Abkhazia: Leader Presses Independence Claim
By Thomas de Waal in Sukhumi
The precedent of the possible international recognition of Kosovo strengthens Abkhazia’s claim to independence from Georgia, the leader of Abkhazia has told IWPR in an interview.
Sergei Bagapsh, de facto president of Abkhazia, argued his republic had a better historical claim to full independence than Kosovo, whose status is now under negotiation in UN-sponsored talks that began last month. Observers generally expect that this will eventually lead to Kosovo becoming independent.
Bagapsh said, “If the issue of Kosovo is settled [in favour of independence], let’s say, and not the issue of Abkhazia, that is a policy purely of double standards.”
Speaking to IWPR in his presidential office, Bagapsh made the argument that Abkhazia had only been part of Georgia due to Soviet-era machinations, having had a higher status until 1931.
“Kosovo never had any statehood,” he said. “We were a state! We were a union republic, just like Georgia. And if for the world community the decision of Stalin and Beria that Abkhazia became part of Georgia has greater meaning than the aspirations of the people who live in Abkhazia then I want to congratulate them.”
Asked what the prospect of independence talks would mean for the hundreds of thousands of Georgians who left Abkhazia or who were expelled as a result of the conflict of 1992-3, Bagapsh said they could be allowed to return once his republic won independence. He said that Abkhazia had a better record in this regard than Kosovo in that tens of thousands of Georgians had been allowed to return to the southern district of Gali.
Bagapsh, a former energy minister with a knack for consensus, became president after a bitterly contested poll at the end of 2004. Speaking on the eve of his first full year in office, he was in confident mood, saying that he had succeeded in stabilising Abkhazia’s internal political divisions and, after initial problems with Moscow, had also established a good working relationship with the Russian leadership.
The official Abkhaz position has been bolstered by Russian president Vladimir Putin, who has explicitly linked the question of Kosovo to that of the breakaway territories of Georgia and South Ossetia.
In remarks that may have immense repercussions, Putin told a press conference on January 31, “If someone believes that Kosovo should be granted full independence as a state, then why should we deny it to the Abkhaz and the South Ossetians? I am not talking about how Russia will act.
"However, we know that Turkey, for instance, has recognised the Republic of Northern Cyprus. I don't want to say that Russia will immediately recognise Abkhazia or South Ossetia as independent, sovereign states, but such precedents do exist in international practice."
That this is more than a matter of words was illustrated by a tough Russian stance adopted in hammering out a new United Nations resolution in New York on the same day as Putin gave his press conference.
The UN Security Council in New York only managed to adopt a technical resolution to prolong the mandate of the UN monitoring mission for the conflict in Abkhazia, UNOMIG, after Russia apparently refused to allow specific mention in the text of the so-called “Boden Document” (named after former UN envoy for the conflict Dieter Boden), a framework text that affirms the territorial integrity of Georgia, which is strongly rejected by the Abkhaz side.
As a result, the mandate of the UNOMIG mission was extended by just two months until March 31.
Two further meetings in Geneva and Berlin of an international contact group dealing with Abkhazia and South Ossetia – known as the “Group of the Friends of the Secretary-General” (Germany, France, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom, and the United States - have since narrowed the gap between Moscow and the four western countries.
A source close to the talks told IWPR that the Russians are now accepting language in the text that explicitly affirms the territorial integrity of Georgia within accepted international borders while the western countries are ready to agree to a text that offers firm support for the Russian peacekeeping force in Abkhazia.
However, there is now a strong dividing line between Russia and the four western countries over Abkhazia. There will be another meeting at the UN at the end of this month to try and hammer out a new resolution.
Many Georgian politicians are calling for the withdrawal from Abkhazia of Russian peacekeepers, who formally come under a Commonwealth of Independent States mandate established in 1994.
Giorgy Khaindrava, Georgia’s minister for conflict resolution, told IWPR that the CIS mission was fatally flawed. “The peacekeeping operation breaks its own mandate and contradicts the principle of peacekeeping itself, because, as the top leadership of Russia has said itself more than once, the Russian military in the territory of Abkhazia is defending the interests of Russian citizens.” he said. “So the situation is losing its peacemaking character.”
Khaindrava said the Georgian leadership was working on a new peace plan for Abkhazia which would be “more attractive” for the Abkhaz than the Kosovo model.
However, as the mandates of the peacekeepers and the UN observers are closely linked, it is generally accepted that the Georgians’ hands are tied, as if one contingent is forced to leave, the other will have to do so as well.
Abkhaz leader Bagapsh told IWPR that the Georgians would stand to lose more than they gained if they succeeded in ousting the Russian peacekeepers from Abkhazia.
“I am often asked how will you behave [if the peacekeepers leave]?” he said. “Calmly. If the peacekeepers leave we will take their place. It will be hard for us but we will take their place on the border. And if we do that it will be the first step towards a conflict with Georgia.”
Dov Lynch, an expert on Abkhazia at the European Union Institute for Security Studies in Paris, said that there was currently no alternative to the peacekeeping arrangements in place for Abkhazia. “In practice, it’s an imperfect compromise that works - a permanent temporary solution,” he said.
Thomas de Waal is IWPR’s Caucasus Editor. Margarita Akhvlediani, IWPR Regional Editor in Tbilisi, contributed to this report.