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Georgia/Abkhazia: Stalled Peace Process Needs New Start

In the shadow of renewed dramatic fighting between Russia and Chechnya, experts and scholars reflected this past week in London on another, less-publicized Caucasus dispute -- the stalled peace process between Georgia and its breakaway region of Abkhazia. RFE/RL's Floriana Fossato reports.

London, 6 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- At meetings organized by universities and think-tanks last week, Georgian and Abkhaz experts gave their accounts of the key obstacles still hampering the peace negotiations.

Abkhazia, a region of northwest Georgia on the Black Sea, broke away from the country in 1992, sparking intense fighting that forced nearly 200,000 ethnic Georgians, half the population of Abkhazia, to flee. The displaced persons have strained Georgia's resources and contributed to political instability in the country.

A cease-fire agreement in 1994 resulted in an unstable stalemate. The cease-fire formally brought an end to the war, but the difficult negotiation process has been balanced ever since between dialogue and deadlock. The tension almost erupted into full-scale fighting again in May 1998, and it still persists.

RFE/RL analyst Liz Fuller says the arrival last week of German diplomat Dieter Boden, who succeeds Liviu Bota as UN special envoy, has made Tbilisi optimistic that peace talks could pick up. As head of the OSCE mission to Georgia in 1995 and 1996, Boden mediated between Tbilisi and breakaway South Ossetia.

At the London conference, however, optimism was lacking. Both Paata Zakareishvili, head of staff of Georgia's parliamentary committee on Human Rights and Ethnic Minorities, and Liana Kvarchelia, coordinator of a number of Abkhaz peace groups, said the last six years have marked a "time of missed opportunities." According to Kvarchelia, ongoing negotiations with the participation of international mediators have prevented a full war, but have failed to solve the underlying problems.

Jonathan Cohen, an expert at the British think-tank Conciliation Resources, says that both sides have depended too much on outside mediators -- the UN, the U.S., Russia -- to deliver the peace. Instead the two sides should pursue economic cooperation and new political relations, to provide incentive for the communities to live together. For now, Cohen wrote in a recent think-tank publication, "the psychological heritage of separation that is accumulating and the lack of sufficiently strong peace constituencies make it difficult to turn war fatigue into peace hunger."

Abkhazia continues to demand sovereignty, while Georgia has made it clear that its best offer is autonomy within a federation. The two main issues to negotiate are the status of the region and the repatriation of displaced Georgians.

The two sides are at an impasse over the issues. Georgia will not discuss the status of Abkhazia until after the issue of the tens of thousands of ethnic Georgians driven out of the region has been resolved. The Abkhaz leadership, for its part, said early this year that any Georgians who wished to return are welcome, and it recently claimed that 65,000 have done so.

Kvarchelia says Abkhazia feels that its position is not well understood by international mediators. She says the international mediators such as the UN, Russia, and Western countries all support the principle of territorial integrity -- rather than that of self-determination.

She said the situation is driving Abkhazians toward a harder line. Autonomy within Georgia is very unpopular among the Abkhaz people, and their sentiment has a strong influence on Abkhaz peace negotiators.

On the Georgian side, Zakareishvili says he believes Georgia should now take the lead and facilitate the negotiating process. Russia is unlikely to broker a solution, he said, so Tbilisi should move on its own initiative. He said he is most concerned about the situation of the displaced, who he claimed are not allowed to integrate into society.

He said that the West should use Georgia's dependence on outside mediators and put some real pressure on the country to build a civil society.