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Georgia: ICG Program Director Warns Abkhaz Issue Entering 'Confrontational' Phase

ICG's Sabine Freizer (RFE/RL) As the standoff mounts between Tbilisi and Moscow over the breakaway region Abkhazia, Georgia has frequently accused the Kremlin of pursuing a military buildup on Abkhaz territory. A new report by the International Crisis Group (ICG), however, claims that officials in the Georgian government are themselves urging a military solution in Abkhazia. RFE/RL correspondent Salome Asatiani spoke to Sabine Freizer, ICG's Europe program director, about the report.

RFE/RL: The new report paints a fairly grim view of the Abkhaz crisis. What are ICG's main concerns?

Sabine Freizer: We are very concerned about the dispute between Georgia and Russia, and feel that it is entering a new, dangerously confrontational phase, and that the risk of war is increasingly growing in the South Caucasus because of this conflict.

What we say is that there are several steps both sides need to take. Most explicitly, Russia should pull back the troops that it has deployed most recently, in April and May. And we also believe that Tbilisi should cool down any rhetoric, and move forward with its peace initiatives towards Abkhazia.

RFE/RL: The report suggests a certain struggle between hawks and moderates in the Georgian government.

Freizer: Yes, I think there's a clear division within the Georgian government between hawks and doves. There are a group of people within the Georgian government who are more sympathetic to a war option, who believe that the diplomatic way has really not been successful in the past. They feel very frustrated, and they feel that the only way forward is a military offensive to regain parts of Abkhazia. The good thing is that it looks like the doves have, at this point, gained the upper hand in Georgia.

RFE/RL: Would it be possible to name individuals or structures on either side of this divide?

Freizer: Generally, it is the people who are more involved in the security services and the Interior Ministry who tend to be more hawkish. The people who are more on the dovish side of things are those who work more on the economic side, like the prime minister [Lado Gurgenidze], and also those who work more on the conflict resolution side, like the minister for reintegration [Temur Iakobashvili].

My sense is that there is a division between hawks and doves even within the National Movement [ruling party], and even within certain people. On one day they might feel more hawkish, on another day more dovish. This is a bit of a problem.

RFE/RL: The ICG report claims that Georgia shares blame for the recent escalation in Abkhazia. Members of the Georgian government have a problem with this characterization. They point to a number of openly provocative actions by Russia -- all documented in the your report -- and say Georgia has to do whatever necessary, given the circumstances, to protect it territorial integrity.

Freizer: I think that Georgia should focus more clearly on what it can do at this point. This principally means that Georgia should do more to implement confidence-building measures, and should not make the implementation of these confidence-building measures conditional on resolution of the status issue.

I think that Georgia should try to reengage more clearly with the Abkhaz in taking the steps which have been outlined by the president, such as the establishment of a free-trade zone, allowing the Abkhaz better access internationally to markets, and lifting the economic sanctions that exist on Abkhazia. I think that if Georgia moves forward in this vein, to try to gain the confidence of the Abkhaz, and to try to break their dependence on Russia, this would be a good way forward.

I also think that one thing that the Georgians could do is to sign a document to formally commit to the nonresumption of hostilities with the Abkhaz, and overall, in the Kodori Gorge, I think that the Georgians could be more transparent on the security presence that exists there, and, as Georgia has done, commit to refrain from any over flights over Abkhazia.

RFE/RL: The report says Georgia's military base in Senaki in western Georgia was strengthened and put on combat alert; that weapons and other military items were being sent to Kodori. However, as you know -- the report also recognizes this -- the UN Observer Mission in Georgia did not find evidence of any buildup of security forces either in Kodori Gorge or the administrative Abkhaz border. How would you explain this?

Freizer: I think this is something that has been taken slightly taken out of context in our report. When we are mentioning the strengthening of Senaki, this is something that has been admitted to us by Georgian officials as well, but this is a temporary strengthening of the base, something which is completely understandable. So we are not particularly criticizing Georgia for that move.

When it comes to Kodori, we do not say that there has been a deployment of military forces to Kodori. What we say is that the capabilities in Kodori have been improved, so that if there was at a certain point a desire to use Kodori militarily, it would be easier to do that. That means strengthening of the roads, bridges, and so on.

Here, again, what we say in our recommendation is that it would be good to be fully transparent on what is present in Kodori, and what is not. Specifically, this means actually not the military forces -- because there are no military forces there -- but the internal troops. It would be useful to have a better understanding of exactly the presence of the Ministry of Internal Affairs in Kodori.

RFE/RL: The ICG's report seems to suggest that there is certain readiness on the Abkhaz side to start some kind of talks with Tbilisi -- the document talks about discontent some Abkhaz have towards the prospect of being absorbed into the big Russian Federation. Could you tell us more about this?

Freizer: This is generally my personal feeling -- that the Abkhaz are a very proud nation, and they understand that if they integrate into Russia, they will also lose a lot of their national identity and their national treasures, by ending up fully integrated into Russia. So I think that you will find that there are certain people in Abkhazia who are willing to engage with the Georgians, as long as they are treated as equals by the Georgians.

This is a problem that I think the Abkhaz face everywhere -- that they are treated as some kind of a small minority, and they are not respected, their fears are not respected, their interests are not respected. If Georgia is able to do this better, then I think they will find a better partner in Abkhazia.

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