In a report to the United Nations Security Council, Secretary-General Kofi Annan described the downing of a UN helicopter in Abkhazia as "an outrage." He went on to question the feasibility of achieving a political solution to the Abkhazia question. But Annan's report, coming more than three weeks after the helicopter assault, could well be lost in the swirl of internal chaos in Georgia.
Georgia appears to be unraveling. On October 31, government security forces raided the offices of Rustavi 2, the country's largest independent television station. Two days of street demonstrations followed in Tbilisi, forcing the resignation of Security Minister Vakhtang Kutateladze. That sparked a chain of events that resulted in President Eduard Shevardnadze sacking his entire cabinet. The crisis also saw Parliament Speaker Zurab Zhvania resign.
Shevardnadze's embattled administration continues to face calls for early elections from demonstrators, who took to the streets to prevent what some portrayed as a government attempt to repress free speech. Rustavi-2 had a reputation for airing critical reports about government corruption.
Georgia's domestic difficulties have steadily intensified since the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States. The trouble began with the October 8 shoot-down of the UN helicopter. Shortly thereafter renewed fighting broke out in the Kodori Gorge area of the breakaway Abkhazia region. Responsibility for the helicopter downing and the resumption of fighting remain unclear. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].
In his report, Annan described the mysterious October 8 helicopter shooting as "the most serious security incident" in the history of the UN Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG). But his remarks focused on the damage to his jurisdiction. The October 8 attack killed all nine unarmed people on board - four UN military observers, two locally employed UN staff members and three contracted crew members.
Annan said the attack raised serious questions about the failure of the Georgian and Abkhaz sides to ensure the security of UN personnel, which precedes any UN involvement in the region. "The perpetrators of criminal acts targeted against UNOMIG must be brought to justice," he said.
But the broader chaos, which has kept the identity of the attackers a mystery, makes Annan's call vulnerable to political manipulation. A Georgian diplomat, speaking on condition that he not be identified, called on Russia to "take action" to control the type of activity by Abkhazians that led to the helicopter crash and recent bombings in the region. In response, a Russian diplomat who also requested that he not be identified denied that such activity was taking place in areas where Russia had any influence.
Annan's report covers developments in Abkhazia since July, when the Security Council extended UNOMIG for another six months. The report covers political and humanitarian events and paints a bleak picture. The downing of the UN helicopter and fighting in the Kodori Gorge "represent a serious deterioration of the situation and a setback in efforts to achieve a political settlement," Annan said.
"Both sides must unequivocally respect the cease-fire, renew their commitment to seek a resolution of the conflict by political means, stop encouraging any military action, and return to the peace process without reservation or procrastination."
But these ringing words are at odds with the mistrust and disarray that have plagued Georgia's negotiations with Abkhazia all autumn. On October 31, Abkhazian aide Astamur Tania said Abkhazia would not consent to talks with Georgia until Georgian forces leave the Kodori Gorge. Georgia maintains that it sent troops there after October 8 to protect local residents. Tania was accelerating a tack that Abkhazians have taken since October 26, when Russia acceded to Georgian demands and began dismantling its military presence in Abkhazia.
That move has delegates from Sukhumi, Abkhazia's capital, complaining about security. Annan's report decrees that interested states - known as the Group of Friends - should expedite, in close cooperation with UN Special Representative Dieter Boden, the process of finalizing the draft paper on the distribution of competencies between Tbilisi and Sukhumi and "bring it to a successful conclusion." In other words, the UN still insists that Georgia and Abkhazia can diplomatically resolve the crisis.
The Secretary General also criticized the two sides for canceling three meetings of the Coordinating Council over the last six months, twice at the request of the Abkhaz side, saying that it threatens to defeat the purpose of the negotiating forum. "Both sides should be aware that these mechanisms are established to serve their own security, especially in times of crisis," he said. "They should, therefore, return immediately to full-fledged participation in the Coordinating Council and all its working groups."
Again, the Georgian diplomat turned this recommendation into fodder for attacks on Russia. He said Annan's report demonstrated that the CIS peacekeeping force is unable to provide security for the Abkhazia region, and that greater international involvement is necessary. "We are calling on the UN to play a bigger role," he said. "If the UN is not in a position to send more monitors, we are exploring the option with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe."
But this is hardly a formulated position. Annan noted that because the Georgian parliament voted on October 11 to replace the CIS peacekeeping force with an international peacekeeping mission, but did not specify how this would be done or with whom, the decision and its consequences would have to be "carefully assessed."
On the same day as the helicopter attack, the UN Security Council had called for the perpetrators to be brought to justice. "Members of the council stressed that a speedy investigation of the responsibilities involved in the attack is needed," the council said in a statement read by the current president, Irish UN Ambassador Richard Ryan. A technical investigation committee, led by Ukraine (where the helicopter was registered) has come together with the participation of the UN and Georgian and Abkhaz authorities. If those authorities cannot negotiate or even determine who is firing at whom, though, one must be dubious about the committee's ability to find a solution to this example of Georgia's myriad crises.
Todd Diamond is a journalist who covers the United Nations.