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Georgia: Search Continues For An End To Abkhazia Conflict

Prague, 29 May 1997 (RFE/RL) - Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze yesterday said that separatists in the breakaway region of Abkhazia would be committing "suicide" if they chose to go to war again.

The warning came a day after Shevardnadze offered a new start to peace negotiations, while ruling out any solution that recognizes Abkhazian independence.

Shevardnadze was forced to flee the region under fire when his troops were routed in 1993 by pro-independence Abkhaz-led fighters after a year of fighting in which an estimated 10,000 people died.

Since the signing of a formal ceasefire agreement in May, 1994, that ended a war in which the Georgian government was forced to cede control of Abkhazia, several rounds of negotiations under the joint auspices of Russia and the UN have failed to make any substantive progress on resolving the central issue of Abkhazia's future political status within Georgia. The Abkhaz are demanding equal status with Georgia within a confederation, while Tbilisi will offer only what it terms "the maximum degree of autonomy".

In November, 1996, then Abkhaz Foreign Minister Konstantin Ozgan proposed postponing a decision on Abkhazia's status for an indefinite period while working to restore economic links.

Last year Russia agreed to Georgia's demand to impose trade sanctions on Abkhazia. Rail and road transport between Abkhazia and the rest of Georgia is disrupted.

Senior officials of the breakaway Abkhaz Republic have twice proposed variants of the so-called Chechen option as a way to expedite a peace settlement between the central government in Tbilisi and the secessionist leadership in Sukhumi.

In late August, 1996, then Russian Security Council secretary Aleksandr Lebed and Chechen chief of staff Aslan Maskhadov signed a landmark agreement paving the way for an end to the Chechen conflict. Its key provision was the postponement for up to five years of a binding decision on Chechnya's future political status vis-a-vis the Russian Federation. This enabled both sides to save face by claiming that neither had made a concession over Chechnya's demand for independence. At the same time, the agreement opened the door to further talks on an interim framework for bilateral relations, both political and economic. These talks culminated in the signing on May 12 in Moscow of a Russian-Chechen peace treaty.

Last week, Abkhaz President Vladislav Ardzinba proposed that Abkhazia and Georgia sign an agreement on the lines of the treaty concluded between Russian President Boris Yeltsin and his Chechen counterpart Maskhadov.

Addressing the Georgian parliament two days ago Shevardnadze said this proposal was "unacceptable." He argued that there is a fundamental difference between the two conflicts in that Chechnya is seeking independence from the Russian Federation, whereas Abkhazia wants to join Russia.

This is not, in fact, the case: Abkhazia perceives Russia as backing Georgia's position, and wants either official recognition by the international community as an independent state, or equal status with Georgia within a confederation.

Shevardnadze instead proposed convening an international conference on Abkhazia under the aegis of the UN, with the participation of the OSCE, the United States, France, Germany and the UK. The latter countries are interested in Georgia's internal stability as, except for Germany, they all have oil firms engaged in exploiting Azerbaijan's Caspian oil, part of which is to be exported across Georgian territory.

In addition, Shevardnadze offered an amnesty for all those who participated in the fighting in Abkhazia in 1992-93. This, if accepted, would help to expedite the repatriation of some 180,000 ethnic Georgians forced to flee Abkhazia during the hostilities, and who are now living in Georgia. The Abkhaz authorities currently insist on screening all applications from Georgians wishing to return to Abkhazia in order to prevent the return of persons suspected of committing war crimes.

The plight of the ethnic Georgian refugees from Abkhazia is one of Shevardnadze's major headaches. Their spokesman and leader Tamaz Nadareishvili has repeatedly argued that the only way to restore Georgia's control over Abkhazia is by launching a military offensive. Nadareishvili claims that he could mobilize a force of 60,000 men to this end.

Georgian parliament deputies representing these refugees are currently staging a sit-down protest in Tbilisi. They have threatened a campaign of civil disobedience to lend weight to their demand that either the mandate of the CIS peacekeepers currently deployed along the border between Abkhazia and the rest of Georgia be broadened to enable them to protect those refugees who return to their homes, or that the peacekeeping force be withdrawn completely when its mandate expires July 31.