Georgia and Russia: Clashing over Abkhazia - International Crisis Group

Georgia and Russia: Clashing over Abkhazia

International Crisis Group

Europe Report N°193
5 June 2008

Click here to view the full report as a PDF file in A4 format.  

The executive summary and recommendations of this report are also available in Russian

With the dispute between Georgia and Russia in a new, dangerously confrontational phase, the risk of war in the South Caucasus is growing. Concerned by NATO’s plans for further extension to former Soviet republics and Kosovo’s unilateral but Western-orchestrated independence, Russia has stepped up manipulation of the South Ossetia and Abkhazia conflicts. Georgia remains determined to restore its territorial integrity, and hawks in Tbilisi are seriously considering a military option. Both sides need to recognise the risks in current policies, cool their rhetoric and cease military preparations. Russia should cease undermining its peacekeeper and mediator roles and be open to a change of negotiating formats. Georgia should adopt a new approach to the Abkhaz, encouraging their links to the outside world to lessen dependence on Russia and emphasising incremental con­­fidence building to establish the mutual trust needed for successful negotiations. The U.S. and European Union (EU) should be firm and united in cautioning both Moscow and Tbilisi against military adventures.

Moscow deployed additional troops and military hard­ware, allegedly in furtherance of its peacekeeping man­date, to Georgia’s breakaway territory of Abkhazia in April 2008, thus continuing a pattern of escalating tensions. This includes former President Vladimir Putin’s announcement that Russia would formalise ties with Abkhazia and statements by Kremlin officials that Moscow was prepared to use military force to protect its citizens in Abkhazia and South Ossetia if hostilities resumed. How close to that kind of conflict the region may be is suggested by a series of incidents in which unmanned Georgian aircraft have been shot down over Abkhazia, at least once by a Russian jet.

Tbilisi has responded with a diplomatic offensive, enlisting high-level Western political support, while repeating that it wants to resolve the frozen conflicts peacefully. It shares blame for the escalation, however. It has quietly been making military preparations, particularly in western Georgia and Upper Kodori. A number of powerful advisers and structures around President Mikheil Saakashvili appear increasingly convinced a military operation in Abkhazia is feasible and necessary. The option they seem to favour would aim at regaining control of the southern part of the territory so as to establish at least a temporary partition. The Georgians have been warned by their Western partners against attempting a military solution. But there are strong feelings in Tbilisi that something must be done to change a status quo in which Russia challenges the country’s sovereignty with virtual impunity. The risk of miscalculation by either side leading to unintended fighting is also serious.

The Abkhaz themselves fear that they will be the biggest losers in the Moscow-Tbilisi dispute. Russia has been their sole support as they have sought to break away from Georgian rule, but there is little likelihood Moscow would ever formally recognise their independence. Instead, the Abkhaz find themselves being used for purposes having little to do with their own cause and in danger of being absorbed as a small minority into the giant Russian Federation. That realisation is sinking in and could provide the basis for new, more promising Tbilisi-Sukhumi talks.

The Georgian government says it wants to move in that direction, but there has been too little realism and too many mixed messages in its language to date. President Saakashvili offered a new peace plan for Abkhazia in March, with extensive autonomy, a jointly controlled economic zone and gradual merger of law enforcement and customs agencies. If this initiative is not to be stillborn, however, the Georgians will need to take steps to persuade the Abkhaz that it is not meant primarily to satisfy Western partners, and they are serious about restarting a meaningful negotiating process. This requires an immediate end to bellicose rhetoric, postponement of efforts to settle the ultimate status question and a newly consistent focus on confidence building. While Georgia’s desire to change the negotiations format, currently mediated by Russia, is understandable, it should not make this a precondition for resuming talks.

The West must meanwhile use all its influence to press for peaceful resolution of the Georgian-Abkhaz and Georgian-Russian conflicts alike. Persuading Russia to withdraw any troops and equipment from Abkhazia which do not fit with its peacekeeping mandate from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) would improve the environment for diplomatic progress. The 5-6 June visit of foreign policy chief Javier Solana to Tbilisi and Sukhumi is an opportunity for the EU to show unity and resolve, as well as listen to the sides’ grievances. The U.S. and EU should also be unequivocal about the negative impact that a conflict in Abkhazia would have on the 2014 Sochi Olympics. At the same time, they should show they are aware of Russia’s legitimate interests in the Caucasus and concerns for the stability of its own southern regions, and should unmistakably communicate to Georgia that any rash moves would have negative consequences for its NATO ambitions as well as foreign investment.



To the Georgian, Abkhaz and Russian Sides:

1. Refrain from hostile actions and confrontational rhetoric, while respecting the 1994 Moscow Agree­ment and relevant UN Security Council Reso­lutions and CIS decisions regulating the cease­fire regime, separation of forces and deployment of peacekeeping troops in Abkhazia.

2. Resume negotiations, focusing on confidence building first rather than status issues, and agree on changes to the negotiations format that emphasise direct Georgian-Abkhaz dialogue and give the EU a role on a par with Russia and the UN.

To the Georgian Side:

3. Halt any preparations for a military operation as well as belligerent rhetoric (including false press reports), and be transparent with regard to military and internal affairs ministry budgets and acquisitions.

4. Show respect for the Abkhaz self-determination aspirations and security fears, including by issuing a statement regretting past injustices.

5. Pursue and consistently implement without status preconditions measures designed to build confidence over time, such as a free trade zone along both sides of the ceasefire line and steps to allow the Abkhaz to develop ties beyond Russia, including the removal of sanctions and reopening of airport, railroad and seaport links.

6. Keep the Upper Kodori Gorge free of military presence and activity, provide full information on the security presence there and refrain from overflights of Abkhazia, including by unmanned aircraft.

7. Commit formally and without preconditions to non-resumption of hostilities.

To the Georgian and Abkhaz Sides:

8.  Sukhumi should carry out more measures to support sustainable returns, and both sides should cease harassment of Gali returnees and agree on a returns verification exercise for the Gali district by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

To the Russian Side:

9. Refrain from all actions that undermine Georgia’s sovereignty and Russia’s role as an impartial mediator and peacekeeper, including unilateral upgrading of ties with de facto authorities in Abkhazia.

10. Withdraw troops and equipment introduced into Abkhazia on 29 April and 31 May 2008 and ensure that the number, equipment and activities of CIS peacekeepers deployed there is consistent with relevant CIS rules.


11.  Make more effective use of the NATO-Russia Council, especially as a forum to discuss NATO enlargement to Georgia and Ukraine, including Russian concerns.

To the EU, U.S. and Wider International Community:

12. Call on all sides to refrain from hostilities and return to negotiations, while emphasising the negative consequences if conflict erupts, including for Georgia’s integration into Euro-Atlantic structures and for Russia’s plans to host successful Winter Olympics in 2014.

13. The EU should promptly implement European Commission confidence-building measures, including speeding up the opening of EU information centres in the conflict regions.

Tbilisi/Moscow/Brussels, 5 June 2008 

Source: International Crisis Group - Georgia and Russia: Clashing over Abkhazia




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