RUSSIA’S POSITION IN THE CAUCASUS
The situation in the Caucasus is extremely tense. Clearly, the UN
mission dispatched to deal with the conflict between Georgia and
Abkhazia has been a spectacular failure. Georgia does not comply
with the recent UN Security Council resolutions. Troops have not been
withdrawn from the Kodori Gorge.
Instead, the Georgian Interior Ministry is building up its forces in
the zone. Downright criminals are being involved in sabotage in the
As for the political aspect of the situation, the positions of the
sides concerning the so-called frozen conflicts have diverged even
Georgia’s current offers to recognize Abkhazia in case the Georgian
constitution changes in the future and to return refugees to the Gali
region regardless of the consequences of the move are unrealistic.
The resolution of conflicts around the de facto Republics in the
post-Soviet space increasingly draws international attention. The
internationalization of the settlement process so widely discussed in
Tbilisi is already an accomplished fact. This is quite explainable:
throughout the past five years, Georgia has been making efforts to
change the format of Russia’s presence in the Caucasus.
It is unlikely that Saakashvili is able to unleash another round
Last April, he allegedly presented a plan of seizing Abkhazia and
South Ossetia entitled Doublet at a secret meeting with his army
and police chiefs. Tentatively, the leak about the secret plan was
meant to exert psychological pressure on Abkhazia, South Ossetia,
and the peacekeepers.
However, there is a range of reasons why a war is not in Georgia’s
interests. It would be difficult to endure, and the result would be
an indefinite delay of the conflict resolution in Georgia’s favor,
while its domestic stability would be jeopardized by the very first
Experts (A. Khramchikhin in particular) think that Georgia’s military
superiority by a factor of 4-5 over the forces of Abkhazia and South
Ossetia (even taken separately) is a total myth.
No exact assessments of the military capabilities of the two breakaway
regions are available, but in all likelihood they are just slightly
inferior to those of Georgia. The quantities of weaponry Russia has
transferred to Abkhazia and South Ossetia since 1993 are unknown. Over
past several years, Georgia has been supplied with weaponry on a large
scale by Ukraine, Bulgaria, Greece, Poland, and Turkey. The scandal
that erupted when 40 BMP-2 armored personal carriers were obtained by
Georgia from Ukraine in 2005 is not over yet. In an armed conflict,
Abkhazians and South Ossetians would be defending their homes and
thus be more motivated than Georgian soldiers fighting "to restore
the territorial integrity". Unlike Georgians, the populations o f
the breakaway regions would not have to seize "enemy territory".
The possibility that weapons would be supplied to the autonomies by
Russia is a definite advantage of their positions.
Tbilisi adopted different approaches to South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Since 2004, the Georgian leadership has been reckoning that a
departure from the status quo in the conflict zones is the optimal
way of reintegrating Georgia. This departure should make it possible
to internationalize the conflicts. Saakashvili seeks to transform the
conflict between Georgia and South Ossetia into one between Georgia
and Russia. Tbilisi concluded in 2004 and continues to believe that
unlike Abkhazia South Ossetia is a "weak link" in the chain of its
problems. In contrast to Abkhazia where the Inguri River has become a
natural border between two ethnic communities, Georgian and Ossetian
villages in South Ossetia are territorially mixed, plus there are
zones there which have never been under the separatist government’s
control. Hence the hope to have the "Ossetian issue" resolved easily
and in a short term. In reality, the "short term" has already extended
over 4 years. True enough, the status quo in the conflict zone has
been destroyed over the period of time completely.
Even though the resumed armed hostilities did not last long (in
2004), the minimal level of security achieved thanks to the Dagomys
agreemen ts is now a matter of the past. Over the last 4 years,
shootings and provocations have become every-day reality, and now
the zone is patrolled not only by adults but also by high-school
students. Tskhinvali has seen a tide of suspiciousness, spy mania,
and intolerance to the opponents of the authority (nevertheless,
the population of South Ossetia remains united in its drive for
S. Markedonov, one of Russia’s top Caucasus experts, writes that
South Ossetia became the region which ruined Sakashvili’s quick
"reintegration" plans already in 2004. For Saakashvili, the failure
of the snap offensive targeting Tskhinvali signified the end of
illusions that the "restoration of the territorial integrity" would
be a rapid process.
