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Abkhazia/Georgia: New Fighting Wrecks Peace Prospects

Prague, 27 May 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The current fighting in the southern-most Gali region of Georgia's breakaway Black Sea region of Abkhazia has not only cost hundreds of lives but also reversed the spontaneous process of repatriating ethnic Georgians who had fled the district during the 1992-1993 war. This has effectively demolished any hopes of a political settlement of the deadlocked conflict.

Relations between the Georgian and Abkhaz within Abkhazia have been tense for decades. The Abkhaz, who until recently accounted for about one fifth of the region's population, lobbied in 1978 and again in 1989 for the region's transfer from Georgian jurisdiction to the RSFSR. These efforts failed.

In August, 1992, talks on creating a Georgian federal state in which Abkhazia would enjoy substantial autonomy were torpedoed when Georgia's renegade defense minister Tengiz Kitovani launched an unsanctioned invasion of Abkhazia.

In the thirteen months of fighting that followed, the Russian military supplied covert aid to Abkhazia, which succeeded in driving out Georgian forces. Almost the entire Georgian population of Abkhazia, numbering some 200,000 people, was constrained to flee. Those displaced persons have since been lobbying the Georgian leadership to pressure the Abkhaz authorities to agree to their repatriation.

A quadripartite agreement signed in April, 1994, between Georgian, Abkhaz, Russian and UN representatives outlines procedures for the return of the ethnic Georgians to Abkhazia. In July 1994 the CIS deployed a contingent of peacekeeping troops along the border between Abkhazia and the rest of Georgia to monitor the repatriation process and protect returning Georgians from reprisals by the Abkhaz.

But the formal implementation of that agreement has been systematically prevented by the Abkhaz. But some Georgian families have circumvented official procedures and returned to their homes in Gali without official sanction.

Georgians from elsewhere in Abkhazia form the backbone of Georgian guerrilla formations such as the White Legion. Those formations have systematically targeted the Russian peacekeepers, whom they perceived as an obstacle to their espoused aim of mounting a new military campaign to restore Abkhazia to Georgian control.

Both the Russian Foreign Ministry and the UN have attempted over the past year to mediate a political settlement of the conflict. Those efforts have failed because of the Abkhaz side's refusal to accept autonomous status within a federal Georgian state. The Abkhaz want the future Georgian state to be a confederation within which Abkhazia and Georgia have equal status.

In late April, at the insistence of Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, the CIS summit in Moscow proposed extending the area controlled by the Russian peacekeepers to encompass the entire territory of Gali raion, whose population prior to 1992-1993 was 95 per cent Georgian, and accelerating the repatriation of those Georgians to their abandoned homes. The Abkhaz parliament protested those proposals, and called on Abkhaz President Vladislav Ardzinba to demand that Moscow withdraw the peacekeeping force.

The recent round of hostilities was triggered by an attack (May 18) by White Legion guerrillas on an Abkhaz police post in Gali in which some 20 Abkhaz were killed. The Abkhaz Interior Ministry sent reinforcements armed with heavy artillery to the district. Those Abkhaz forces proceeded to attack Georgian-populated villages, burning houses and driving out the civilian population. Georgian leaders condemned the Abkhaz reprisals but refrained from sending regular Georgian army troops to reinforce the guerrilla formations.

Interior Minister Kakha Targamadze yesterday said that a contingent of interior ministry troops was sent to Gali the previous day, but it is not clear what role they played in the fighting. Georgian officials say that between 30,000 and 40,000 Georgians have fled Gali in recent days. They also accuse the Russian peacekeepers of having failed to take any measures whatsoever to protect the civilian population.

Two days ago (May 25) foreign ministers of Georgia and Abkhazia singed a ceasefire. It failed to take effect, and today Abkhaz forces were reported to have driven the last remaining Georgian guerrillas out of the security zone on the northern side of the Abkhaz-Georgian border.