Abkhazia: Former UN Mediator, EU Special Representative Visit Abkhazia
Ambassador Dieter Boden, who served from 1999-2002 as the UN secretary-general's special representative for the Abkhaz conflict, returned to Sukhumi this week after a seven-year hiatus for talks with Abkhaz leaders, including Sergei Bagapsh, the breakaway Georgian region's de facto president. He will travel to Tbilisi on March 17. EU special representative for the South Caucasus Peter Semneby was scheduled to arrive in Abkhazia on March 11.
Boden is quoted as having argued during his meetings in Sukhumi that it is in Abkhazia's interest to continue participating in the talks in Geneva on security and stability in the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the wake of the August 2008 war between Georgia and Russia that precipitated their formal recognition by Moscow as independent states. Those talks bring together at the negotiating table under the joint aegis of the United Nations, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and the European Union representatives from Georgia, Russia, the United States, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia.
Boden acknowledged that the Geneva talks have yielded little progress to date. The most recent, ninth round took place in late January; the next is scheduled for March 30.
The Abkhaz and South Ossetian representatives, backed by Russia, want Georgia to sign a formal binding pledge not to resort to military forces against them. Georgia for its part is ready to sign such a pact only with Russia, and only after the Russian troops currently stationed in the two breakaway regions are withdrawn. The international community is likewise pushing for a Russian pullout, to be followed by the deployment of an international peacekeeping force.
Maksim Gvinjia, a member of the Abkhaz delegation to the January talks who has since been named foreign minister to succeed Sergei Shamba, argues that the signing of a binding agreement on the nonuse of force is an absolute priority and should not be made contingent on any other issue.
Boden said that in creating a legal basis for relations between the two sides it is "important to take into account agreements signed earlier." It is not clear which specific agreements he meant. Abkhazia rejected outright not only Boden's own blueprint for resolving the conflict in such a way as to preserve Georgia's territorial integrity -- the "Basic Principles for the Distribution of Constitutional Competencies" -- but also successive proposals by Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili in 2004 and 2005. Georgia for its part rejected a counterproposal unveiled by Bagapsh in May 2006.
Boden described the most recent Georgian peace plan, the "State Strategy On Occupied Territories," as containing "interesting observations" as well as some "unacceptable formulations." He did not elaborate, but it is likely that the very term "occupied territories" gave rise to anger and resentment in both regions, insofar as it implicitly denies that the local populations have any say whatsoever over how, and by whom, they are governed.
Boden's stay in Abkhazia coincides with the arrival in Sukhumi of EU special envoy Semneby. It is not known whether the two men will meet informally and exchange impressions and notes, but it would be logical for them to do so.
The Abkhaz leadership has repeatedly stressed its desire for the maximum possible engagement with the European Union. A report on the situation in Abkhazia released late last month by the International Crisis Group (ICG) noted that the EU in turn "is interested in finding ways to do more to support Georgian-Abkhazian contacts." Semneby travelled to Abkhazia at least four times last year, in February, March, April, and July.
According to the ICG report, the EU's Political and Security Committee agreed in December on unspecified "parameters for carving out a political and legal space within which the EU can interact with Abkhazia and South Ossetia" and thus contribute to the process of conflict resolution, without giving the impression that it formally recognizes them as independent states.