But the spat earlier this week over plans to resume rail traffic between Russia and Tbilisi via Abkhazia demonstrated once again how both Tbilisi and Sukhum still seek to occupy the moral high ground and depict the other as the primary obstacle to a peaceful and mutually acceptable settlement of the conflict.
German Ambassador Schramm noted Bagapsh's "pragmatism" and direct approach, qualities that raise hopes that he is both committed and flexible enough to continue the search for mutually acceptable agreements with Tbilisi, first on economic issues and then on more sensitive political issues.
Georgian and Abkhaz representatives met in Tbilisi on 4 August under the aegis of Ambassador Heidi Tagliavini, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's special representative for Georgia, to discuss security guarantees for the nonresumption of hostilities and confidence-building measures in the Abkhaz conflict zone, which are necessary preconditions for the return to their homes of those among the estimated 200,000-250,000 Georgians who fled Abkhazia during the 1992-1993 war who have not already done so. As Annan noted in his most recent (13 July 2005) report to the UN Security Council on the situation in Abkhazia, the focus in UN-mediated talks in recent months on repatriation and economic cooperation -- including the planned resumption of rail traffic from Russia to Tbilisi via Abkhazia -- is intended "to improve confidence between the two sides so that negotiations on a comprehensive political settlement of the conflict can take place, using the paper entitled 'Basic Principles for the Distribution of Competences Between Tbilisi and Sukhumi'...as a starting point." That draft settlement plan envisages Abkhazia remaining a constituent part of Georgia.
The 4 August meeting was the latest in a series convened on the basis of a declaration signed in Yalta four years in which the Georgian and Abkhaz sides appealed for the support of the international community in addressing two key issues: the nonresumption of armed conflict, and the safe and unconditional return of refugees and displaced persons, in the first phase to Abkhazia's southernmost Gali Raion (within its old borders). The Georgian representation to the most recent talks was headed by Minister for Conflict Resolution Giorgi Khaindrava and the Abkhaz one by Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba. As on several earlier occasions, the two sides reaffirmed their commitment to the nonresumption of hostilities and the unconditional return of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs), and they discussed a new draft document, authored by Tbilisi-based Abkhaz government-in-exile Chairman Irakli Alasania and augmented by Abkhaz suggestions, aimed at formalizing "at a high level" their shared commitment to resolving the conflict peacefully and to ensuring "the safe and dignified return" to their homes in Abkhazia of refugees and IDPs.
That draft document has not been made public, but during an interview with Eurasia View published on 1 July, Alasania shed some light on Georgia's new approach to resolving the conflict. He explained that Russia's clumsy attempt last fall to engineer the outcome of the Abkhaz presidential ballot made it clear to the new leadership headed by President Sergei Bagapsh how "dramatic, unstable and insecure" Abkhazia's relations with Russia are. (That line of argument fails to take into consideration the extent to which Abkhazia is economically dependent on Russia.)
As a result of that Abkhaz shift, Alasania believes, the new leadership in Sukhum is more amenable to considering a new Georgian policy of "pro-active engagement," of which Alasania is presumably the architect. That policy, Alasania said, "should be carefully tailored to provide incentives to the Abkhaz side to engage more actively in the peace process." It will, he continued, "address their concerns on a priority basis and, at the same time, be adequately receptive to the legitimate aspirations" of Georgian displaced persons to return to their abandoned homes. (Although Alasania did not say as much, Georgia also now has greater room for maneuver following the death one year ago of Alasania's hawkish predecessor, Tamaz Nadareishvili, who with the tacit support of Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze lobbied tirelessly for a UN Security Council peace enforcement operation in Abkhazia.)
Alasania further admitted that the previous Georgian policy of seeking to isolate Abkhazia politically and economically has proven a failure, and that Tbilisi is now "seriously considering all possible ways to bring the [Abkhaz] community out of isolation." As a first step towards doing so, Georgian, Abkhaz, and Russian government experts agreed during talks in Moscow in June and Sukhum last month on measures that, if implemented, will result in the resumption of rail traffic from Russia via the Abkhaz Black Sea littoral to Tbilisi and then Yerevan.
