While the U.N. Security Council is seized with Iraq, the overlooked but menacing situation in Georgia’s breakaway province of Abkhazia also warrants the council’s prompt attention. On Feb. 15, the council will likely be handed an opportunity to overhaul the mandate of the U.N. Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG). It must accept this responsibility or risk undermining the sovereignty of Georgia, a struggling democracy in an important but volatile part of the world.
Abkhazia is the northwestern bit of Georgia’s Black Sea coast that Russia helped split away during Georgia’s 1993 civil war. As a result, a quarter-million people, mostly ethnic Georgians fled their homes. Many still live in squalid refugee conditions, imposing a major burden on Georgia’s economy and political system. Abkhazia declared independence in 1999, but no country or international organization recognizes it. Nonetheless, the place ekes by with Russian support.
Last summer, Moscow began offering Russian citizenship and passports to the remaining residents of Abkhazia. Then, on December 25, 2002 just as the UNOMIG mandate was up for renewal it reopened the decrepit railway between the Russian port of Sochi and Sukhumi, Abkhazia’s principal city. The train carries few passengers, but it sends a clear signal of Russia’s ambitions in the former Soviet regions of the south Caucasus. It adds up to the “ongoing annexation of Abkhazia,” charges Revaz Adamia, Georgia’s U.N. representative.
The irony of this state of affairs is that for a decade the U.N. has quasi-officially subcontracted the job of monitoring the Georgian-Abkhaz cease fire to a Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) that is Russian military force of about 1,500. The U.N. has acquiesced to a party interested in the conflict doubling as peacekeeper!
Meanwhile, UNOMIG’s able Ambassador Heidi Tagliavini is left to “observe” CIS peacekeepers and to try to lure Abkhaz representatives to a U.N.-sponsored discussion table. The Abkhaz side maintains that because it is already independent, talks about its status would be unconstitutional.
On Jan. 30, the U.N. Security Council resolved that it “deeply regrets … the repeated refusal of the Abkhaz side to agree to a discussion” in accordance with a document hammered out by UNOMIG. And it reaffirmed “the commitment of all member states to the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Georgia.” These are tough words by U.N. standards. Nonetheless, the Council extended UNOMIG’s mandate for another six months subject to further review if the CIS peacekeeping mandate is not renewed by Feb. 15.
Georgia remains a member of the CIS, and, thus far, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze has stalled a renewed mandate for the Russian force, insisting on a halt to the extension of Russian citizenship in Abkhazia and on interruption of the Sochi-Sukhumi railway. Shevardnadze also wants the CIS peacekeepers to patrol a new separation line further west, encouraging the return of refugees to the Abkhaz area closest to the current cease fire line. The region could be governed, Georgian officials suggest, by an international administration.
Few expect a resolution before February 15, affording the U.N. Security Council the opportunity to reclaim its responsibility to forge a real and enduring solution in Abkhazia.
If the council shrinks from this challenge, it will be turning a blind eye to Russia’s piecemeal annexation of Abkhazia. In a weak bargaining position, Mr. Shevardnadze may be forced to renew the CIS peacekeeping mandate, further undermining Georgia’s sovereignty and stoking the frustration of refugees who fled Abkhazia a decade ago. Or, protracted stalemate could lead to precipitous withdrawal of the Russian peacekeeping force, followed by greater disorder, bloodshed and heightened tension between the two sides. Either way, the issue of Abkhazia will return to New York with a vengeance.
Instead, the U.N. Security Council should place Abkhazia on its agenda on Feb. 15. Russia could obstruct council action, but skillful diplomacy may lead Moscow to help promote discussion of an accommodation for Abkhazia in the context of Georgian sovereignty and return of the refugees. These goals can only be achieved by internationalizing the peacekeeping force, without excluding Russia, under U.N. auspices. A number of Georgia’s Caucasus and Black Sea neighbors stand ready to help if only the U.N. would ask.
David J. Smith, chief operating officer of the National Institute for Public Policy, has just returned from Georgia.