Tbilisi, 2 May 1997 (RFE/RL) - Georgia's President Eduard Shevardnadze has called for a strengthened United Nations role in helping resolve Georgia's dispute with its breakaway region of Abkhazia. Shevardnadze's move, spelled out in a message yesterday to the U.N. Security Council, comes as the Tbilisi-Sukhumi dispute risks producing a de-stabilizing political and economic situation that could threaten both Sheverdnadze's and Georgia's future.
The CIS summit at the end of March in Moscow voted to draw up, within one month, recommendations for implementing Georgia's demands that a CIS peace-keeping force in Abkhazia broadens its mandate, by giving the force police powers.
The CIS peace-keeping force was deployed in June 1994, to facilitate the return to Abkhazia of ethnic Georgians forced to leave during hostilities that had begun in August 1992. Georgian troops had been expelled from the region by Abkhazia's forces, that received the help of fighters from the North Caucasus and Russia's logistic support. Between 200,000 and 275,000 ethnic Georgians living in Abkhazia -- representing the majority population in several districts, such as the Gali region near the internal border with Georgia -- fled their homes for other parts of Georgia and neighboring regions. Their continuous, massive presence in Tbilisi, and all over Georgia, represents a huge political and economic problem for Shevardnadze's government.
Under a 1994 U.N.-mediated agreement, Georgia and Abkhazia committed themselves to the repatriation of the refugees. A cease-fire agreement and the deployment of the Russian-led, CIS peace-keeping force was intended to expedite the process. The U.N. had declined to launch the 1994 operation, and only a small cease-fire monitoring force of U.N. observers is present in the region to this day.
Following the CIS March summit, observers in Moscow said that Shevardnadze had reached his goal of broadening the peace keepers mandate. Shevardnadze expressed hope that the situation would have positive developments in comments after the summit. However, one month after the CIS summit, politicians in Tbilisi tell RFE/RL that no substantive progress has been detected, and that such a situation risks derailing Georgia's relations with Moscow, and weakens Shevardnadze at home.
The chairman of Georgia's parliament, Zurab Zhvania, said Shevardnadze "did his best to obtain the support of CIS heads of state in Moscow." However, Zhvania said, "literally no action has been taken in the last month" by the peace-keeping force to help the refugees' repatriation.
Shalva Pichkhadze, a top adviser to Shevardnaze, tells RFE/RL that "it is not the first time that a CIS decision is not implemented." But he added, "every case like this undermines Georgia's confidence in the CIS as a whole and, in this specific case, worsens Georgia's relations with Russia."
Pichkhadze said Georgia has proposed to expand the area where peace keepers are currently deployed, to cover all the Gali district, at the same time giving additional police powers to the troops. He said that "without military power and control in Gali, there will be n-o guarantee for the civilians" willing to return to their homes.
He also said that the plan submitted by Georgia to the CIS peace keepers includes "the formation of joint Russian, Georgian and Abkhazian police patrols." But he said the Abkhazian leadership has rejected this proposal, as well as the CIS summit's decision, saying it violates the 1994 cease-fire agreement. According to the agreement, any changes in the peace keepers' mandate requires the consent of both Georgia and Abkhazia.
According to Pichkhadze, the move would allow the return of at least the majority of some 80,000 ethnic Georgians, who used to live in the Gali district before the conflict.
The return of even a small number of refugees is seen as crucial for Shevardnadze's political standing at home. Our correspondent says the presence of refugees from Abkhazia, without employment and permanent homes, is more then evident in the capital, Tbilisi, but also in the countryside.
Boris Kakubava is head of the opposition Abkhazeti faction in Georgia's Parliament. Kakubava says, "Shevardnadze's failure to deliver on the issue" may lead to a campaign of civil disobedience, in order to try and force a withdrawal of the CIS peace keepers from Abkhazia. Kakubava adds that an escalation of the dispute into fresh hostilities cannot be ruled out.
And, Kakubava said that the refugees' demand for a swift return to their homes "is, for the moment, n-o-t directed against Shevardnadze,' but against what he called "Russia's de-facto occupation of Abkhazia." According to Kakubava, Russian troops deployed on the internal border between Georgia and Abkhazia "perform the duty of border guards, and not that of peace keepers."
He concluded that, if the situation is not resolved by July 31, when the peace keepers' current mandate expires, opposition forces "will call for a referendum on new elections."
Ivlian Khaindrava, leader of the moderate, opposition Republican party, says Kakubava's threat of new elections is unlikely to produce a direct danger for Shevardnadze. According to Khaindrava, it is true that Shevardnadze's popularity has declined, among Georgians and refugees from Abkhazia. But he said "Shevardnadze's grip on power, particularly on the security organs, is stronger then ever."
And, "even most importantly," Kakubava said, "Shevardnadze for the majority of Georgians represents stability and hope for economic development in Georgia." He added that "for politicians and refugees, the dispute over Abkhazia is very important, but, for the majority of people, improvements in the material and social situation are most pressing." He concluded that "nobody really believes positive developments of any kind would take place in Georgia if Shevardnadze would not be in charge."
Parliament Chairman Zhvania agrees. However, he added that the Abkhazia issue "plays an exceptional role," as "it represents all the complex problems of relations between Georgia and Russia." According to Zhvania, the failure to obtain a political settlement of the Abkhazia dispute by July 31 will "leave little hope" that Georgia's parliament would ratify a 1995 agreement, allowing Russia to maintain military bases in Georgia. The agreement was made contingent on Russian assistance in "restoring Georgia's territorial integrity."
Observers in Tbilisi say recent international efforts to assure that there will be several oil pipelines, including one route through Georgia to carry Caspian Sea oil, may influence the situation.
Khaindrava said the "critical mass of Western economic interest has created also a Western political interest in Georgia." He added that the country "can now afford to be more independent from Russia."
All Georgian politicians interviewed by our correspondent said Georgia "wants to strengthen relations with Russia." But they added that relations, bi-lateral and within the CIS frame, should be based on respect and equal footing.
In Zhvania's words, "it is difficult to imagine that Georgia and Russia could have a really productive relationship, including a strategic one, if the dispute over Abkhazia is not solved."
Georgian observers say the country's leadership will likely continue taking steps aimed at soliciting U.N. and Western mediation for the solution of the Abkhazia dispute, in order to put pressure on Russia. Shevardnadze's call for the strengthening of the U.N. role in helping resolve the dispute proceeds precisely in this direction.