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Bombs, Political Bombshells Rock Abkhazia Dispute

Investigators at the site of a June 29 blast at Gagry
Following four bomb blasts -- two in Gagra on June 29 and two in Sukhumi the following day, in which at least 12 people were injured -- the authorities of the unrecognized republic of Abkhazia have indefinitely closed all border crossings between Abkhazia and the rest of Georgia.

Abkhaz officials, including de facto Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba, blamed the explosions on Georgian intelligence services, while Georgian officials have offered diverging explanations: the daily "Kommersant" on July 1 quoted National Security Council Secretary Aleksandre Lomaia as suggesting they were part of a turf war among rival criminal groups, while quoted State Minister for Reintegration Temur Yakobashvili as saying the technique used suggests a link to the North Caucasus.

A further possible scenario is that the recent bombings mark a new phase in the domestic political standoff in Abkhazia between President Sergei Bagapsh and a rival faction headed by his deputy, Raul Khadjimba. Khadjimba is associated with Aruaa, an informal association uniting veterans of the 1992-93 war with Georgia. At a congress last month, Aruaa members slammed Abkhazia's foreign policy as "clearing the way for Georgia to join NATO and undermining Russia's role in the peace process and as a guarantor that hostilities will not resume." They then formally voted no confidence in the Abkhaz leadership.

Bagapsh met on June 26 in Moscow with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to discuss approaches to resolving the conflict with Georgia. The two men reportedly agreed that progress is contingent on Georgia's compliance with the terms of the UN-mediated cease-fire agreement of May 1994, which both Moscow and the Abkhaz side interpret as requiring the withdrawal from the Kodori Gorge of additional Georgian forces deployed there in August 2006. They also agreed that the Russian peacekeeping forces currently deployed in the conflict zone under the CIS aegis play a crucial role in preserving stability.

This was Bagapsh's first-ever meeting with a Russian president. Under Vladimir Putin, the most senior Russian official to meet with Bagapsh was Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. The fact that Medvedev received Bagapsh and that in the Russian Foreign Ministry's press release reporting that meeting Bagapsh was identified as "president" sends a message both to the Georgian leadership and to Bagapsh's rivals in Sukhumi of the extent of Russia's support.

In late April, Russia sent an additional 500 or so peacekeepers to the Abkhaz conflict zone in response to what the Russian Foreign Ministry termed increasing tensions resulting from "destabilizing" moves by Georgia. On May 21, the Georgian Foreign Ministry formally demanded the withdrawal of that additional contingent.

On June 5, the European parliament passed a resolution expressing concern over both Russia's new deployment to the conflict zone without Georgia's prior consent and Putin's directive earlier in April ordering the Russian government to intensify cooperation with and assistance to Abkhazia and the similarly unrecognized republic of South Ossetia. The resolution urged the "immediate withdrawal" of that contingent. It also proposed a "revision" of the peacekeeping format, greater EU involvement in the peace process, the possible dispatch of a European Security and Defense Policy (ESDP) border mission, and enhanced participation by EU member states in the UN Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG).

On June 23, however, Reuters quoted Georgian National Security Council Secretary Lomaia as saying Georgia had effectively suspended its demand for the Russian peacekeepers' withdrawal in order to give the EU leeway to raise the Abkhaz issue with Russian leaders at the Russia-EU summit in Khanty-Mansiisk on June 26-27 in the hope of persuading them to soften their confrontational approach. But during talks with Saakashvili in Berlin on June 25, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Germany does not consider a sweeping revision of the peacekeeping format necessary at this stage.

Amending the present peacekeeping format is, nonetheless, the first step in a multistage plan to resolve the Abkhaz conflict that was drafted by four of the five members of the so-called Friends of the UN Secretary-General for Georgia group of states (Germany, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States, but not Russia). That blueprint, which appears to be a variant on the peace plan unveiled by Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili in late March, also calls for the annulment of Putin's April directive; the economic rehabilitation of Gali and Ochamchira, which Saakashvili proposed designating a special economic zone; and finally, a decision on Abkhazia's future status vis-a-vis the central Georgian government. Representatives of the four countries concerned were scheduled to discuss that draft in Berlin on June 30, but no information on those talks has been forthcoming.

