Prague, 26 May 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili today offered to open reunification talks as soon as possible with the separatist republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Saakashvili appears to feel the time is ripe to tackle Georgia's so-called frozen conflicts. Earlier this month, the recently elected Georgian leader reasserted central control over the autonomous Black Sea province of Adjara, which had been dodging its duties to Tbilisi for more than a decade.
Abkhazia and South Ossetia seceded from Georgia in the late 1980s and early 1990s, triggering short but bloody conflicts. The international community has so far failed in efforts to reconcile Georgia with its two secessionist provinces, which have close ties to neighboring Russia.
"We are ready to consider a federative setup, including asymmetrical federalism. But we will never create such a federation that could lead to Georgia's breakup." -- Saakashvili
Using the carrot-and-stick approach that has become his trademark, Saakashvili today advocated a peaceful, negotiated solution to the Abkhaz and South Ossetian disputes, while presiding over a military parade obviously meant to show off the emerging strength of Georgia's armed forces.
"As long as I live, I will not reconcile myself to accepting the breakup of Georgia. This is precisely why I am offering our Abkhaz and South Ossetian brothers to open talks without delay with a view to restoring single state relations among ourselves," Saakashvili said.
Appealing directly to residents in both separatist provinces, the Georgian leader urged them to accept his offer, vowing to preserve their cultural rights. To add weight to his promise, Saakashvili spoke a few sentences in the Ossetian and Abkhaz languages.
"I want to address our Ossetian brothers and assure them of my utmost respect for them. I swear that the interests of each Ossetian living in Georgia will always be taken into consideration by the Georgian state. For the first time, a Georgian president will address them in their own language, a language whose status, development and rights the state guarantees each Ossetian living in Georgia will enjoy,” Saakashvili said, and then repeated his main points in a few sentences in Ossetian.
Turning to Abkhazia, the Georgian president reiterated an offer to build up federative links with the central government. "I also want to address the Abkhaz and urge them once again to enter talks in an effort to build up federative relations [with Georgia] that would give them vast and internationally recognized guarantees of autonomy," he said. "I am holding them out a hand of friendship, and I am ready to repeat what I just said in the Abkhaz language.” Saakashvili then restated his main points for his Abkhaz-language audience.
Saakashvili's proposals were met coolly in Sukhum and Tskhinvali, the respective capitals of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Officials in both cities today tentatively ruled out any talks with the Georgian president, whom they accused of exerting "psychological pressure" on the separatist republics by advocating peace and friendship against a background of "roaring tanks."
The idea of restoring Georgia's territorial integrity through federative links is not new and had been regularly proposed by the administration of former President Eduard Shevardnadze. But the Abkhaz separatist government has always rejected this idea.
Although South Ossetia may have appeared at times more willing to strike a compromise with Tbilisi, federative plans for this tiny mountainous region have never brought any results. In the late 1990s, Shevardnadze and South Ossetia's then leader, Ludwig Chibirov, reached an agreement under which the province would have enjoyed a privileged relationship with Tbilisi. Dubbed "asymmetrical federalism," this setup would have given South Ossetia a status superior to that of any other Georgian region. But the plan was never implemented. Moreover, the election in late 2001 of a new, aggressively pro-Russian South Ossetian leader dashed all hopes of reviving it.
But in televised remarks made late yesterday, Saakashvili said asymmetrical federalism is back on the central government's agenda. "We are ready to consider a federative setup, including asymmetrical federalism," he said. "But we will never create such a federation that could lead to Georgia's breakup."
Saakashvili's reunification efforts follow news that a group of nongovernmental experts has just completed work on a federative blueprint for Abkhazia.
Interviewed on 18 May by RFE/RL, one of the plan's co-authors, Paata Zakareishvili of the Tbilisi-based Center for Development and Cooperation, said the draft envisages giving Abkhazia the largest possible autonomy, including the right to have its own parliament and constitution.
In remarks published on 21 May on the Civil Georgia news website, another co-drafter, Kote Kublashvili, said the plan also seeks to encourage the return to Abkhazia of some of the tens of thousands of ethnic Georgians who fled the region during the 1992-93 conflict. In a bid obviously meant to allay Abkhaz concerns, Kublashvili said the number of internally displaced persons returning to Abkhazia should not exceed "1 or 2 percent" of the province's population.
The blueprint was handed over to the Georgian government earlier this month and is reportedly being considered by the National Security Council.
Meanwhile, Abkhaz leaders insist that they remain independent from Tbilisi. "In our society, you would not find either a political force nor a single political leader who sees Abkhazia as being part of Georgia," Abkhaz Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba was quoted as saying by the Tbilisi-based Novosti-Gruziya news agency on 23 April.
As an echo to Shamba's remarks, Georgia's state minister and chief peace negotiator, Giorgi Khaindrava, made it clear last week that Tbilisi does not foresee any peace progress until Abkhazia elects a new president in October.
Georgian leaders have also implicitly admitted that, as recent events in Adjara have shown, no reunification plan stands any chance of success without Russia's endorsement. Talking to reporters in Moscow yesterday, Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania said his government, which is eager to improve ties with the Kremlin, believes Russia should be "central" to the peaceful resolution of the Abkhaz and South Ossetian disputes.