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Analysis: Domestic Pressure On Abkhaz President Intensifies

Sergei Bagapsh (AFP) Russia's moves over the past two months to demonstrate its complete freedom of maneuver with regard to the unrecognized republic of Abkhazia, most recently the deployment to Abkhazia on May 31 of 400 military engineers, have galvanized the international community into issuing repeated warnings that any encroachment on Georgia's sovereignty and territorial integrity is unacceptable.

Those statements of support for the Georgian leadership have been paralleled by international efforts to coerce the Abkhaz leadership into accepting the most recent peace plan unveiled in late March by Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. Those efforts may, however, prove counterproductive, insofar as pro-Moscow politicians and groups opposed to de facto Abkhaz President Sergei Bagapsh have reacted by calling for the Abkhaz leadership to "reconsider" its renewed participation in talks with Georgia under the aegis of the Group of Friends of the UN Secretary General.

In early May, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza traveled to Sukhum(i) for talks with President Sergei Bagapsh. On May 30, the ambassadors of 15 EU member states likewise met with Abkhaz leaders in a bid to persuade them to resume direct talks with Tbilisi, which were suspended in 2006. The Abkhaz have repeatedly said they will return to the negotiating table only after Georgia withdraws the Interior Ministry troops it deployed to the upper reaches of the Kodori Gorge in August 2006.

On June 5, EU Foreign and Security Policy Commissioner Javier Solana traveled to Tbilisi, where he told journalists that the purpose of his planned visit to Sukhum(i) of June 6 is to try to determine whether and how the EU can contribute to strengthening Georgian-Abkhaz contacts. Also on June 5, the European parliament enacted a resolution advocating that the peacekeeping operation in Abkhazia should be revised given that "the Russian troops have lost their role of neutral and impartial peacekeepers." It therefore proposed "bolstering the international presence in the conflict zone by sending an ESDP [European Security and Defense Policy] border mission to the region," reported on June 5. The ESDP has had a police mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina since 2003.

The Abkhaz leadership is, however, highly unlikely to agree to the withdrawal of the Russian peacekeeping force, for two reasons. First, those peacekeepers are seen as the sole effective deterrent to an anticipated new Georgian offensive: Abkhaz Security Council Secretary Stanislav Lakoba told RFE/RL's Georgian Service on June 2 that their withdrawal would be a "risky step" that would lead to a "direct confrontation...that is not in anyone's interest." And second, the pro-Russian domestic political opposition to President Bagapsh unequivocally supports a continued Russian presence.

Meeting in emergency session on April 30, the Abkhaz parliament called on Bagapsh to suspend talks with Georgia under the UN format until the Group of Friends gives an "objective" assessment of what it termed Georgia's recent "aggressive" actions. Then on June 4, on the eve of Solana's planned visit to Sukhum(i), a congress of the public organization Aruaa, which unites veterans of the 1992-93 war, issued a statement criticizing the "dangerous" multivector foreign policy pursued by the Abkhaz present leadership as "clearing the way for Georgia to join NATO," reported on June 5.

That policy, the statement continued, undermines Russia's role in the negotiating process and as a guarantor of the nonresumption of hostilities. It also, the statement continued, creates a situation in which NATO may become involved in resolving the conflict, and that could lead to the loss of Abkhazia's independence. The 489 delegates to the congress adopted a resolution similarly criticizing that foreign policy as undermining "brotherly relations" with Russia and as splitting Abkhaz society, and they formally voted no confidence in the Abkhaz leadership.

The chairman of Aruaa, which was founded one year ago, is Lieutenant General Vladimir Arshba, a former first deputy defense minister whom Bagapsh unsuccessfully tried to persuade to withdraw his candidacy in the March 2007 parliamentary election, accusing him of plotting a coup d'etat. Also present at the congress was Vice President Raul Khadjimba, Moscow's preferred candidate in the 2004-05 Abkhaz presidential election.

RFE/RL Caucasus Report

RFE/RL Caucasus Report

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