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Caucasus Report: April 21, 1998

21 April 1998, Volume 1, Number 8

Loose Cannons in Abkhazia. Georgian-Russian relations received a further setback with the 11 April assault by Georgian guerrillas on the CIS peacekeeping force deployed along the border between Abkhazia and the rest of Georgia, in which eight Russian servicemen were wounded. The Russian Foreign Ministry condemned the incident, and announced that it would discuss with the Georgian authorities how to curtail the activities of "bandits." The Abkhaz Foreign Ministry, for its part, termed the attack a further violation by Tbilisi of its commitment to desist from the use or threat of violence in bilateral relations. (Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze and his Abkhaz counterpart Vladislav Ardzinba had signed such a pledge during their meeting in Tbilisi last August.)

The Abkhaz reaction reflects a conviction that the Georgian guerrillas, who over the past eighteen months have systematically targeted both CIS peacekeepers and Abkhaz paramilitaries in Abkhazia's southernmost Gali raion, are operating with the tacit approval, if not the active support, of the Georgian government -- a charge that the latter has repeatedly denied. But regardless of whether or not such accusations are true, sporadic clashes between the Georgian guerrillas and Abkhaz forces have in the past served as a convenient rationale for Shevardnadze's proposed application of the "Bosnia option" to Abkhazia. By this, Shevardnadze apparently had in mind a surgical strike by NATO forces to neutralize the Abkhaz army, followed by the deployment of international peacekeepers to replace the CIS contingent. (Ukraine and Turkey have volunteered to provide troops for such an international force.)

In an interview with "Caucasus Press" last week, one of the Georgian guerrilla leaders warned that his men will continue their attacks on the CIS peacekeeping force if the latter "do not stop helping the [Abkhaz] separatists in their punitive operations against peaceful residents." But further reprisals against Russian peacekeepers could undercut Russian support for an alternative Shevardnadze initiative: the Georgian president is engaged in recruiting the support of his fellow CIS presidents for a settlement plan that entails deploying peacekeepers throughout Gali raion in order to expedite the repatriation of the ethnic Georgian population forced to flee during the 1992-1993 war. (Liz Fuller)

Whose Side Is Russia On Anyway? A draft text of that new settlement plan, published by "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 18 April, condemns not only the recent increase in terrorist activity in Abkhazia but also the "unconstructive" position of the Abkhaz leadership. It calls for extending until 31 July the mandate of the CIS peacekeeping force, and for beginning immediately, and completing by the end of this year, the repatriation of Georgians displaced persons to Gali raion, in addition to the redeployment of the peace-keepers throughout Gali to ensure the returnees' safety. It also provides for the creation in Gali raion of a "temporary administration" that would include UN and OSCE representation. An Abkhaz spokesman categorically rejected that proposal, however, arguing that the district already has a legitimate administration elected last year (although the international community declined to recognize those elections as valid.)

But the Abkhaz objections may prove to be irrelevant. In order to be implemented, the draft "Ruling on Additional Measures for Resolving the Conflict in Abkhazia" must be endorsed by all CIS heads of state at the 29 April summit, a process which may necessitate further revisions. As Boris Yeltsin's press secretary told ITAR-TASS, the Russian president favours adopting a settlement document "that will reflect the views of all CIS leaders, not only Eduard Shevardnadze." (Liz Fuller)

Former Armenian Premier Interviewed. Armenia's former liberal prime minister Hrant Bagratian believes the present Armenian leadership will generally continue the economic reform started by his government despite what he called possible "deviations." Bagratian told RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau on 16 April: "I don't think they can change the course of history." He dismissed as a pre-election ploy which will not have serious impact on government policy criticism of his economic policy by the opposition and some of the parties supporting newly elected President Robert Kocharian.

Bagratian served as prime minister from 1993 to late1996. His tight fiscal and monetary policy and large-scale privatization program have been denounced by many then-opposition groups which also blame him for the dramatic industrial decline of recent years.

Bagratian claimed that corruption is currently more widespread in the Armenian government than it was during his tenure. "It continues to grow," he said. He expressed skepticism about the authorities' promised clampdown on corruption, predicting that the most corrupt figures will not be punished and will maintain their links to the government. He failed to name anyone, however.

Bagratian also told RFE/RL that newly-appointed Prime Minister Armen Darpinian has made "not a bad impression" on him, but declined to either praise or criticize the latter's performance or his record. Bagratian heads the small Azatutiun (Freedom) Party which he set up last year. The party favors free enterprise and an economy based on private initiative. (Anna Israelian)