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Abkhazia Conflict Highlights Tbilisi-Moscow Relations

Prague, Jan. 22 (RFE/RL) - Through the ratification last week of a friendship treaty with Russia, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze moved a step toward his goal of closer integration with Moscow.

The treaty - signed in February 1994 by Shevardnadze and Russian President Boris Yeltsin - was passed by a vote of 150-34 in Georgia's parliament. Observers say the vote tally demonstrates the new power enjoyed by Shevardnadze with regard to parliament, with many members of Shevardnadze's "Citizens Union" and his supporters now in control.

However, the treaty will only take effect, when and if, Russia's State Duma ratifies it.

Analysts at OMRI, the Prague-based "Open Media Research Institute," say it is too early to predict how Russia's newly-elected parliament will vote on the treaty. OMRI experts say Shevardnadze is despised in hard-line and nationalist circles for what they see as his role as Soviet Foreign Minister in the disintegration of the former Soviet Union. They say the hard-liners who faired well in Russia's December 17 parliamentary elections might consider a vote in favor of the treaty as de facto support for Shevardnadze.

Nonetheless, the vote in Georgia's parliament is considered a victory of sorts for Shevardnadze, who is looking to Moscow to resolve one of his most nagging problems: the Abkhazia conflict.

In 1993, Abkhaz separatists forced Georgian troops from the region after fighting had raged there in 1992 and 1993. More than 250,000 civilians, mostly ethnic Georgians, were forced to flee the region as a result, and have yet to be repatriated.

Russia initially backed the Abkhaz separatists covertly. Now Moscow has stepped in, along with the United Nations, to mediate between the two sides. About 3,500 Russian peace-keeping troops were deployed in the region under a CIS mandate after a truce was signed in 1994. Peace talks have stalled though, as Abkhaz separatists have staunchly refused to bow to Tbilisi's control and have barred ethnic Georgians from returning to the region.

Shevardnadze, suffers politically the longer the crisis drags on, has vowed to end the Abkhazia conflict this year.

Before a key CIS summit last week in Moscow, Shevardnadze announced he would urge the other eleven CIS leaders to support tighter sanctions against the Abkhaz separatists. He was not disappointed.

During the summit, CIS leaders approved the continuation of an economic and arms embargo on the region. And in a resolution drafted by Shevardnadze, they recognized Abkhazia as an "undeniable part of Georgia."

The CIS also agreed to extend the "mission" for the Russian peace keepers, after Shevardnadze threatened to oppose an extension unless the peace keepers were granted greater powers. France's AFP news agency reported on January 19 that Shevardnadze had agreed to allow an three-month extension to the peace-keepers' mandate while proposals for wider powers are considered.

However, the measures adopted at the CIS summit have drawn criticism from officials in Sukhumi, who accuse Moscow of siding with Tbilisi. Last Friday, as the CIS summit was wrapping up in Moscow, separatist Abkhaz official Stanislav Lakoba told AFP that the Kremlin had ceased to be an unbiased mediator. Lakoba was echoing similar charges that Abkhaz officials had leveled against Russia last October when Moscow imposed a blockade on the Abkhazia port of Sukhumi to halt what they said was illegal sea traffic from Turkey.

But Moscow's role in the region mirrors policy followed earlier by Russian Czars. The Russian rulers were able to conquer the area in the drawn out Caucasus war of 1817-64 after taking advantage of the various ethnic rivalries in the area by siding with one side against the other.

A closer relationship with Georgia fits into Yeltsin's overall plan announced on Friday for greater collective security throughout the region. Yeltsin said the CIS had agreed "to unite against the bandits and terrorists and act together." He was referring to the recent taking of hostages by Chechen separatists in Dagestan, and the seizure of a Russian-bound ferry in the Turkish port of Trabzo. But observers at OMRI say Yeltsin overstates the security risks posed to Russia by conflicts plaguing former Soviet Republics in order to justify closer security ties. They say security threats, like Chechnya, are mostly likely to originate within Russia, and outside of its borders.
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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.