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Georgia: Displaced Persons Begin Returning To Abkhazia

Prague, 4 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Georgians began returning to their homes this week in the breakaway province of Abkhazia but it is not yet clear whether this latest repatriation effort has any chance of success.

On March 1, Georgians began crossing the bridge over the Inguri River that marks the internal border between Abkhazia and the rest of Georgia.

Initial estimates from the Abkhaz side said more than 100 Georgians had crossed the Inguri while the Georgian side the number was less than 10. At this juncture it is impossible to predict what percentage of the estimated 200,000 Georgian displaced persons will return in response to the invitation of Abkhaz President Vladislav Ardzinba to return to Abkhazia.

Georgian objections to the offer and the comments of international observers indicate any full repatriation is highly unlikely.

Ardzinba made the offer to return home March 1 in a meeting with U.N. special representative Liviu Bota in early January. The displaced persons, who have strained Georgian resources and contributed to political instability in the country, had fled their homes in Abkhazia during either the 1992-1993 war or the renewed hostilities in May 1998.

After making the offer, Ardzinba subsequently created a commission charged with ensuring the returnees' safety and helping to meet their material needs.

The Georgian leadership, however, responded that Ardzinba had no right to act unilaterally and that the repatriation process must be jointly coordinated by Tbilisi and Sukhumi under the auspices of the United Nations.

Bota himself, and senior Russian diplomats engaged in the stalled Abkhaz peace process, concurred with the Georgian objections. Senior Georgian officials, including President Eduard Shevardnadze, repeatedly warned that the Abkhaz authorities are incapable of ensuring the safety of Georgians who return to Abkhazia.

The returnees are being registered by the Abkhaz commission responsible for their safety, and are being transported by bus to their former homes.

There is a hardcore of fugitives who oppose the idea of returning, but at least some of these are deterred not by security considerations but because their future political careers are contingent on preserving the status quo until they themselves are in a position to change it to their advantage. The leader of this faction is Tamaz Nadareishvili, chairman of the Abkhaz parliament in exile, which comprises the ethnic Georgian deputies to the Abkhaz parliament elected in the fall of 1990, the mandate of which has since expired.

The Abkhaz Foreign Ministry has accused the parliament in exile of organizing a picket to try to disrupt the repatriation process on the Inguri bridge, with the backing of the Georgian government.

Georgian Minister of State Vazha Lortkipanidze, who as ambassador to Moscow played a key role in the peace process in 1997-98, rejected Ardzinba's initiative in terms far harsher than other senior members of the Georgian leadership, terming it "a farce." Both Lortkipanidze and Nadareishvili are believed to harbor presidential ambitions, should Shevardnadze not run for a second term in 2000.