The conflict in South Ossetia was the first frozen one in Eurasia to be
"thawed" in the political, legal, and military senses. The results are
immediately obvious. The legal framework of the ceasefire and the peace
process stopped to exist. A project of an "alternative South Ossetia"
with Sanakoyev as the pro-Georgian Ossetian leader was launched,
but Sanakoyev is not an independent actor in the conflict from the
military standpoint. Sanakoev and his provisional administration are
a project meant to leave Tskhinvali with no representative status in
A de facto partition of South Ossetia has already taken place. Over
the 4 years , Georgian and Ossetian villages have developed their own
transit, military, economic, and administrative infrastructures linking
them either to Tbilisi or to Vladikavkaz and Moscow. D. Sanakoev has
toures Brussels and other European capitals and meets with European
and US diplomats, while President of the unrecognized South Ossetia
E. Kokoity is portrayed as "the Kremlin’s puppet" and "an instrument
of Russia’s annexionist plans".
As a result of the un-freezing, the Joint Control Commission on
Settlement of the Georgian-Ossetian Conflict held only one meaningful
meeting (in Tbilisi last October). Then, in March, 2008 Georgian
State Minister for Reintegration Temur Yakobashvili said that its
potential had been exhausted and a new settlement format was needed.
Clashes entailing civilian fatalities, at times among women and
children, resumed after the un-freezing. An 18-year-old resident was
killed when Tskhinvali came under artillery fire on June 15, 2008. A
part of the South-Ossetian peacekeeping battalion refused to obey
the Joint Control Commission on Settlement of the Georgian-Ossetian
Conflict after the seizure of the Sarabuki village.
At present, Russia’s position in South Ossetia should be based
on the following principles. The disrupted negotiation process
must be revived (without discussions of the status issue) and an
agreement on not using force in the conflict zone (by all sides)
must be prepared. A meaningful=2 0discussion of the future status of
the conflict region would become possible only when the incessant
shootings and provocations end. Any negotiations (or deals) are
impossible while shellings of the capital of South Ossetia continue.
In Abkhazia, Tbilisi does not dare to violate the 1994 Moscow
agreements with the same cynicism as the 1992 Dagomys agreements
concerning South Ossetia. At the same time, Georgia invades Abkhazia’s
air space on a regular basis, which it should not do since the space
is under international control exercised by the United Nations Observer
Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG).
It is clear that the recent episode in which a Georgian unmanned
aerial vehicle (UAV) was shot down was used by Tbilisi as a pretext
to launch a propaganda campaign and to present itself internationally
as the victim of a Russian aggression. But the very fact that this
was the seventh of Georgia’s Israeli-made Silver Arrow UAVs to be
shot down merits attention.
On July 9, the Russian Foreign Ministry made an extremely harsh
statement concerning the escalation of the situation in the zones of
the Georgian-Abkhazian and Georgian-Ossetian conflicts. Two people were
killed and six injured during a massive mortar attack on Tskhinvali
in the night of July 4, 2008. The air space invasions by Georgian
air forces became regular.
A strategic height near the Sarabuki village was taken by the Georgian
forces and additional heavy weaponry was dispatched by Georgia to
the region. Having mentioned a series of recent blasts in Abkhazian
towns and the fact that Abkhazia regards them as terrorist acts,
the Russian Foreign Ministry said openly that there were indications
that Georgia had been involved in some of the cases.
Saakashvili has already offered his version of a settlement plan
It includes a partition of Abkhazia into influence zones – a larger
Russian and a relatively small Georgian one – with Georgia’s formal
sovereignty over the entire territory of the former Georgian Soviet
The initiative reflects the Georgian vision of the peace plan
discussed by Abkhazian President S. Bagapsh and Georgian Ambassador
to the UN Irakli Alasania in Sukhumi this May. A part of the plan is
the agreement not to use force in the conflict zone in return for
Tbilisi’s consent to pull its armed forces out of the Upper Kodori
Gorge and Sukhumi’s guarantees not to obstruct the return of refugees
to the Gali and Ochamchira districts, plus the replacement of Russian
peacekeepers by a joint Georgian-Abkhazian police force.
The plan implies a de facto partition of Abkhazia into two spheres
of influence by Russia and Georgia. Currently the border between
Georgia and Abkhazia coincides with the Inguri River along which the
Russian peacekeepers’ checkpoints are sited. According to the plan,
the border must shift north=2 0and pass along the Kodori River.
