory of Abkhazia and the rest of Georgia. Saakashvili duly ordered the relocation to the village of Adjara in the upper, Georgian-controlled reaches of the gorge of the so-called Abkhaz government-in-exile, which comprises the Georgian members of the Abkhaz government in power on the eve of the 1992-93 civil war that culminated in the Georgian central authorities' loss of control over the region.
Over the past six months, the Georgian government has launched a high-profile program of upgrading roads and infrastructure in Kodori, a program that the Abkhaz leadership suspects is intended to facilitate and to mask a new Georgian military offensive.
The repercussions of the July deployment of Georgian forces to Kodori were analyzed in detail in a Russian-drafted UN Security Council resolution of October 13, 2006, and a January 11 letter to the Security Council from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Ever since the deployment of the UN Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG) in 1993, the UN secretary-general has reported regularly -- four times a year -- to the Security Council on its activities and requested periodically that its mandate be extended. The Security Council then duly enacts a resolution extending UNOMIG's mandate, generally for a period of six months.
It further urged the Georgian side "to address seriously legitimate Abkhaz security concerns, to avoid steps that could be seen as threatening, and to refrain from militant rhetoric and provocative actions, especially in the Kodori valley."
It likewise urged the Abkhaz side "to address seriously" the need to expedite the dignified return of Georgian displaced persons to their abandoned homes in Abkhazia, particularly in the southernmost Gali district. Abkhaz officials have tentatively agreed to the return of displaced persons to Gali, but are reluctant to consider allowing them to resettle throughout the republic.
The October Security Council resolution did not, however, explicitly designate the Georgian troops currently in Kodori as in violation of the 1994 agreement, which is ambiguous and thus open to varying interpretations. That agreement stipulates that "under the supervision of representatives of the peacekeeping force of the Commonwealth of Independent States and United Nations observers, with the participation of representatives of the parties of the Kodori valley, the troops of the Republic of Georgia shall be withdrawn to their places of deployment beyond the frontiers of Abkhazia."
Whether that ruling applies to both Defense Ministry and Interior Ministry troops is thus open to interpretation. Georgia seemingly interprets it as condoning the presence of Interior Ministry forces in Kodori, while the Abkhaz argue that the agreement precludes the presence of either Defense Ministry or Interior Ministry forces there. The agreement further calls the withdrawal and disbanding of volunteer formations in Kodori consisting of "persons who came there from outside Abkhazia." Nor did the October 2006 resolution include a demand that the Abkhaz government in exile be withdrawn from the gorge, as Saakashvili claimed the Abkhaz authorities in Sukhum(i) had hoped.
The Abkhaz side nonetheless welcomed the October resolution as contributing to "defusing tensions in the region." Abkhaz Vice President Raul Khadjimba said "the UN Security Council has for the first time voiced its firm position regarding the conduct of the Georgian authorities." But Abkhaz Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba, who had hoped to attend the UN Security Council session but was refused a visa by the U.S. authorities, served notice that the Abkhaz authorities would continue to demand the withdrawal of Georgian troops from Kodori. The Abkhaz leadership subsequently made a resumption of talks with Tbilisi -- suspended in the wake of the Georgian incursion into Kodori -- contingent on such a withdrawal.
Ban's January 11 report to the Security Council, which covered the three months since the adoption of the October 13 resolution, touched upon and elucidated both the Abkhaz and the Georgian positions. He noted that "the Abkhaz leadership expects the implementation of the resolution to reverse the situation created in the Georgian-controlled upper Kodori valley as a result of the Georgian special operation in July 2006.... For its part, the Georgian government stresses that the police deployment in the upper Kodori valley and the presence there of the Government of the Autonomous Republic of Abkhazia do not contravene the 1994 Moscow Agreement.... Moreover, the Georgian side believes that while this presence within the boundaries of Abkhazia...may be unacceptable to the Abkhaz side, it is necessary in order to forestall any recognition of Abkhazia, particularly in the context of ongoing status talks on Kosovo."
Ban concluded that "some progress has been achieved towards implementation" of the October Security Council resolution. At the same time, he wrote that ongoing efforts to resolve the conflict "are still burdened by the fundamental differences between the two sides." He noted in that context that "the sides' focus seems to have shifted towards enlisting more active external support, rather than addressing each other's concerns and pursuing their political objectives through mutual accommodation," adding that "I continue to believe that there can be no lasting settlement without a determined effort by both sides to seek, through genuine negotiations and in deeds, to establish a different kind of relationship between them."
Official reactions to Ban's letter in both Georgia and Abkhazia tended to substantiate his observation that both sides are currently seeking to mobilize support by playing up the opposing side's apparent obstructionism. The Georgian Foreign Ministry affirmed unequivocally in a January 18 statement that Georgia is complying fully with the October Security Council resolution, and implicitly rejects any insinuations to the contrary. Georgian Minister for Conflict Resolution Merab Antadze similarly told a government session in Tbilisi on January 24 that "we are strictly implementing all the resolutions adopted by the UN Security Council," Caucasus Press reported, and he dismissed as groundless Russian and Abkhaz allegations that Georgia is not doing so.
The Abkhaz Foreign Ministry for its part released a statement on January 19 affirming that "the actions of the Georgian authorities do not correspond to the spirit or the letter of the Moscow Cease-fire agreement of May 14 1994.... The Georgian side attempts constantly to give its own interpretation of the Moscow agreement." The Abkhaz statement further accused Georgia of seeking to "destabilize the situation" and "fuel tensions," and of ignoring the appeal contained in the October Security Council resolution to desist from "provocative acts."
In short, both sides seek to stake out the moral high ground. But Georgia's efforts to portray the Abkhaz as Moscow's willing instrument, intent on deadlocking the peace process as part of a broader strategy to undercut Georgia's nascent statehood, fail to take into consideration what the October 13 Security Council resolution refers to as Abkhazia's "legitimate security concerns."
And those concerns can only be compounded by Georgia's single-minded and not entirely realistic campaign to expedite the withdrawal of the Russian peacekeepers. The UN too is reluctant to countenance the Russians' withdrawal from Abkhazia, for several reasons. First, UNOMIG personnel are unarmed and rely on the Russian contingent for protection. Second, the Russians demonstrated in 1998 their ability to thwart a Georgian guerrilla offensive. Third, Abkhaz President Sergei Bagapsh has warned that in the event of the Russian peacekeepers' withdrawal, he would deploy troops to the internal border with Georgia, a move that could trigger both a new exodus from Abkhazia of those Georgians who have returned there, and a reciprocal troop deployment by Georgia. And fourth, it is by no means clear which international organization might be both able and willing to deploy a replacement peacekeeping force to avert the risk of an Abkhaz-Georgian standoff along the River Inguri that forms the internal border.
A further negative factor is Georgia's predilection for formulating successive peace proposals in terms of "autonomy," a concept whose semantic connotations in the former USSR are overwhelmingly negative.
The so-called autonomous Soviet socialist republics and oblasts of the USSR may have been entitled to their own governments and legislatures, but those bodies were wholly under the control of the union republic of which the ASSR or AO in question was a constituent part.
As for the Abkhaz leadership, its use of harsh rhetoric (whether in deference to Moscow or in a bid to convey its fears and frustration to the international community) could similarly prove counterproductive. It is, moreover, possible that Abkhazia's insistence on a complete Georgian withdrawal from Kodori is a convenient pretext for freezing further negotiations until after UN Envoy Martti Ahtisaari unveils his proposal for Kosovo's final status, and/or until after the local and parliamentary elections in Abkhazia scheduled for February 11 and March 4, respectively.