Conciliatory statements made by Georgian and Russian officials following a Caucasus security summit are raising conflict prevention hopes in the region. It appears that a quid pro quo is taking shape in which Russia eases the political pressure it has exerted on Georgia, and in return Tbilisi adheres more to Moscow's regional strategic line.
The Caucasus Four meeting of top national security officials from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Russia concluded March 30 in the Russian resort city of Sochi. Participants discussed a variety of long-standing security dilemmas, including the ongoing search for a Nagorno-Karabakh political settlement. But the main focus of the meeting was clearly on preventing the deterioration of Georgian-Russian relations from re-igniting conflict in the separatist-minded region of Abkhazia.
Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed concern at the March 30 meeting that tensions could produce conflict, specifically mentioning "possible military actions along the Georgia-Abkhaz border close to Russia's frontier." He stressed that compromise was necessary to solve strategic differences and to allow the countries to realize their economic trade potential. "We must break the vicious circle," Putin declared.
A joint statement adopted at the close of the meeting advocated a collective approach "in combating new challenges," including terrorism, weapons and narcotics trafficking and illegal migration.
Putin followed up on his conciliatory rhetoric by appointing First Deputy Foreign Minister Valery Loshchinin as Russia's special envoy on Abkhazia. And in a move sure to reassure Georgia, the Russian president also backed a UN political blueprint for Abkhazia that reportedly would leave the renegade region within Georgia's territorial jurisdiction. At the same time, Putin hinted that there might be consequences for Georgia if it did not reciprocate. "We will look after refugees in that region the best we can, but we also cannot be deaf to the plight of 50,000 citizens of Russia [in Abkhazia]," Putin said.
On April 1, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze hailed Putin's actions and emphasized that Georgian-Russian tension should not be "overdramatized."
In recent weeks, officials in Tbilisi and Moscow have engaged in mutual recrimination over the deteriorating security situation in Georgia. On March 20, for example, the Georgian parliament tentatively approved a statement, denouncing "the preparation of Russia's aggression" against Georgia. MPs accused Russian peacekeepers in Abkhazia and South Ossetia of "illegal action." According to Interfax, the statement also blamed Russia of provoking instability in Georgia.
The Georgian parliamentary resolution followed a March 28 statement by Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov in which he hinted that tensions in Abkhazia, as well as US military presence in Georgia, could affect the timeframe of the Russian military withdrawal from Georgia. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Georgian parliament Speaker Nino Burjanadze described Ivanov's comments as detrimental to "Georgia's sovereignty and territorial integrity."
In a yet another sign of growing volatility, on March 27 a series of terrorist attacks took place in Abkhazia, leaving one civilian dead and 15 wounded. [See related EurasiaNet story]. The Foreign Ministry of break-away Abkhazia accused Tbilisi of sponsoring "state terrorism." Georgia's State Security Ministry denied any involvement. Meanwhile, Moscow accused Georgia of aiding militants who are fighting Abkhaz separatists and of aiding Chechen rebels.
Putin's clear commitment to compromise could prove a turning point for Georgia's stabilization hopes, Shevardnadze suggested.
Sergei Blagov is a Moscow-based specialist in CIS political affairs.