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Georgia: Abkhazia Certain To Reject New 'Peace Plan'

(RFE/RL) April 13, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli presented to an April 10 session of the UN Security Council a new Georgian proposal for resolving the Abkhaz conflict, which is likely to prove even less palatable to the Abkhaz than previous proposals.

Not only does it not promise the autonomous status envisaged in earlier peace plans, and which the Abkhaz leadership has consistently rejected, but it borrows from the Karabakh peace plan currently under discussion the provision for holding a referendum on Abkhazia's status after the repatriation of the Georgian displaced persons who constituted the largest ethnic group in Abkhazia prior to the 1992-93 war.

Right Of Return

As summarized by Caucasus Press on April 11, the new Georgian peace proposal consists of three stages: first, the Georgian displaced persons who fled Abkhazia during the 1992-93 war would be permitted to return to their abandoned homes throughout Abkhazia.

That provision is problematic for two reasons. First, the Abkhaz want the repatriation to proceed very gradually, with Georgians returning first to the unrecognized republic's southernmost Gali Raion where they constituted the majority of the prewar population, and only later to other districts.

Second, Georgian leaders have recently taken to grossly overstating the number of Georgians allegedly driven out of Abkhazia. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, for example, was quoted by Caucasus Press on March 4 as claiming that "between 400,000-500,000 people were expelled from Abkhazia during the fighting."

The entire prewar population of Abkhazia, however, numbered only half a million, and the current population is estimated at between 210,000-220,000, including up to 50,000 Georgians who have already returned to Gali.

UN officials estimate the total number of displaced persons, both Georgians and representatives of other ethnic groups, at approximately 240,000. The far-larger estimates of the number of displaced persons adduced by Georgian officials have given rise to fears that Georgia might seek to settle in Abkhazia a considerable number of people who did not in fact live there previously, thereby reducing even further the Abkhaz percentage of the total population.

Unacceptable Provisions

The second point of the new Georgian proposal entails recognition by Abkhazia of Georgia's territorial integrity, which would be a U-turn by the Abkhaz authorities, who continue to hope for ultimate recognition as a sovereign independent state.

The third point, apparently borrowed from the current blueprint crafted by the OSCE's Minsk Group for resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, entails a referendum on Abkhazia's future status, to be held only after the return of all displaced persons.

But if the prewar demographic balance, under which the Abkhaz constituted a minority in their own republic and Georgians were the largest ethnic group, was restored, the Georgians could be expected to endorse whatever status Tbilisi deemed most appropriate for Abkhazia.

Abkhaz Counteroffer

The Abkhaz leadership, by contrast, has a very different vision both of the optimum solution to the conflict and how it could and should be achieved.

President Sergei Bagapsh outlined his own proposals for resolving the conflict in a letter to the UN Security Council in January 2006, advocating the signing by both sides of a formal document abjuring the use of force and militant rhetoric; ending the international blockade of Abkhazia; implementing confidence-building measures agreed upon during talks in Sochi three years earlier, including the repatriation of Georgian displaced persons; and beginning "civilized negotiations" on all issues relevant to the conflict, with the exception of Abkhazia's status.

Then in May 2006, Bagapsh unveiled a more detailed peace plan titled "The Key to the Future," which additionally called for an official Georgian apology to Abkhazia for what Bagapsh termed its "state policy of assimilation, war, and isolation"; guarantees by the international community and the UN to preclude the resumption of hostilities; and Abkhaz participation in multilateral cooperation within the parameters of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation Organization and the European Union's European Neighborhood Policy.

Ossetia Strategy?

The timing of the new Georgian initiative too is puzzling. On the one hand, unveiling the new proposal at the Security Council is a way of ensuring maximum visibility, discussion, and media coverage. But on the other, why make an unacceptable offer at a juncture when the Abkhaz leadership has set conditions for the resumption of any direct talks that the Georgians are unwilling to meet?

Since late last year, Abkhaz officials have consistently ruled out any further direct talks until Tbilisi withdraws from the upper Kodori Gorge the Interior Ministry troops it deployed there in July 2006.

And why give priority in the new peace proposal to demands that the Abkhaz are bound to reject, when UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's most recent (April 3, 2007) letter to the Security Council detailing developments in Abkhazia in recent months stresses that at a February meeting in Geneva, the so-called Group of Friends of the UN Secretary-General specifically called on the conflict sides to resume immediately talks on less controversial issues, such as security; to implement confidence-building measures; and to take into account each others' sensibilities?

Noghaideli hinted at one possible explanation when he told the Security Council session that Tbilisi considers Russia's role "unhelpful." But seeking to capitalize on nascent Western misgivings about Russia's long-term geopolitical strategy and objectives in order to exclude Russia from the conflict-resolution process in Abkhazia would not only prove problematic, given that Russia is a permanent member of the UN Security Council and one of the five members of the Group of Friends; it would also risk hardening the Abkhaz position even further, and bringing the peace process to an indefinite standstill.

The question therefore arises: is Tbilisi pursuing in Abkhazia the same policy that it has launched in South Ossetia, deliberately alienating the Abkhaz with a view to deadlocking the negotiating process and creating a pretext for formally declaring the Abkhaz government in exile -- now ensconced, despite Abkhaz objections, in the Kodori Gorge -- the sole legitimate partner with which a formal settlement could be concluded?

Human Rights In Georgia

Human Rights In Georgia

Georgian police arresting a suspect in September 2006 (InterPressNews)

NOT A ROSY PICTURE: Ana Dolidze, former president of the Georgian Young Lawyers Association and a visiting scholar at Columbia University, told an RFE/RL briefing that many obstacles remain before Georgia's courts and law enforcement organs will be able to ensure human rights.


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