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Georgia: Resolution Of Abkhazia Conflict Appears Possible

Prague, 26 November 1997 (RFE/RL) - It appears that the resolution of the long-lasting conflict between Abkhazia and Georgia is possible after all.

Abkhaz and Georgian delegations met last week (Nov. 17-19) in Geneva for a second round of talks under the aegis of the UN Secretary-General's Friends of Georgia group. The group comprises the U.S., Germany, France, and the U.K., with Russia holding an observer status.

The meeting had been postponed for five weeks at the request of the Abkhaz side and was preceded by a sharp deterioration in Georgia's relations with both Abkhazia and Russia. Yet despite the inauspicious omens, the outcome of the talks gives grounds for cautious optimism that gradual progress towards resolving the conflict is possible.

The UN had assumed a more active role in trying to mediate a political settlement of the deadlocked Abkhaz conflict in late July, following the failure of a Russian effort to persuade the Abkhaz and Georgian leaders to sign a Russian-drafted peace protocol.

The first round of talks to be sponsored by the Friends of Georgia yielded an agreement between Tbilisi and Abkhazia to desist from the threat or use of violence against each other--a pledge that Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze and his Abkhaz counterpart, Vladislav Ardzinba, reaffirmed at their meeting in Tbilisi in mid-August. That meeting paved the way for lower-level government talks on restoring economic ties between the central government in Tbilisi and the breakaway Black Sea province.

Significant progress toward that goal was precluded, however, by Tbilisi's refusal to lift economic sanctions on Abkhazia until an estimated 200,000 ethnic Georgian displaced persons are allowed to return to the homes they had been forced to flee during the 1992-1993 war. The Abkhaz, for their part, want repatriation delayed until sanctions have been lifted and the region's devastated economy has begun to recover.

Two weeks ago (Nov. 13), the Abkhaz government drastically reduced electricity supplies to Georgia to protest an explosion at a sub-station in Abkhazia's southernmost Gali Raion. It blamed Georgian guerrilla formations for that incident.

One week earlier (Nov. 7), Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin had signed a decree allowing the sale to Russia of Abkhaz agricultural produce without Tbilisi's prior permission. Such sales were prohibited in early 1996 at Georgia's insistence. Russia's unilateral decision elicited an outraged response from Shevardnadze, who accused Chernomyrdin of creating "special hot-house conditions" for Abkhaz "separatists."

Despite these setbacks, the Abkhaz and Georgian delegations in Geneva agreed to create a coordinating commission to oversee the activities of three working groups that will address security, repatriation, and economic and social issues. Moreover, Georgian Foreign Minister Irakli Menagharishvili told journalists on his return to Tbilisi that the atmosphere at the talks had been "far more constructive" than at the meeting in late July. Russian First Deputy Foreign Minister Boris Pastukhov noted, in an infelicitous marriage of metaphors, that the two sides had opted to "untie political knots by small but frequent steps" instead of focusing on the issue of Abkhazia's future political status.

In particular, the working group dealing with security issues, which will meet at least once a week, could make a significant contribution to confidence building. The group will seek to neutralize the various guerrilla formations currently active in Gali Raion, especially the Georgian White Legion, which systematically targets members of the Russian peacekeeping force deployed along the internal border between Abkhazia and the rest of Georgia.

The working groups have another advantage insofar as they create a forum for low-level but regular talks on practical issues. This contrasts with the high-level UN- and Russian-mediated talks aimed at persuading both sides to sign a more comprehensive document. Those talks have regularly raised, and then failed to fulfill, expectations.

Recent rifts in the ranks of the ethnic Georgian displaced persons may similarly expedite the negotiating process. At a recent congress of displaced persons in Tbilisi, delegates accused some members of the so-called Abkhaz parliament-in-exile -- composed of the ethnic Georgian deputies to the Abkhaz parliament elected in 1990 -- of misappropriating financial aid intended for displaced persons.

Those charges apparently prompted the parliament-in-exile to align itself with the Georgian leadership. Tamaz Nadareishvili, the chairman of the parliament, had consistently exerted pressure on the Georgian leadership by advocating a military campaign to restore Tbilisi's jurisdiction over Abkhazia. In return, the exiled parliament received the right to nominate a representative who would belong to the Georgian delegation to the Geneva talks. The "Abkhazeti" faction within the Georgian parliament is similarly threatened by internal dissent over Russia's role as a mediator in the Abkhaz conflict.

Such disagreements have reduced the displaced persons' collective ability to exert pressure on the Georgian leadership, thereby making the policy of "small but frequent steps" a viable option. But it is still uncertain whether progress toward resolving practical issues can be parlayed into a formal political agreement on Abkhazia's status within Georgia.