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Russia: Moscow Talks Raise Questions About Georgia's Future Territorial Setup

The fall of Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze has raised concern over the future of relations between the capital Tbilisi and the separatist provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and the autonomous province of Adjaria. Leaders of all three provinces have been holding talks in recent days in Moscow.

Prague, 2 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- For the past six days, Russia has been holding talks with the leaders of Adjaria, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia. The talks -- set to end today -- have been held over the objections of Georgia's new interim government.

There has been no official comment on what is being discussed -- although Russian newspapers have been speculating. The Moscow-based "Izvestiya" daily said last week that Russia -- which helped Georgia's two separatist provinces, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, gain de facto independence from Tbilisi in the early 1990s -- might now offer them "some form of protectorate." Another paper, "Nezavisimaya gazeta," went as far as to say that Moscow might even consider making these two provinces part of the Russian Federation.

Yet, the Russian Duma (lower house of parliament) on 28 November declined to examine a draft resolution tabled by the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia in support of Abkhazia's annexation.

Comments made by Abkhaz Prime Minister Raul Khadjimba suggest that uniting Georgia's largest separatist province with Russia was not on the agenda of the Moscow consultations. He told reporters on 29 November that his province would remain independent regardless of the change of leadership in Tbilisi. He also said his government was ready to pursue peace negotiations with Georgia after it elects a new president on 4 January.

"Time will show. Those elections that will take place [soon] will show to which extent [Georgian leaders] are open to further talks. We are ready to work within the framework of the negotiation process with those who will come to power in Georgia in order to not let the conflict resume. Russia is one of the sides in the negotiation process. We've already had talks in order to maintain those same conditions that prevailed before [Shevardnadze's ousting] and remain within the framework of the negotiation process," Khadjimba said.

Russian liberal lawmaker Vyacheslav Igrunov, the deputy chairman of the Duma committee on Commonwealth of Independent States affairs, provided a clue regarding the content of the Moscow consultations. He told "Nezavisimaya gazeta" he believed the four-party talks would aim at "finding a compromise that would help preserve Georgia's territorial integrity."

Commenting on Igrunov's remarks, the daily said making Georgia some type of federation is a possibility.

This is not a new idea. Georgian authorities have long floated the idea of forming a federal state to leaders in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

In the late 1990s, President Eduard Shevardnadze and then-South Ossetian leader Ludwig Chibirov even reached a preliminary agreement under which the province would enjoy a special relationship with Tbilisi. Dubbed "asymmetrical federalism," this system would have given South Ossetia a status different from other Georgian regions. The plan, however, was never implemented.

Abkhazia, for its part, has always rejected the prospect of reintegrating Georgia as part of a federation, saying it would only agree to a looser "confederation" of independent states.

Until Shevardnadze's ousting, plans to grant both provinces limited sovereignty within a single state had been put on the back burner. However, recent political turmoil in Georgia may put the issue back onto the agenda.

Russia recently proposed a similar scheme for Moldova in a bid to settle Chisinau's dispute with its breakaway republic of Transdniester. The controversial plan, put forward last month, is designed to grant Transdniester and Moldova's predominantly Turkic province of Gagauzia a large degree of autonomy under the supervision of Russian soldiers already in the area.

In the view of some Moscow-based analysts, Russia -- which has troops stationed in Batumi, the Adjar capital, and in Akhalkalaki in the predominantly ethnic Armenian region of Djavakheti -- could act as a guarantor of Georgia's federalism.

Stanislav Belkovskii is the director of the National Strategy Council, an influential Moscow-based think tank with alleged close links to the Kremlin. In an interview with RFE/RL a few days before the 2 November disputed legislative polls that ultimately triggered Shevardnadze's resignation, Belkovskii said he had come up with a plan to settle the Abkhaz dispute through the transformation of Georgia into a federation.

"This plan foresees that in a few years, Georgia will become a new, federative state made up of seven entities that would include Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Adjaria -- in other words those territories that de facto are no longer under Tbilisi's control. Within the new state, the center would be responsible for defense and foreign policy issues, while police and economic issues would remain under the competence of each of the federation's entities, which would then be granted a certain degree of autonomy. To our view this is the only way to improve the situation in Georgia and restore its territorial integrity," Belkovskii said.

Under Belkovskii's plan, in addition to Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Adjaria, Georgia would comprise the regions of Imereti, Kakheti, Kartli, and Tbilisi.

Shevardnadze's office had scorned the proposals, saying they did not deserve much attention.

But Belkovskii said he believed the plan -- which he had just passed on to the Kremlin -- could not be implemented "until a change of ruling elite occurs in Georgia." He also said America's consent and cooperation were crucial to his scheme.

Following the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, Washington has boosted its presence in the former Soviet Union, setting up military bases in Central Asia and launching a $64 million program to train Georgian Army units in antiterrorist techniques. The United States sees stability in areas bordering Russia to the south as essential to its own security and to its regional oil projects.

Yet, in Belkovskii's opinion, Washington "is unable to settle the conflicts that broke out in the post-Soviet space on its own" and must therefore rely on Russia.

"I believe America could notably delegate its functions [to Russia] with regard to the settlement of the most serious conflicts that exist in the post-Soviet space. This of course goes for the conflict in Georgia with Abkhazia and for the Transdniester [dispute in Moldova]. Today it is obvious that these conflicts cannot be sorted out without external intervention, that none of them can be settled on its own. Russia will likely have to act in coordination with [the U.S.] within a global framework that will meet America's interests and not contradict them," Belkovskii said.

How Georgia's new leaders view their country's future territorial setup is unclear.

While protesting against the Moscow consultations, Georgia's acting President Nino Burdjanadze says she is ready to negotiate with Adjar leader Aslan Abashidze on redefining relations between Tbilisi and Batumi.

In an interview with RFE/RL's Georgian Service last week, Burdjanadze did not reject outright the prospect of a federation, although she said that Georgia would continue to press for the rapid closure of Russian military bases.

"We've never concealed to anyone that we favor a thorough discussion on issues related to [Georgia's] territorial setup. But I think it would be inappropriate to talk about a change of [foreign policy] on our side," Burdjanadze said.

Anxious to preserve the autonomy of his region, the Adjar president does not seem opposed to the prospect of a federal Georgia either. Asked at a Moscow press conference on 27 November whether he thought setting up a federation could help Georgia avoid chaos, Abashidze suggested he would agree to any plan that would prevent a resumption of the early 1990s violence.

"We must pick a formula, perhaps several formulas, and adapt them to [Georgia's] conditions and traditions. Whichever formula we choose, it must avoid bloodshed and be implemented in a democratic way, through elections and dialogue -- not the way it already happened in Georgia," Abashidze said.

Provided Moscow decides to push for a federal solution to Georgia's dispute, it would have to persuade Abkhazia and South Ossetia to agree to its plan. Initial reactions from leaders of those two provinces, however, suggest this will be difficult.

In remarks made prior to the Moscow consultations, South Ossetian President Eduard Kokoyty said he would insist that Russia annex his province. As for Abkhaz Prime Minister Khadjimba, he said Sukhum would not join Georgia "as part of a federation."