Unity for Georgia a long way off

Reuters AlertNet, UK
May 6 2004

ANALYSIS-Unity for Georgia a long way off

By Niko Mchedlishvili

TBILISI, May 6 (Reuters) – Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili,
watched closely by Russia and Western powers, may be a step closer to
uniting his ethnically-split Caucasus nation; but the hardest is yet
to come.

Months of simmering tension in the Black Sea region of Adzhara came
to an end on Thursday when its autocratic leader Aslan Abashidze fled
to Moscow, leaving central government to re-establish control.

But the crisis in Adzhara always focused on two leaders fighting for
control of resources, including an oil-exporting sea port, rather
than a struggle over ethnic groups, as is the case in separatist
Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

“There’s a big difference between Adzharans who see themselves as
Georgians and Abkhazians who see themselves as Abkhazians,” said
Giorgi Gogia, a Caucasus analyst for think tank International Crisis
Group (ICG).

Thousands of Russian peacekeepers and a small group of unarmed United
Nations military observers still patrol the ceasefire line between
ex-Soviet Georgia and Abkhazia, an idyllic stretch of the Black Sea
coast bordering Russia.

The region fought, and won, a war against Tbilisi in 1992-94 and has
since held de facto independence, sustaining a limping economy
through trade and tourism with Russia.

Deep-seated scars from the war mean that the popular suport that was
a key factor in Saakashvili’s success in toppling both Abashidze and
his predecessor as Georgian president Eduard Shevardnadze is sorely
missing in Abkhazia.


“While in Adzhara we had problems between central government and one
person and his regime, in Abkhazia we have a regime and a whole
society in conflict with the rest of Georgia,” said Archil
Gegeshidze, senior fellow at the Georgian Foundation for Strategic
and International Studies.

Western powers are eager for stability in Georgia, slated as transit
territory for a key pipeline to pump Caspian oil to the
Mediterranean. Washington, fearing any spillover of unrest to
potentially volatile neighbours Armenia and oil-producing Azerbaijan,
was forthright in criticising separatist Abashidze.

Tbilisi’s ties with its powerful northern neighbour Russia are more
delicately poised. Moscow, which sees the southern Caucasus as of key
strategic interest, has in the past given tacit support to separatism
that has strengthened its hand.

Georgia said this week rebel militia in Adzhara were led by a retired
Russian officer and asked the Kremlin to help curb him. Saakashvili,
clearly at pains not to inflame relations already strained by the
presence of two Russian bases here, said however he did not believe
Moscow was behind the rebellion.

The Georgian leader, elected on pledges to reunite Georgia, revive a
moribund economy and fight corruption, has given little indication
how he plans to tackle either Abkhazia or South Ossetia. Abkhazian
officials say he has nothing to offer.

“They sent in tanks, warplanes, helicopters,” Abkhaz “foreign
minister” Sergei Shamba told Reuters earlier this year.

“They decided it was easier to solve the problem through
force…Well, war changed our relations and to talk now about a
return to the way things were before is simply not realistic.”

Leaders in Ossetia, a landlocked region in a less strategically
important area north of Tbilisi, are as scathing. It fought a war
against Georgia in the dying days of the Soviet Union, seeking
unification with North Ossetia in Russia.

Regional chief Eduard Kokoity says he will meet Saakashvili only when
Georgia admits its “genocide” against Ossetians.

“The overall perception in Abkhazia is that the Georgians have missed
the train,” said Damien Helly, the ICG’s Caucasus project director.

(Additional reporting by Michael Steen in Moscow)