Seven years after fighting between Abkhaz separatists and Georgian government troops began, officials from both sides are still squabbling over the region's status. RFE/RL's Michael Gallant talks to politicians and analysts about the strategic and political factors that complicate settlement.
Tbilisi, 22 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Abkhazia is only one of three autonomous regions that pose a threat to Georgia's stability, but it is by far the most contentious. Some 200,000 ethnic Georgians have fled the conflict since it began in 1992.
Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze has offered Abkhazia substantial autonomy if it submits to central rule, but he is adamant that the republic remain part of Georgia. Abkhazia, which has administered itself as an independent state since the end of the fighting, is holding out for independence.
The Georgian government says the displaced civilians who fled the fighting must be allowed to return before it can make a final decision on Abkhazia's status. It also wants a say in determining the arrangements and timetable for the repatriation.
The Georgian government says Russia has played a key role in supporting separatist sentiments since they first surfaced in another Georgian region, South Ossetia, in 1989.
Fighting broke out in South Ossetia after Georgia abolished the region's autonomous status in 1990. A subsequent ceasefire and a joint Russian-Georgian-Ossetian peacekeeping force has kept the region relatively quiet. It, like Abkhazia, has declared its independence.
It is widely believed the Abkhaz separatists were backed by mercenaries and weapons from Russia's northern Caucasus. Russia brokered a ceasefire in Abkhazia in 1994, a month after a UN- and Russian-mediated agreement that stipulates procedures for the displaced persons to return. A limited number of Russian peacekeeping troops remain in Abkhazia.
Ghia Nodia is the chairman of the Caucasian Institute for Peace, Democracy and Development in Tbilisi. He told RFE/RL that Russia is what he called the "main player" in Abkhazia. He says elements in Russia encourage Abkhaz separatism.
"While the Russian government officially recognizes the territorial integrity of Georgia, the Russian Duma and many nationalistic forces in Russia openly call for support of Abkhazia and even for allowing Abkhazia to join the Russian Federation."
Nodia noted that Russia's border with Abkhazia allows it to, as he said, "open or close the lifeline" for Abkhazia. He said that ability and Russian political support for the separatists gives Russia "a lever in relations" with Georgia.
Revaz Adamia was the chairman of the Committee on Defense and Security in the last Georgian parliament. He told RFE/RL in Tbilisi that Russia has a dual approach toward the Abkhaz problem, officially supporting Georgia's territorial integrity, but implicitly supporting the separatists with economic and military assistance.
"This is also a big mistake of the Russian establishment. We were speaking with them in '92 and '93 that supporting Abkhaz separatists will have a boomerang effect, and it happened definitely in Chechnya. I'm sure Chechnya is just the first example of that, the first indication. The whole northern Caucasus is more or less in the same situation."
Hamlet Chipashvili is the Tbilisi representative of another Georgian autonomous region, Adjaria. Adjaria has not been nearly as vocal as Abkhazia in its demands for independence, but Chipashvili notes that the two regions have similar problems in their relations with the central government.
"The center wants to have puppet regimes there, puppet government, and to govern and to rule this or that region and at the same time autonomous republic from Tbilisi, and it's impossible. The same ideas and the same mentality was [prevalent] during [the] Soviet period, and therefore [the] Soviet Union was just destroyed."
Chipashvili notes Adjaria, which is composed of mainly ethnic Georgians, does not have separatist aims. He said Adjaria only wants a clearer definition of the relationship between it and the center.
He says Shevardnadze has promised Abkhazia lots of independence, but has not been specific about what kind of independence." He said the government is equally vague in its relations with Adjaria.
The central government says Adjaria's leader, Aslan Abashidze, is pro-Russian and is supported by Moscow. Analysts say Abashidze is an autocratic ruler who has moved Adjaria away from central government control without confrontation or outright calls for separatism. While Adjaria and South Ossetia are relatively quiet, the dispute with Abkhazia seems no closer to a settlement.
Analyst Nodia says that both sides seem to be playing a waiting game, hoping that the other will give in. He noted that cooperation between Russia and the West would pose the best chance for a settlement. But he says that is unimaginable for the time being, as the two sides compete for influence in the gas- and oil-rich Caucasus.