The heads of the Abkhaz and Georgian delegations, Shamba and Khaindrava, both positively evaluated the 4 August Tbilisi talks; Khaindrava even raised the possibility of a meeting between Bagapsh and Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. The cautious optimism engendered by the 4 August talks was reinforced on 10 August, when the diplomatic representatives in Tbilisi of the five states that are members of the Friends of the UN Secretary General for Georgia group (France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) met in Sukhum on 10 August with Bagapsh, Abkhaz Prime Minister Aleksandr Ankvab, and Foreign Minister Shamba. Bagapsh and German Ambassador Uwe Schramm both subsequently described the meeting as "constructive," and Bagapsh expressed his appreciation of the work of the UN, specifically of UN Special Representative Tagliavini, to resolve the Abkhaz conflict.
At the same time, Bagapsh stressed that while Abkhazia is "ready to discuss any topic conducive to peaceful dialogue," it will not compromise on its self-proclaimed independent status, which remains the main point of dispute between Tbilisi and Sukhum. In a 5 August interview with regnum.ru, Bagapsh argued that that disagreement should not be an obstacle to economic cooperation, especially as such cooperation benefits Georgia as well as Abkhazia. He recalled that he has always advocated a competition with Tbilisi to determine which state can develop its economy and crack down on crime faster and with greater success. Asked what he considers the ideal compromise solution to the conflict, Bagapsh replied "the best compromise [would be] two neighbor states -- Georgia and Abkhazia," and he adduced the example of the Czech Republic and Slovakia as proof that such a solution is feasible. Bagapsh's stated commitment to building an independent state is, however, difficult to reconcile with the political settlement based on the "Basic Principles" that continues to be the UN's ultimate objective.
Nor is Abkhazia's ultimate status vis-a-vis the central Georgian government the only issue still to be resolved. Still under discussion are the UN requirement that Georgian children whose families are repatriated to Gali be able to attend Georgian-language schools, and the Abkhaz leadership's continued reluctance either to condone the deployment in Gali of UN civilian police (to complement the 11 UN civilian police officers currently deployed in Zugdidi Raion in the Georgian section of the conflict zone), or to open a UN office in Gali to address human-rights issues. Both institutions are badly needed in light of the sporadic reprisals against and abductions of Georgian returnees by Abkhaz criminal formations and what appear to be tit-for-tat attacks by Georgian smugglers on Abkhaz police and customs officials. Annan's 13 July report to the Security Council noted 11 armed robberies, one shooting, one abduction, five detentions, and one explosion in Gali over the previous six months, and three weeks ago Abkhaz police detained 18 Georgians in Gali; six of them were subsequently released, but the remaining 12 face criminal charges of illegal logging.
It is possible that less than one year into his presidency Bagapsh does not yet feel secure enough to agree to any concessions that his political opponents might later seek to use against him. But in a summary of the 10 August talks posted on the UNOMIG website (www.unomig.org), German Ambassador Schramm noted Bagapsh's "pragmatism" and direct approach, qualities that raise hopes that he is both committed and flexible enough to continue the search for mutually acceptable agreements with Tbilisi, first on economic issues and then on more sensitive political issues.
That search is likely, however, to be fraught with tension and bedeviled by repeated setbacks, some of them induced by the intransigence of the conflicting sides. For example, the beginning of a joint Georgian-Abkhaz-Russian operation to assess the extent of the repairs needed to render operational the railway running from Russia via Abkhazia's Black Sea coast onwards to Tbilisi, initially scheduled for 9 August, was delayed because three Georgian railroad engineers who had fled Abkhazia during the 1992-1993 war were refused entry to Abkhaz-controlled territory.For more on Georgia-Abkhaz relations, see Georgian Leader Seeks International Help In Abkhazia