Both sides expressed optimism that the very real differences between them could be resolved over a period of time. The risk still remains, however, that maximalist demands by Georgian parliamentarians for the withdrawal of the Russian peacekeepers from the Abkhaz conflict zone, or reprisals against Georgians in Gali, might again return the peace process to deadlock.
The decision to resume sessions of the Coordinating Council was made in late March during talks in Sukhum (Sukhumi) between Shamba and Irakli Alasania, who is Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's special representative for the Abkhaz conflict.
Two months earlier, during a meeting in Geneva, the so-called Friends of the UN Secretary-General Group of countries (France, Germany, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Russia) had appealed to Abkhaz and Georgians to begin talks on confidence-building measures, including the nonresumption of hostilities, and on what they termed "core political issues" -- meaning Abkhazia's ultimate status vis-a-vis the central Georgian government.
Alasania told RFE/RL on May 16 that the resumption of talks within the Coordinating Council format constitutes "a good first step," and reflects the political will on both sides to tackle contentious issues they have not addressed in previous talks.
Abkhaz Foreign Minister Shamba told a press conference after the council session that the participants focused on a broad range of issues including security in the conflict zone, the return of refugees, and social and economic issues. A press release issued afterward by the UN Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG) said that sessions of the council's three working groups (on confidence-building measures, economic issues, and the repatriation of displaced persons) will take place within the next few weeks.
Speaking at the same press conference, Georgian Minister for Conflict Resolution Giorgi Khaindrava described the meeting as '"an important initiative," and expressed the hope that regular bilateral contacts will lead to progress in resolving the conflict, Civil Georgia reported. Shamba for his part described the council meeting as "productive" and without "serious controversies."
Possibly the most tangible outcome of the May 15 Council meeting was the announcement that agreement has been reached, according to Shamba, on permitting an estimated 200,000 Georgian displaced persons who fled Abkhazia during the 1992-93 civil war to return to their abandoned homes. Shamba noted that a formal agreement on repatriation was signed in Moscow in April 1994, but has not been systematically implemented. He said that the working group on repatriation will convene next month to discuss implementing, over a period of two years, a repatriation plan drafted by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
In addition, Alasania was quoted by Caucasus Press as telling the Georgian parliament after the Coordinating Council session that Abkhazia has agreed that instruction at schools in Abkhazia's southernmost Gali district, where the majority of the prewar population was Georgian, will be in Georgian. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has repeatedly urged the Abkhaz both to give the green light for repatriation, and to make provision for Georgian-language schooling in Gali.
A further indicator of the improved prospects for resolving the conflict was the Georgian side's measured reaction to the new Abkhaz peace proposal, which Shamba described to journalists as the Abkhaz vision of how to achieve "peaceful coexistence." "We think there are issues that we can start to discuss today and on which we can find mutual understanding," Shamba said.
At the same time, he acknowledged that the Abkhaz leadership is aware that some aspects of Bagapsh's proposal may be unacceptable to the Georgian side, but that Sukhum is willing to "work gradually" on such questions, Civil Georgia reported. He did not cite examples, but the plan envisages recognition of Abkhazia as an independent sovereign state -- a concept that is anathema to Tbilisi, which is currently prepared to offer only "very broad autonomy" -- and calls for a formal apology by the Georgian leadership for the suffering inflicted on Abkhazia during the war.
Khaindrava for his part told journalists that while he has not studied the Bagapsh plan in depth, "I can say that there are issues that can be regarded as a basis for mutual understanding." Khaindrava also said that Tbilisi too has a new "road map" for resolving the conflict, which will be presented to the Abkhaz side after it has first been discussed with representatives of the Friends of the UN Secretary-General group who are to visit Georgia next week.
In short, the resumption of talks under the aegis of the Coordinating Council is regarded with cautious optimism both by the two conflict sides and by the UN. An UNOMIG spokeswoman told RFE/RL that the UN is much encouraged by the willingness shown by both sides, and hopes they will avail themselves of a "great opportunity" to push the peace process forward. She also stressed the importance of the visit next week by the Friends of the UN Secretary-General group, which will travel to Sukhum, Gali, and the west Georgian border region of Zugdidi where many Georgian displaced persons currently live, to familiarize themselves with the problems and attitudes of those on both sides most affected by the conflict.
Potential Stumbling Blocks
But success in building on the apparent willingness to compromise demonstrated by both Georgians and Abkhaz on May 15 does not depend solely on the negotiators, and the entire fragile peace process could be jeopardized by incautious or maximalist moves or statements.
Speaker Nino Burdjanadze warned on May 15 that the Georgian parliament will not withdraw its demand to the Georgian government that the Russian peacekeeping force currently deployed in the Abkhaz conflict zone be withdrawn. Shamba was quoted by Caucasus Press as saying that such insistence on the part of Tbilisi that the Russian peacekeepers leave would call into question not only any progress achieved toward a settlement of the conflict, but the entire future of the negotiation process.
Alasania, meanwhile, told RFE/RL on May 16 that he sees the main danger to the peace process in "provocations" in the conflict zone, and the militarization of the situation in Gali. He stressed the need for enhanced security guarantees for the Georgians who wish to return to Gali, including the opening of a UN Human Rights office in that district. Alasania said that the two sides discussed (bilaterally, not at the Coordinating Council session) the possible signing of a formal document on the nonresumption of hostilities, but concluded that they need more time to finalize such a document, which could be signed at a meeting between Bagapsh and Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. Alasania said Tbilisi sets no preconditions for such a meeting, and hopes that it could take place within the next few months.
Alasania also said that Georgia would like to "change the format" of the peacekeeping operation to make it more effective and better suited to conditions on the ground, but he declined to specify what, if any, alternatives Tbilisi might propose to the current exclusively Russian peacekeeping force.