Russia's preferential treatment of the separatist-minded Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia is stoking renewed tension between Moscow and Tbilisi. This latest round of the long-running bilateral row has caused further erosion to Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze's domestic image at a time when the country is preparing for pivotal elections in late 2003.
Russian-Georgian tension over Abkhazia has long simmered. But the issue largely remained in the background as the two countries feuded over Moscow's ongoing military presence in Georgia, and the security of the Pankisi Gorge. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Over approximately the past year, Russia has granted citizenship to a significant portion of Abkhazia's population. More recently, Moscow established visa-free travel for residents of both Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Then, in December Moscow reopened a rail connection between the southern Russian city of Sochi and the Abkhaz capital Sukhumi a move that prompted an outcry in Georgia. Shevardnadze characterized the unilateral Russian action as "unlawful."
In advance of a late January CIS summit in Ukraine, Shevardnadze raised expectations that he could reach a compromise with Russian President Vladimir Putin on an array of Abkhazia-related issues, including the rail link, dual-citizenship and the ongoing presence of Russian peacekeepers in the separatist province.
At the same time, Georgian officials issued several threats, including reducing access and services to Russian military bases on Georgian territory and making Georgian acceptance of the renewal of the CIS peacekeeping mandate for Abkhazia conditional on Russian concessions on the rail and citizenship issues.
At the summit, however, Putin praised Shevardnadze, while providing the Georgian leader no assurances of a change in Russia's policies towards Abkhazia. "We will further support Georgia's aspiration for territorial integrity, however, we should do so carefully, and take into account also the interests of the Abkhaz side," the Itar-Tass news agency quoted Putin as saying January 29.
The Russian president also called Georgia's bluff regarding the CIS peacekeepers. "If there aren't any peacekeepers there [Abkhazia]
Giorgi Kandelaki is a senior at the Department of Political Science at Tbilisi State University. He is a member of the Youth Atlantic Council of Georgia.