The zone north of the Kodori is to remain under the control of
the Abkhazian authority. Tbilisi will not insist on the return of
refugees to the region as such a possibility is decisively opposed
by Sukhumi. Besides, Georgia can agree to the deployment of Russian
troops north of the Kodori River. As another part of the plan,
Tbilisi suggests that Moscow abolishes the decrees establishing
special relations between Russia and Abkhazia issued by V.
Putin on April 15, 2008.
Politically, the plan stipulates legal foundations for Abkhazia’s
broad autonomy within a unitary Georgia. In fact, it means preserving
the status quo in the area north of the Kodori River. However, the
very next day the plan was dropped by Saakashvili.
Tbilisi’s plan stems from the UN General Assembly’s resolution on the
refugees from Abkhazia. From Sukhumi’s point of view, the resolution
was adopted on the basis of biased and even provocational materials
supplied solely by the Georgian side. The UN resolution stresses
the importance of protecting the property rights of refugees and
displaced persons from Abkhazia. It was supported by 13 countries:
Albany, Azerbaijan, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania,
Hungary, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Sweden, the US, and Ukraine. A
total of 105 countries abstained.
The position of the European countries on the issue is particularly
surprising. Europe must have forgotte n how the problem of refugees
was handled after WWII. There were approximately 40 mln displaced
people in Europe in May 1945, plus the Germans who fled from the Red
Army. Besides, 11.3 mln forced laborers still remained in Germany. At
that time Europe’s decision was clear: refugees were not to return
to the regions of residence but to receive material compensations for
their sufferings. Otherwise, some 3 mln Germans would have returned to
Czechoslovakia, 3.5-3.7 mln Germans and 3 mln Ukrainians – to Poland,
over 3 mln Poles – to Ukraine and Lithuania. The rationale behind
the decision was simple – it was clear that the return of refugees
in such numbers would make another round of bloodshed imminent.
Advocating the return of refugees today, the European countries
neglect their own historical experience.
The Russian delegation opposed the Georgian plan and said that its
implementation would entail an escalation of the Georgian-Abkhazian
conflict. A statement by the Russian Foreign Ministry described the
resolution as counterproductive. Ten countries – Armenia, Belarus,
Venezuela, India, Iran, China, Burma, Serbia, Syria, and Sudan –
sided with Russia on the issue.
The vote shows quite definitely that the international community
did not support Georgia’s maneuvers. In contrast to Security
Council resolutions, those of the General Assembly are non-binding
recommendations (though the international law does recognize=2 0the
right of refugees to return to their residences). It is hard to imagine
that Abkhazians will allow refugees to return knowing that as a result
once again they are going to become a minority in their own Republic.
Prof. V. Naumkin has an original vision of the problem. Contrary to
the widely held view, the status of the unrecognized territory is not
the key issue. A more important role is played by the demographic
aspect of the problem. Prior to the war, Abkhazians made just 17%
of the Republic’s population, but nearly all Georgians fled Abkhazia
during the hostilities.
By now, some 60,000 Georgians have returned to the Gali region. Suppose
that somehow the independent status of Abkhazia wins the international
recognition. The return of refugees and some form of the international
control over the process would necessarily be a part of the
package. Are Abkhazians ready to embrace independence provided that
the Republic’s population is going to be predominantly Georgian, with
all the predictable consequences of the disposition? It is hardly
possible to create a political system under which an ethnic group
numbering less than 1/5 of the total population gets an exclusive
political right to run the country. The coexistence of the two ethnic
groups both dispersed over the territory appears unlikely after
all that has happened. The chances to put the plan into practice
can rise substantially in case Georgia opts for the st atus of a
neutral country, thus creating conditions for a reunion with Russia,
and rules out resorting to force in the relations with Abkhazia.
Several days ago, Washington returned to the issue of an international
police mission in the zone of the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict. In this
context, the very premises are unacceptable. What would be the legal
foundations for dispatching the police force, their functions and
responsibilities? As of today, the 1992 Moscow ceasefire agreement
recognized by the UN and charted with its help remains the main
document regulating the peacekeeping process.
Despite all the miscalculations and failures of the Russian policy
in Georgia, the Russian peacekeepers must be credited with playing
a positive and stabilizing role in the conflict zone. Nevertheless,
Moscow should not reject the international community’s involvement in
the conflict resolution. Russia’s optimal strategy would be to combine
the military and political dominance in the region with encouraging
the Abkhazian elite’s international contacts. Adding the UN presence
to its peacekeeping mission would allow Russia to strengthen its
position of the guarantor of peace in the Caucasus.
From: Emil Lazarian | Ararat NewsPress