Prague, 19 May 2004 (RFE/RL) -- With control over the autonomous republic of Adjara secured, the Georgian government is now turning its attention to the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
The bloodless ousting earlier this month of Adjara's unruly leader Aslan Abashidze has given a major boost to Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's re-centralization plans.
"Should any other revolution be expected in Georgia, it could well take place in Abkhazia," Saakashvili was reported as saying on 16 May in the Romanian capital Bucharest.
His comments have sparked concerns in the Abkhaz capital Sukhum that Georgia might attempt to undermine the local government by sponsoring opposition movements and fanning popular protests as it did recently in Adjara.
Abkhazia and South Ossetia seceded from Tbilisi in the late 1980s-early 1990s, triggering short but bloody conflicts. Respective mediation efforts made by the United Nations and the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe (OSCE) have failed to bring Tbilisi and the two provinces anything close to comprehensive peace agreements.
Saakashvili, who has made restoration of Georgia's territorial integrity a top priority, insists that he is not considering forcefully bringing the two breakaway regions back into Tbilisi's fold. He has also made it clear that the South Ossetian dispute could prove much easier to solve than the Abkhaz one.
But whatever the Georgian president's intentions, regional analysts agree that the key to Georgia's separatist quandaries lies first and foremost in Russia's hands.
Paata Zakareishvili of the Tbilisi-based Center for Development and Cooperation told RFE/RL the ongoing Russian-Georgian rapprochement bodes well for the Abkhaz peace process.
"I believe the dynamics are already here. When one considers the very positive role that Russia played in helping seal the fate of [former Georgian President Eduard] Shevardnadze and that of Abashidze, it is quite clear that it is interested in having a solid and stable Georgia. Conversely, Georgia has made the right decisions as far as Russia is concerned. In this context and with regard to Abkhazia, I believe Russia has enormous potential resources," Zakareishvili said.
As it did in November when it helped secure Shevardnadze's departure, Moscow was instrumental in solving the recent Adjar crisis. By convincing Abashidze to resign and flee to Moscow, Russia certainly helped avert violent confrontation between Batumi and Tbilisi.
It was Igor Ivanov who -- first as Russia's foreign minister, then as Security Council secretary -- personally contributed to the peaceful outcome of both recent standoffs, thus winning the nickname of "The Cleaner" in Georgian and Russian media.
On 17 May, Ivanov paid a surprise visit to the Georgian capital to discuss bilateral ties and the Abkhazia situation with Saakashvili, Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania, and Security Council Secretary Vano Merabishvili.
Neither side elaborated on the content of the talks. Zhvania said briefly Ivanov's visit had brought "significant" results and was in keeping with the "new dialogue" both countries have engaged in since the recent change of leadership in Tbilisi.
Bilateral ties have significantly improved since Shevardnadze's resignation, with Georgia notably pledging cooperation in Moscow's war against Chechen separatists and softening demands for a quick withdrawal of Russian military bases.
In return, Russia has hinted that it could soon ease travel restrictions imposed on Georgian citizens in 2001.
In comments published yesterday in the Moscow-based "Vremya novostei" daily, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov briefly outlined his country's priorities in Georgia.
"While considering the recent changes that occurred [in Ajara] to be an internal Georgian issue, we're not making any secret of the fact that we wanted these changes to be conducted peacefully in order to avoid secession and bloodshed," Lavrov told the newspaper.
Georgian independent political expert Ramaz Sakvarelidze told our correspondent that Russia no longer seems keen to support separatist forces in former Soviet republics.
Therefore, he believes, it is reasonable to expect the Kremlin will help Georgia find a solution to its territorial disputes.
"When [Russian President] Vladimir Putin first came to power a few years ago, he said Russia should change its policy toward other countries in the sense that it should try to influence these countries using economic instead of military leverage. It seems to me that, with regard to the Caucasus region, Russia has already started moving along this new path. Certain developments, including arguably in Ajara, are evidence of this. Representatives of Russia's business circles are expected in Ajara soon and one of the purposes of their visit will be to establish financial and economic ties and promote their own interests in that region. Consequently, one can expect Russia to strengthen its economic presence [in the area]. And precisely because of this economic alternative it will continue to contribute to the peace process in the Caucasus," Sakvarelidze said.
For Georgian political analysts, upcoming presidential polls in Abkhazia will be a litmus test of Russia's willingness to assist Georgia in sorting out its territorial problems.
Russia, which actively helped Abkhazia and South Ossetia secede from Georgia, has been traditionally using its political and economic leverage in both regions to exert pressure on Tbilisi. A couple of years ago, Moscow started granting Russian citizenship to Abkhaz and South Ossetian residents, raising fears in Georgia that it might eventually annex the two provinces.
"Russia is involved in nearly everything that happens in Abkhazia." -- Georgian independent political expert Ramaz Sakvarelidze
In the context of the ongoing Russian-Georgian rapprochement, Moscow carries even greater weight on the Abkhaz issue -- leaving observers like Sakvarelidze with the sense that without Russia, Georgia will achieve little.
"Russia is involved in nearly everything that happens in Abkhazia. Therefore the real question is whether Russia will decide not to interfere in the [upcoming] political developments. As to whether it has the ability to interfere, no one has any doubts about that in Georgia," Sakvarelidze said.
Ailing Abkhaz President Vladislav Ardzinba is expected to step down in October, and the upcoming election could pave the way for a change of leadership in the province.
Analysts believe that, should Moscow decide to contribute to solving the Abkhaz issue, it could -- among other things -- sponsor a candidate who, unlike the outgoing leader, would be ready to compromise with the central Georgian government.
In the meantime, a group of Georgian political experts is offering a set of proposals that envisages linking Tbilisi and Sukhum within a federative state.
Work on the plan, which started under the Shevardnadze administration, has just been completed and submitted to the new Georgian leadership for approval.
State Minister Giorgi Khaindrava, who is in charge of negotiations with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, reportedly gave a positive assessment of the plan.
Although the government has still not made its position public, Saakashvili recently hinted at the possibility of "some kind of federal arrangement" with Abkhazia.
Saakashvili today said he would unveil his reunification plans on 26 May, when Georgia celebrates Independence Day.
The Center for Development and Cooperation's Zakareishvili said that under the proposal, which he co-authored with six other experts, the separatist province would have its own parliament and constitution in return for abandoning any idea of international recognition.
"It will be a federation with some confederative elements in it,” Zakareishvili said. “Actually, our project can be modified depending on what the Georgian authorities decide. To be more exact, it envisages a federation under a context of asymmetrical regionalism that would grant Abkhazia the largest possible degree of autonomy within the Georgian state."
The idea of turning Georgia into a federation is not new and has been regularly floated both in Moscow and Tbilisi.
In the late 1990s, Shevardnadze and South Ossetia's then-leader Ludwig Chibirov even reached a short-lived agreement under which the province would have enjoyed a privileged status in its relations with Tbilisi that would have been superior to that of any other Georgian region.
Federative plans for Georgia have resurfaced in Moscow since Shevardnadze's resignation, raising hopes of Russia's possible participation in the Abkhaz peace process.
"Should Russia eventually take Georgia's interests into consideration and resolve to adopt a constructive approach, it would be easy for it to convince Abkhazia that it must get closer to Georgia," Zakareishvili said.
He added: "I am convinced that it is in Russia's interest that the candidate who wins the elections in Abkhazia is a man that suits all three sides involved in the conflict."