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Georgia: Abkhaz Security Official Calls Changing Peacekeeping Mandate 'Risky'

Stanislav Lakoba (Courtesy Photo) The crisis between Georgia and its breakaway region of Abkhazia will be the focus of a lot of shuttle diplomacy in the coming days, with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili heading to St. Petersburg to meet with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to push a new peace plan, and EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana traveling to Tbilisi and Sukhumi on June 5-6 to urge a resolution. RFE/RL Tbilisi correspondent Eka Tsamalashvili discussed recent developments with Stanislav Lakoba, secretary of the Security Council of the de facto Abkhaz government.

RFE/RL: After a recent meeting with EU ambassadors, you said that changes in the EU's approach to the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict had become palpable. Could you please expound on your comment?

Stanislav Lakoba: You know, first of all, this was the highest-ranking delegation from the EU [to ever visit the region] -- be it in terms of delegation members or the actual talks, which significantly differed from the formats that have been used before. The upcoming visit of Solana also indicates that some transformations are indeed taking place.

RFE/RL: What do you think is the purpose of Solana's visit?

Lakoba: As far as I understand, he is coming to Georgia. I don't exclude a possibility that he will want to defuse the tensions there -- because, after all, the situation is not very calm right now. At least, this is the impression that I get. But this is my personal opinion -- I don't know the agenda of Solana's visit.

RFE/RL interviews Alexandre Lomaia, secretary of Georgia's National Security Council

RFE/RL: What are your thoughts on Moscow sending Russian soldiers to Abkhazia to work on railway construction? Can you tell us how many there are?

Lakoba: There is an official explanation of this and, in fact, all other deliberations have nothing to do with the events and situation in reality. In fact, the objective [of Russian railroad construction troops in Abkhazia] is [to rebuild] a railroad, and that has to do with the Sochi Olympic Games, in keeping with existing agreements on the reconstruction of infrastructure in Abkhazia, but no more than that. The rest is speculation. You know, these are 400 unarmed people and their objective is basically peaceful.

RFE/RL: Georgia wants the peacekeeping forces' format in Abkhazia to be changed. What will happen if Russian peacekeepers leave the region? Do you think Tbilisi and Sukhumi can agree on a new, bilateral mechanism?

Lakoba: I say this would be a risky move. Moreover, they will not leave. This is the problem. They will not leave. And if they do, this will entail an open conflict -- which, I think, is in nobody's interests.

RFE/RL: On the eve of the upcoming meeting between Mikheil Saakashvili and Dmitry Medvedev, [Russian Prime Minister] Vladimir Putin said Saakashvili's peaceful initiative on Abkhazia was a correct approach. Why don't you want to start negotiations on this proposal? As we all know, Saakashvili is offering broad autonomy to Abkhazia.

Lakoba: Well, you see, we have been there already. What's there to talk about, when the issue was being discussed already in 1992? Saakashvili used the terms "autonomy" and "federation" in the same phrase -- and this is why we don't think this would be a serious conversation. Most importantly, such propositions are not just being declared like this. Instead, they should be worked out through a negotiation process. Otherwise, one day the Georgian president is in the mood to come up with this kind of offer; tomorrow he will say something else. This does not oblige us to anything. Four years ago, [the Georgian government] should have started off differently -- with peaceful proposals, instead of threats and attempts of forceful action, like the Kodori Gorge case, and some events in Gali Raion, for instance. Or the kidnapping of the head of administration, [David] Sigua -- who, according to the information that we have, was murdered by the Georgian secret service. (Editor's note: According to the Abkhaz side, Gali Raion election commission head David Sigua was abducted in early February 2007. Tbilisi denied any links to the abduction). Naturally, after such actions, the tensions only grew.

RFE/RL: Let's talk about the problem of refugees. Why can't these people come back? The Georgian side is asking for their full return of Abkhazia.

Lakoba: You are aware that there are agreements in which it is spelled out that they should first return to Gali Raion. Georgia was one of the signatories to these agreements. If in Georgia they forgot what documents they have signed -- then this is a different issue. As Putin also confirmed, around 55,000 Georgians did return to Gali Raion. But we cannot be solving such questions endlessly.

RFE/RL: Do you exclude the possibility that, in future, people will be able to return beyond Gali Raion?

Lakoba: At this moment, this would be impossible. In such case, all damage that was inflicted on Abkhazia during the war -- worth around $12-13 billion -- should be compensated; our people's living conditions, the infrastructure, should be improved; an agreement on the nonresumption of hostilities has to be signed. A whole spectrum of actions is needed, [for our relations] to reach the level that you are talking about. Otherwise, it is unthinkable. In what form, do you think, their return can take place, when here, in virtually every household, every family, there is someone who died or suffered [as a result of the war]? This is Abkhazia, and the war was waged on Abkhazia's territory. The Georgian side seems to forget that the war was waged here, not in Tbilisi. It was Georgia who came here; Abkhazia did not attack Georgia.

RFE/RL: Residents in Abkhazia have Russian passports, the currency in Abkhazia is the Russian ruble -- what kind of independence is this? What are your intentions, and how realistic do you think Abkhazia's aspirations for independence really are?

Lakoba: I think it is realistic, of course. There are other examples in the world. The process can materialize in a phased way -- a lot has been said in the press, in analytical articles, about this. It makes no difference whether it is ruble or any other currency that is used here. Yes, ruble is used, so is the U.S. dollar, or other currencies. A national currency might also emerge eventually. Everything has to happen in its time. A lot is being asked from us simultaneously -- that we should solve all problems while remaining in isolation. But things don't work this way.

translated by Salome Asatiani of RFE/RL's Georgian Service

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