The profound mistrust between the two sides has been compounded, however, by an article in "Kommersant" on June 27 alleging that during talks in Moscow four days earlier, Georgian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigol Vashadze outlined to his Russian counterpart Grigory Karasin a new approach to resolving the Abkhaz conflict that would entail partitioning Abkhazia while preserving on paper Georgia's formal control over its entire territory, within which Abkhazia would enjoy autonomy. Later on June 27, the Georgian Foreign Ministry issued a statement denying that Tbilisi made any such proposal and branding the "Kommersant" article a "provocation." Saakashvili and parliament speaker David Bakradze too ruled out any partition of Abkhazia, while Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov for his part told journalists on June 27 that the "Kommersant" report is "a lie."

The idea of splitting Abkhazia -- with the western districts to the north of the Kodori River forming an autonomous Republic of Abkhazia within Georgia and the southernmost Gali and Ochamchira raions reverting to Georgian control -- was first floated 11 years ago by the Republican Party of Georgia. According to that blueprint, the Republic of Abkhazia would sign with Georgia a constitutional treaty that could subsequently be amended with the consent of both sides. The entire territory of Abkhazia would be designated a demilitarized zone and all existing military bases and foreign troops would be withdrawn, with the exception of international peacekeepers. (At that juncture, in August 1997, Russia had not yet agreed to close its military base at Gudauta.) The constitutional treaty would stipulate the maximum amount of military hardware to which the Republic of Abkhazia's Interior Ministry was entitled. Conscripts from Abkhazia would be exempt from induction into the Georgian armed forces, at least for an unspecified period. Taken as a whole, those provisions, the Republican Party pointed out, would create conditions for the return to their homes in Gali and Ochamchira of Georgian displaced persons who fled during the 1992-93 war.

The purported new Georgian peace proposal summarized by "Kommersant" similarly envisaged dividing Abkhaz territory along the Kodori and the return of displaced persons to Gali and Ochamchira, but not to the western districts of Abkhazia. The Russian peacekeeping force currently deployed along the Inguri River that forms the current border would be withdrawn and replaced by the joint Georgian-Abkhaz police force that Georgian President Saakashvili advocated in his March peace plan. Georgia "might" agree to the continued deployment of Russian peacekeepers north of the Kodori, and, "Kommersant" quoted Georgian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigol Vashadze as saying, would accept as a fait accompli the acquisition by Russian businesspeople of companies and real estate in Abkhazia, a trend it has hitherto protested vehemently.

In return, however, Georgia would insist on the formal annulment of Putin's April 15 directive to the Russian government to intensify economic and other ties with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but would turn a blind eye to its implementation.

The merit of this proposal, "Kommersant" pointed out, is that it enables all sides to save face. Saakashvili would be able to argue that he has succeeded in preserving Georgia's territorial integrity. True, Abkhazia would lose control over the southeastern third of its present territory, but in its truncated form would essentially enjoy total independence from Tbilisi. And Russia would be free to continue its economic assimilation of the northwestern districts of Abkhazia. "Kommersant" added without elaborating that Georgia would also freeze its efforts to join NATO.

This is the second time within two months that "Kommersant" has alleged progress toward resolving the Abkhaz conflict. On May 19, the paper claimed the Georgian and Abkhaz leaderships had reached tentative agreement during a May 12 visit to Sukhumi by Georgian Ambassador to the UN Irakli Alasania on a draft plan for resolving the conflict. The report added that Bagapsh would solicit Russian backing for that plan during an imminent visit to Moscow. Bagapsh, however, immediately denied the existence of that purported plan, the first point of which was reportedly the signing by both sides of a formal pact abjuring the use of military force to resolve the conflict.

"Kommersant" is owned by Alisher Usmanov, who as general director of Gazprominvestholding can be presumed to be close to both Putin and Medvedev. It cannot therefore be excluded that the "Kommersant" article was part of Moscow's ongoing strategy of wrong-footing the Georgian leadership in order to provoke an intemperate response that could be adduced as proof that Tbilisi has no real interest in a lasting settlement of the conflict.