In the days and weeks leading up to Georgia's presidential election back in April, President Eduard Shevardnadze pledged to bring about political solutions to conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Since winning reelection, Shevardnadze has followed through on his campaign promise. A stabilization protocol signed by Georgian and Abkhazian leaders has brightened the prospects for resolution of perhaps Georgia's most difficult dilemma as it struggles to strengthen its statehood.
"I can clearly see that the other [Abkhazian] side is approaching the understanding that a reasonable compromise and an accord are now essential, considering the interest of the two peoples living within a single Georgian state," Shevardnadze said in a radio interview shortly before departing on a state visit to Britain on July 17. [See Eurasia Insight].
The stabilization protocol was signed July 11 by Abkhaz Prime Minister Vyacheslav Tsugba and Georgian State Minister Gia Arsenishvili during talks held in Sukhumi, the Abkhaz capital. The protocol aims to reduce criminal activity in the security zone patrolled by Russian troops acting under the guise of a CIS peacekeeping force. Both sides also expressed opposition to any use of force in an attempt to resolve disputes connected with Abkhazia's status.
Abkhaz President Vladislav Ardzinba welcomed the protocol, saying that it will provide fresh impetus to the process of negotiating a lasting peace.
Abkhazia has enjoyed de facto independence since separatist forces drove the Georgian military out of the autonomous province during the 1992-93 war. The conflict created hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons, mainly ethnic Georgians. The question of Abkhazia's political status has remained unresolved ever since, severely hampering Georgia's attempts to revive its economy and secure its independence.
Georgia has come under increased pressure in recent months from Russia, which has moved under President Vladimir Putin to reassert its influence over countries in the so-called "near abroad," particularly in the turbulent Caucasus region. In recent months, Russia and Georgia have sparred over the issue of Georgia's common border with Chechnya. The Kremlin has claimed that Georgian officials have been lax in patrolling the border, thus allowing Chechen rebels to smuggle arms and personnel into the renegade Russian province. The two countries have also haggled over the closure of Russian military bases in Georgia.
A settlement of Abkhazia's political status could significantly improve Georgia's ability to withstand Russian pressure to conform to the Kremlin's geopolitical wishes. It could also help boost the chances for the construction of a pipeline that would transport oil from Central Asian oil fields to Western markets via Georgia.
Despite recent developments, achieving a negotiated settlement will not be easy. Several powerful politicians and interest groups in Georgia, especially those representing IDPs, have been vociferous in their criticism of the stabilization protocol. Much of the criticism has been aimed at the clause disavowing the use of force.
For example, a Tbilisi-based group of ethnic Georgian political leaders from Abkhazia, known as the Supreme Council of Abkhazia, adopted a resolution condemning the protocol.
"The delegation of the Georgian side has failed to conduct the meeting [with Abkhaz officials] in a dignified way and signed a document that is capitulatory in its essence," the resolution said. It is "inadmissible to any refugee from Abkhazia that which even forbids to think about using forceful methods in the process of resolving the problem of Abkhazia."
Meanwhile, Levan Aleksidze, Shevardnadze's adviser on international legal issues said that protocol contained several flaws because it was not adequately reviewed by Georgian authorities. Other political observers have described the protocol as largely ornamental, designed to mollify disgruntled IDPs.
Economic conditions for IDPs in Georgia have markedly declined. During a recent meeting with Zurab Zhvania, the Chairman of Georgia's Parliament, the representative of one IDP organization announced plans to hold mass demonstrations unless the government took steps to achieve a settlement that permitted the displaced to return home.
In addition to domestic discontent, the government must contend with Russia. Following a June 20 meeting of top CIS diplomats, Georgian Foreign Minister Irakli Menagarishvili told journalists that "the relationship between Georgia and Russia is improving." After a separate meeting between Shevardnadze and Putin, the Russian president supported the idea of an Abkhaz settlement, but stressed that any solution should correspond to Russian interests. Since those meetings, however, Georgia and Russia have continued to argue over military bases and the monitoring of the Chechen border.
Russia has been applying economic pressure on Georgia and other CIS countries, insisting on prompt payment of debts to Moscow. Thus, it looks as if Russian foreign policy with regard to former Soviet republics is shifting to use of economic leverage rather than military force. This is a healthy sign in itself. But, whether it will be an economically and politically win-win situation for all the CIS members or only for Russia remains to be seen.
Ms. Murvanidze Mitchell is Co-Director of the Princeton Partnership for Policy Research.