A political settlement between Georgia and separatist Abkhazia remains far off. But officials involved in the latest UN efforts to advance the peace process say a project to return internally displaced Georgians to the province could be crucial to reviving peace talks. The UN mission in Georgia has completed a study of security needs in the Gali region and there is expected to be growing pressure on the two sides to reach a deal. But progress is likely to be slow, in part due to political divisions among Abkhaz leaders.
United Nations, 29 May 2003 (RFE/RL)) -- Efforts to solve the 10-year-old Georgian-Abkhaz conflict now appear to be focusing on a plan to provide security to help tens of thousands of displaced Georgians return to their homes in the separatist province.
With political talks at a standstill between the two sides, diplomats involved in the UN efforts to broker a settlement say there is support from key Security Council members to explore the resettlement of the Gali region.
The region near Abkhazia's border with the rest of Georgia was once home to about 80,000 ethnic Georgians who fled after civil war broke out. Nearly half of them return each year under precarious conditions to farm their land.
UN experts conducted a study of security conditions in the region last autumn and have proposed a series of steps to safeguard the return of Georgians. But UN envoy Heidi Tagliavini told RFE/RL in a recent interview that it is still up to Georgian and Abkhaz authorities to agree on the practical arrangements.
"We should not start to think in terms that tomorrow we open the bridge and then the people come back. It needs to be a relatively orderly return and we need really to get also the commitment of both sides that now this can start," Tagliavini said.
Tagliavini acknowledged such a commitment could be difficult to reach given the stance of Abkhaz leaders. They have refused any discussions that include the political status of the province, which the UN says should remain an autonomous part of Georgia. Further complicating matters is recent infighting among the Abkhaz leadership.
Last month, the de facto prime minister of Abkhazia, Gennadii Gagulia, resigned under pressure from opposition groups upset at economic conditions in the province. Succeeding him is Raul Khadjimba, who had been defense minister.
Tagliavini said Khadjimba is the third prime minister she will work with in her eight months as UN envoy. The inter-Abkhaz dispute, she said, has interfered with efforts to build momentum in the peace process. "Before, the Abkhaz were relatively united in all their fights, at least against non-reunification. Now they have such a concern with their internal situation that they were very much concentrating on that," she said.
The new focus on resettling the internally displaced Georgians emerged from discussions held in February in Geneva by a subgroup of the Security Council, known as the Friends of the Secretary-General for Georgia.
High-level envoys from Russia, the United States, and Britain were among those who met in Geneva. They agreed that the Georgian and Abkhaz sides should work in parallel on economic issues, the return of displaced persons, and security matters as well as the overriding status issue.
The Russian and Georgian presidents, Vladimir Putin and Eduard Shevardnadze, met in Sochi in March and agreed to a similar approach bilaterally to boost the peace process.
There is due to be a follow-up to the Friends Group's Geneva meeting this summer. U.S. diplomats say there's also an expectation that Putin may raise the issue of Abkhazia in upcoming meetings with U.S. President George W. Bush.
Georgia's ambassador to the UN, Revaz Adamia, told RFE/RL that he welcomes the new efforts. But he said resolving the problem of internally displaced persons (IDPs) is likely to become mired in longstanding political disputes between the two sides. "As soon as you will try to dig [into] the details of the mechanisms of security guarantees for the returning IDPs, you will immediately touch the political problems -- who are the authorities in Gali region? What is the governance? [Are] there any international bodies involved? What is the legislation? What is this legislative area? Whose laws are working down there? These are certainly political problems and political questions," Adamia said.
Adamia is more hopeful about the prospects for greater U.S. involvement in prodding the peace process. He said that in his recent talks with U.S. State Department officials, they have indicated a willingness to become more engaged in resolving the Abkhaz dispute. "I feel that there is some more, let's say, readiness for more active involvement in the solution of the Abkhaz problem," he said. "I don't know how and when it will have some outcome but this readiness one can feel."
The United States is eager to see the dispute settled for the stability of the South Caucasus region, said Richard Williamson, a deputy U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and a participant in the Geneva talks earlier this year.
He said there is a realization that smaller steps, like dealing with displaced persons, are necessary before the larger political questions can be settled. But Williamson told RFE/RL that the Friends Group, including Russia, has agreed it will continue to press for a political settlement. "Our view is, as long as we understand that that's something that has to be addressed, the U.S. supports the Friends and the UN working on the IDP return and the economic side because inevitably, as we make progress there, it will force some activity and engagement in the larger political question," Williamson said.
Williamson said Washington supports the recommendations from the UN mission on improving security in the Gali region ahead of possible population returns. They include increasing the number of ethnic Georgians in local police forces in the Gali region, increasing cooperation between police forces in Gali and the neighboring Georgian region around Zugdidi and deploying a UN civilian police to train and advise the security forces in Gali.