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Georgia: Long-Simmering Abkhaz Conflict Heating Up....But Why Now?

Georgian opposition parties protest in front of the Russian Embassy (file photo) (epa) As tensions continue to rise over Georgia's breakaway region of Abkhazia, observers are wondering why the so-called "frozen" conflict -- now nearly 15 years old -- is suddenly heating up.

Moscow has shown no sign of easing the pressure it has placed on Georgia in recent weeks. On the contrary, it has systematically turned up the heat -- first by lifting trade sanctions and establishing legal ties with Abkhazia (as well as with a second breakaway region, South Ossetia), and most recently by announcing it is prepared to raise the level of Russian troops manning a peacekeeping contingent in the territory.

That decision sparked a quick round of condemnation from the West, with the United States, European Union, and NATO all warning that such a move, while technically legal, would be deeply provocative.

On May 1, the United Nations joined the international chorus of those expressing concern at mounting tensions between Tbilisi and Moscow and calling on all sides to respect Georgia's territorial integrity.

Such statements are always a small victory for Tbilisi, which has sought to use the latest conflict over Abkhazia to underscore its message that Russia is a threat to Georgia's well-being -- and that rapid integration in NATO and other Western structures would be the best protection.

In a May 1 interview with the Reuters news agency, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili urged the international community to tell Moscow "to back off."

"I think this is the moment when the West, the democratic world, should not blink," Saakashvili said. "Because it is not about Georgia anymore -- it is about a much larger thing than Georgia. It is about fundamental values, principles, and the security of the rest of Europe."

Moscow, however, appears unmoved. And, apart from a European Parliament recommendation that the Russian troops be replaced with a more neutral international peacekeeping contingent, the West has signaled little intention of getting involved in the standoff.

Repositioning The Conflict

Sergei Markedonov, an expert on Caucasus issues with the Moscow-based Institute of Political and Military Analysis, tells RFE/RL's Russian Service that while the tenor of the long-standing conflict has changed, it's Tbilisi, not Moscow, that's behind the shift.

"The Georgians tried for a very long time to present the two conflicts not as Georgian-Abkhaz and Georgian-Ossetian conflicts, but as a Georgian-Russian one," Markedonov says. "Now the task that Georgia has set for itself is to reposition these two conflicts as a conflict between the West and Russia, with Georgia part of the Western world. For that reason, I would call on my Russian colleagues to be fairly careful. Getting drawn into a game you don't know, with unpredictable results, isn't the best option. There's a definite foundation for pragmatic dialogue, even bargaining, with representatives of Old Europe. They're far from delighted with Georgia's behavior."

The Abkhaz question has simmered since the region declared independence in 1994 following a short, bloody war with Georgia. Moscow, which has supplied many of Abkhazia's residents with Russian passports and financial support, has never been modest about using it as leverage in its prickly relations with Tbilisi.

Still, the recent uptick in tensions -- coming on the heels of Kosovo's independence declaration and a strong pledge of support for Tbilisi at last month's NATO summit -- strikes many observers as more grave than usual.

Many in Georgia suggest Russia's recent aggression reflects its displeasure with Tbilisi's NATO aims. A well-timed skirmish in Abkhazia, they worry, could be more than enough to send Georgia's NATO aspirations off the rails for the foreseeable future.

"It's no secret that Russia strongly opposes Georgia's further integration into NATO," says Shalva Pichkhadze, who heads the Tbilisi-based organization Georgia for NATO. "And one of the most effective instruments remaining in Russia's hands are unresolved conflicts on the territory of Georgia. That's why Russia tries to prove to NATO and the Western community of nations that Georgia, with its unresolved conflicts, will be unable to join NATO and other European security structures."

Careful Provocation

Not everyone is convinced, however, that Russia intends to raise the Abkhazia standoff to a military level. Liz Fuller, a Caucasus analyst with RFE/RL, says Russia has spent the past several years "elevating to a fine art" the practice of baiting Georgia and its emotional president.

Such a strategy, she says, discredits Georgia by exposing Saakashvili's vulnerability and volatility to the West -- and spares Moscow from what would be a damning display of aggression, even as it demonstrates to the world that its influence in the post-Soviet neighborhood is once again on the rise.

"The Russian leadership has clearly realized that Saakashvili, being an emotional man, tends to overreact to any perceived threat with bluster, with eloquent appeals to the international community to stand up for Georgia because Russia is victimizing it," Fuller says. "Because Russia knows exactly how Saakashvili will react, it also knows exactly how far it can go. Certainly at this juncture, with [Russian President-elect] Dmitry Medvedev due to be inaugurated next week, it will not risk the tensions spilling over into an armed conflict."

In the end, says Markedonov, a military conflict would be a highly undesirable outcome for both Tbilisi and Moscow.

"In principle, full-scale military action isn't interesting to either Georgia or Russia, for different reasons," he says. "Russia in this situation would not only find itself toe to toe with the West. The countries of the CIS would also not support such a move. If you talk about Georgia, then a serious war for it would have simply catastrophic consequences. This muscle-flexing needs to stop at some point."

Few now believe -- as some in Abkhazia and South Ossetia might have -- that Russia's recent gestures of support were meant as a precedent to recognizing the regions' independence.

Both territories had hoped the Kosovo precedent would bolster their own cases. But Moscow, which has for years beat down separatist sentiments in volatile republics like Chechnya, is loathe to risk the appearance of double standards for the sake of either Tskhinvali or Sukhumi.

RFE/RL's Georgian and Russian services contributed to this report

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