Abkhazia: Georgia Pushes Policy of "Pro-Active Engagement"
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s administration continues to probe for ways to restore its authority in Abkhazia. A top Georgian government official involved in the peace process says that Tbilisi is pursuing a policy of "pro-active engagement," aiming to create "new opportunities" for a negotiated solution.
The Saakashvili administration, which has made the restoration of the county’s territorial integrity a top policy priority, has said it will not resort to force as it strives to reestablish Tbilisi’s authority in Abkhazia. A United Nations-sponsored meeting in Geneva in early April brought together Georgian and Abkhaz representatives in an effort to reinforce the need for a negotiated settlement on the breakaway region’s political status. Abkhazia has operated beyond Tbilisi’s control since the end of the 1992-93 civil war. At the Geneva gathering, the two sides explored ways to build mutual confidence and foster economic cooperation.
In mid June, Georgian and Abkhaz representatives held talks in Moscow that aimed to restore rail links and promote the return of internally displaced persons (IDPs). Georgian officials said the June 15-16 discussions "created favorable conditions for further constructive negotiations," the Civil Georgia web site reported.
Abkhazia has long viewed Russia as its protector, and Georgian analysts widely view Moscow as obstructing peace talks because Georgia’s territorial reintegration would weaken Russia’s geopolitical position in the Caucasus. However, a tentative Georgian-Russian rapprochement, underscored by the recent base-withdrawal, could help spur discussions on an Abkhaz peace deal.
Despite the encouraging talks over railways and IDPs, Georgia and Abkhazia continue to squabble. On June 28, for example, Abkhaz leaders complained about a Georgian naval blockade. A Georgian Foreign Ministry statement issued the same day stated that Abkhazia’s territorial waters remained closed to unauthorized vessels. Abkhaz leaders said the Georgian statement was designed to discourage tourism, which provides a significant share of income for the breakaway region.
Tbilisi favors a political settlement that would allow for Abkhazia to enjoy broad self-governing powers. Abkhazia, however, has provided no sign that it is willing to re-submit to Tbilisi’s authority. In early April, for example, American diplomats visited the Abkhaz capital of Sukhumi for talks with regional leader Sergei Bagapsh. During those discussions, Bagapsh emphasized that the break-away territory would not abandon its demand for independence from Georgia.
Irakli Alasania is the chairman of Abkhazia’s government-in-exile and a special representative of the Georgian President for the Abkhazian conflict. During a recent visit to Washington, Alasania spoke to EurasiaNet about Tbilisi’s strategy for resolving the conflict. Alasania suggested that both the Georgian and Abkhazian people have become more receptive to new ideas concerning a political settlement. Abkhaz citizens also no longer view Russia as their republic’s sole security guarantor, he contended. While tentative progress is being made toward a settlement, Alasania added, a solution is unlikely in the near-term. The text of Alasania’s comments follows:
EurasiaNet: What are the central elements
of your new approach to the peace process?
Alasania: Recent changes in the region’s political landscape require daring and creativity from all actors in the peace process. This brings about new opportunities, as well as new challenges with which both sides must cope. The status quo on the ground and stagnation in the peace process are unacceptable to the international community, and to Georgia, where the potential for military escalation is ever-present. Therefore, Georgia is proposing a new policy of proactive engagement with the Abkhazian side. Critical to this engagement is the achievement of a comprehensive political settlement through the recognition of the legitimate interests of both Abkhazia and Georgians.
This new policy of proactive engagement should be both credible and creditable. It should be carefully tailored to provide incentives to the Abkhazian side to engage more actively in the peace process. This policy will address their concerns on a priority basis and, at the same time, be adequately receptive to the legitimate aspirations of IDPs to return.
EurasiaNet: Why do you believe the Abkhazian
side has become more willing to negotiate?
Alasania: After Russia’s heavy handling of the power crisis in Sukhumi, the Abkhazians started to understand how dramatic, unstable and insecure their relations with Russia are. Mistrust is growing, and they are looking for change. Time also heals. It has been 12 years since the military confrontation ended, and both sides are looking to move on. During those same 12 years, the lives of the Abkhazian population have not improved.
EurasiaNet: What, if any, changes to the Russian
position/involvement in the conflict do you see?
Alasania: I think Russia can play a significant role in resolving the conflict, provided that the political will for it exists in the Kremlin. The Russian involvement in the power crises last year is a testimony to Moscow’s capacity to exert influence on Abkhazia. Therefore, we reiterate a call to our northern neighbor for a just and equitable settlement, and to establish itself as a trustworthy and responsible partner in the peace process. The unilateral meeting with separatist leaders and participation in military exercises with separatist forces hardly serves this cause.
EurasiaNet: You were recently at the United
Nations. What were the results of those meetings? Were there any breakthroughs?
Alasania: This was the first time Georgia declared its new policy of proactive engagement with Abkhazia. The policy was received very well, but no breakthroughs were made. There is more anticipation for the future.
EurasiaNet: What is the reasoning behind efforts
to ease Abkhazia’s isolation? What do you hope to achieve?
Alasania: In the past, Georgia sought to isolate Abkhazia politically and economically. But this isolation has not gotten us any further in negotiations. We are seriously considering all the possible ways to bring the Abkhazian community out of isolation. We are carefully analyzing practical steps to legitimize trade between Georgia and Abkhazia, and to promote joint economic projects to help build a bridge of reconciliation. This will also help expose Abkhazia to Western and democratic values. This is what it is all about, and the international community can help Georgia do this.
EurasiaNet: What is the current status of
the Gali region? Are things moving ahead as you would hope?
Alasania: The attitude of the Abkhazian side toward the refugees and IDPs appears to be frozen in a confrontational mindset. We would like to turn the Gali region of Abkhazia into a showcase of successful cooperation. Out of 300,000 refugees and IDPs, a very small percentage spontaneously returned, only to endure rampant, lawless violence.
It is essential for the peace process to secure the return of the refugees and IDPs to Abkhazia, and in particular to Gali, as a first step. But for this to succeed, one needs to create an environment of security, order and respect for human rights. Most of these measures are on the UN Security Council agenda, but have never been implemented. We hope that UN civilian police forces could help train and supervise a joint Georgian-Abkhazian police force in the region.
EurasiaNet: What role can regional actors,
especially Turkey, play in the ongoing peace process, and in ending Abkhazian
Alasania: There is a huge potential for diplomacy with Turkey. It is the only country in the world that the Abkhazians have a sense of security with, and at the same time, I believe it is in Turkey’s best interest to have Georgia stabilize and develop. Turkey could help bring the influential Georgian and Abkhaz diasporas that live in Turkey together, which could then bring the official Georgian and Abkhaz positions closer. Turkey can also help build confidence and reconciliation.
Eric A. Miller, Ph.D., is an Analyst at the National Institute for Public Policy, Fairfax, Virginia and a Research Associate at the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies, George Washington University, Washington, D.C.