Abkhazia: Change in the air

Change in the air

The Georgian Messenger
14 May 2004

After success in Adjara, President Mikheil Saakashvili promises that
he will return Abkhazia in the near future. The government is working
on various plans to resolve the conflict, which has been frozen for
more than a decade. Tbilisi is ready to take “extraordinary” steps
to achieve this dream.

The unexpectedly sudden and bloodless overthrow of Aslan Abashidze’s
regime in Batumi left a big impression on the Georgian population, as
well as the separatist government’s in Georgia’s breakaway provinces
of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Sukhumi and Tskhinvali maintain that
“events in a neighboring coun-try” do not effect them and that enacting
Rose Revolutions 3 and 4 on their territory is impossible for two
reasons: 1.Tbilisi will not be able to find support-ers among the
remaining population of these territories. 2. In contrast to Adjara,
Moscow will not concede these crucial separatist allies.

However, life is full of surprises. Recently, a few flaws appeared
in the sepa-ratists’ logic. On May 12, a small group of residents
of Abkhazia held a protest in downtown Sukhumi. The demonstration
featured five-cross flags and pictures of the Georgian president. The
protesters appealed to President Saakashvili with the slogan “Misha,
reconcile us!” The protest was forcefully crushed by separatist law
enforcement bodies. According to reports, sixteen persons of various
ethnic-ities were arrested, most of them Armenian.

The small group of citizens gathered in Sukhumi called on President
Saakash-vili to speed up the process of resolving the Georgian-Abkhaz
conflict and to reconcile Abkhazians and Georgians, as well as all
people living on the territory of Abkhazia.

Sukhumi’s de-facto government is quiet about this demonstration and
its rep-resentatives continue to insist that not a single Abkhaz
political group is willing to hold any dialogue with Georgia on this
matter. Reportedly under the guidance of Abkhazia’s separatist prime
minister, Raul Khajinba’s, controls on the Abk-haz- Georgian border
will be beefed up and urgent measures will be taken through-out
Abkhaz territory.

As the Georgian media reports, the Saakashvili administration, which
enjoys astronomical popularity among the population, will be ready
to take “extraordi-nary steps” and will sign on to Russian conflict
resolution proposals that She-vardnadze never agreed to for fear that
a wave of protests would follow.

Russia proposes to Moldova and Georgia a “confederation” model
for solving the separatist conflicts plaguing these countries. This
proposal is quite similar to the United Nation’s “Boden Document.” The
plan for structuring Georgia as a confederation foresees the weakening
of the Tbilisi government and the mainte-nance of Russian influence
on the now-separatist regions. But now, Adjara no longer figures into
this scheme. It maintains autonomous status, though the ma-jority of
the powers that Aslan Abashidze usurped from the central government
over the years have been returned to Tbilisi.

According to some sources, the Georgian government’s Abkhazia strategy
is likely to be as follows: they will agree to the confederation
model offered by Russia, but with the condition that the 300,000
Georgian refugees from Abkha-zia be allowed to return to their homes
throughout the region. These people will change the political reality
in Abkhazia and will express their will during elections.

Afterwards, Abkhazia’s status as part of Georgia will be determined.
Russian political circles expect Saakashvili to take active steps
towards the return of the separatist regions in June or July. They
are predicting “bloody con-flicts,” but then again, they said the same
thing about Adjara and reality turned out to be entirely different.

There is also speculation that Saakashvili and Putin will hold a
meeting soon, where the president will try to convince his Russian
colleague of the necessity to resolve the conflict. Saakashvili
emphasizes that the despite the ousting of Abashidze’s strongly
pro-Russian regime, Russian economic interests in Georgia are not
in danger and he plans specifically to invite Russian businessmen
to the country to calm their fears. He will likely present the same
argument in regard to Abkhazia, where Russian capital has “got its
foot in the door” thanks to the separatist government. However,
the Georgian government continues to regard this investment as illegal.

Recent experience has shown that Saakashvili likes to make unexpected
moves and take risks. He seems to be ready to accept the Russian
conditions about the status of Abkhazia that were most likely posed
so that the Georgian side would find them unacceptable. Still,
the decisive word belongs to Russia, which must fully reject the
imperialistic policy it has pursued in the south Caucasus in the
1990’s. A fundamental element of this policy has been considerable
support to the separatist regimes. As the Abashidze situation shows,
however, there may be change in the air.