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War & Peace: Russian Digital Diplomacy
War & Peace: Russian Digital Diplomacy

Georgia and Russia: Clashing over Abkhazia

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.

Executive Summary

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.

Tbilisi/Moscow/Brussels, 5 June 2008