With stability in Georgia becoming increasingly fragile, the United Nations is opening a new diplomatic drive to resolve Abkhazia's political status. The UN Security Council on July 31 extended the UN peacekeeping mandate following a report by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan containing recommendations on rejuvenating stalled peace talks. In support of the peacekeeping mission, the Security Council suggested that Abkhaz intransigence is the primary obstacle to a negotiated settlement.
In unanimously approving an extension of the United Nations Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG) until January 2002, the Security Council warned about the eroding security situation in Abkhazia, blaming the deterioration on "ongoing violence, hostage-taking incidents, the rise in criminality and the activities of illegal armed groups in the conflict zone, which constitutes a constant threat to the peace process." The resolution also urged new approaches in negotiations, calling "upon the parties, particularly the Abkhaz side, to undertake immediate efforts to move beyond the [current] impasse."
In his report on Abkhazia, Annan called on the Georgian side to uphold its commitment to prevent the activities of illegal armed groups crossing into Abkhazia from the Georgian-controlled side of the ceasefire line. He urged the Abkhaz side to reconsider its position not to address the question of the future political status of Abkhazia within the state of Georgia. "Clearly, in the absence of such negotiations, the entire peace process remains in jeopardy," the Secretary General said.
Abkhaz leaders are pushing for a settlement that would formalize the territory's de facto independence from Georgia's control. Tbilisi insists that Abkhazia remain a constituent part of Georgia. UN peace promotion efforts appear committed to maintaining Georgia's territorial integrity. According to the Interfax news agency, Abkhaz leaders are wary of any UN peace proposal that would place the region in a "single Georgian state."
The ongoing low-level conflict in Abkhazia has intensified during recent weeks. On July 8 and 9, six people were killed and at least two others taken hostage in separate incidents in the Gulripsh area, northwest of the Kodori Valley, outside the UNOMIG area of responsibility. In a statement on July 12, Abkhaz leaders accused Georgia of involvement in the incidents, and cancelled its participation in the planned July 17 meeting of the UN-sponsored Coordinating Council to promote confidence-building measures between the two sides.
On July 22, two Abkhaz civilians and two Abkhaz soldiers were killed in Gali in an ambush by Georgian guerrillas, according to Abkhaz officials. In addition, the Caucasus Press agency reported July 30 that Georgian guerrillas operating in the Gali Region have distributed pamphlets warning that it will burn down schools that refuse to offer instruction in the Georgian language when the new academic year begins in September.
The recent upheaval in Abkhazia merely compounds the government's troubles. Georgian officials are facing myriad security challenges, including the July 26 murder of Georgi Sanaya, a leading independent journalist, and Russia's reluctance to evacuate a military base, as stipulated under a 1999 agreement. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archives]. In addition, the government is struggling to contain widespread corruption and discontent within the military establishment. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archives].
Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze suggested that the recent violence in Abkhazia was deliberately carried out in order to undermine the Coordinating Council meeting and suggested that Georgian police should assist the Abkhaz authorities in their search for the killers. But the Georgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs used more forceful language in a letter sent to the Security Council on July 25.
"The Abkhaz side has again exhibited its destructive position and reluctance to cooperate," said the foreign ministry statement. "The disruption by the Abkhaz side of the Coordinating Council session leads us to conclude that such actions are premeditated, designed to halt the peace process and to further depress the already difficult course of negotiations."
In referring to the swell of recent violence in Abkhazia, Annan noted that "criminality and lawlessness continue to be major destabilizing factors in the conflict zone, putting in jeopardy the overall security situation." He did not place blame on either side.
Annan said that the human rights situation in the Gali region remains "particularly precarious," while noting "the process of return of internally displaced persons to the Gali region has continued steadily." The Secretary General recommended opening a branch office of the United Nations Human Rights Office in Gali.
The Security Council also said the Secretary General's special representative in Georgia, Dieter Boden, was to have submitted a draft paper on "the distribution of constitutional competences between Tbilisi and Sukhumi as a basis for meaningful negotiations, and not as an attempt to impose or dictate any specific solution to the parties." He has thus far been unable to do so, a fact which the Security Council said it "deeply regrets."
Todd Diamond is a journalist who covers the United Nations.