Abkhazia's Status Not Negotiable

Today Georgia is at the crossroads of world interests. Georgia and Abkhazia need to reconcile so that peace can settle in the region. On March 1, the participants of the CIS summit considered prolonging the mandate of the Russian peacekeepers in Abkhazia. The mandate expired on December 31, 2001, and the issue of its prolongation is a complicated one. On February 27, the CIS Cabinet decided that other CIS states will participate in peacekeeping operation in Abkhazia too.

March 3 is the day of Parliamentary elections in Abkhazia. On March 5, the International Committee of the Russian Duma will sit for a special session to consider the possibility of recognising Abkhazia as a sovereign state. Without a doubt, these are important enough factors to influence the reconciliation process.

In the following interview, Igor Akhba, a Minister of the unrecognised republic and her Plenipotentiary in Russia, speaks about the current situation in Abkhazia.

The issue of Abkhazia's sovereign status is central in Georgian-Abkhazian negotiations. Where does official Sukhumi stand?

The negotiations have been continuing since September 1993. At one point, thanks to joint efforts, and especially thanks to Russia, the chief intermediary, we have reached some progress. We even signed some basic legal documents. I'm talking about the Statement of Political Settlement with a Four-lateral Agreement for the Return of Refugees for an attachment. On May 14, 1994, in Moscow, we signed a cease-fire agreement and an agreement on troops disengagement. As based on these two agreements, we have Russian peacekeepers and the UN military observers in the region.

What is clearly stated in these documents is that no official relations exist between Georgia and Abkhazia and that both parties should take steps to rebuild some communication. After the collapse of the USSR, Georgia chose to claim her independence and annul all Soviet time decrees. By 1992, this resulted in a power vacuum. Georgia returned to the 1921constitution, wherein Abkhazia was not mentioned at all. Considering that, Abkhazia offered Georgia to sign an agreement founding a federation. Georgia's reply were 2,000 heavily armed soldiers, tanks and artillery, that is clearly an act of aggression. At that time, there were no formal ties between Georgia and Abkhazia, and the war put an end to whatever still remained.

Today we assume that Abkhazia is not a part of Georgia, neither de-jure nor de facto. After the people's will was confirmed by the referendum held in October 1999 , the republic of Abkhazia was proclaimed a sovereign state, a subject to international law. During all meetings and negotiations, her President, Government and Parliament follow the line of total sovereignty, the line that was chosen and approved by the people. We do not rule out further relations with Georgia, yet they are possible only as relations between two sovereign states. Although in the past there was a scenario of a union with a jurisdiction over two sovereign regions, Georgia rejected that project. The last such attempt took place in 1997.

Today, Abkhazia will not accept any offers of autonomy with broad range of powers and authority. Her status is no longer negotiable. There are, however, many other Georgia-Abkhazia issues requiring urgent attention. These are the problems of refugees, the restoration of railroad operations, the economic rehabilitation of Abkhazia, which was provided for in all the signed documents and agreements. Until now, Abkhazia has not received a single cent from international organisations, because all multi-million-dollar aid goes to Georgia, whose government uses it at will. Here our stronghold is firm and we will not retreat. Whoever leads Abkhazia should follow the line chosen by the people or leave. Georgia's attempts to penetrate the Abkhazian society are futile, there hardly being any pro-Georgian sentiment left.

Georgia, however, is also relentless. Tbilisi considers Abkhazia a part of Georgia, and insists on Abkhazia's sovereignty being out of the question.

The opinion of Georgian government is their own business. If we take a look in historical perspective, it becomes clear that Abkhazia has never been a part of Georgia. The conflict stems from the decision made by the Soviet government in Moscow making Abkhazia an autonomous part of Georgia. In the beginning of the 1920s, after Georgian troops were pushed out of Abkhazia and the Soviet rule began, an independent Soviet Republic of Abkhazia was created. It lasted about ten years, yet unlike other soviet republics, which kept their independence after the USSR was created, Abkhazia, against its people's will, was made an autonomous part of Georgia in 1931.

Today's conflict is rooted in those events. Despite all attempts to find a compromise, Georgia still sees Abkhazia in her pre-war status, which for us is unacceptable. All attempts to force such a solution of the problem have no future. The same concerns the drafted document proposing to divide authority between Tbilisi and Sukhumi. We will not even consider any such document prepared by the Georgian friends of the UN Secretary General. The UN is there to help, yet its recommendations should not be forced on either party. We are studying the January resolution of the UN Security Council concerning Abkhazia. We do not mind being called 'an unrecognised republic' - our case is not unique, we are neither the first nor the last. But we saddened by the need to point out there being double standards. The resolution requires Georgia to withdraw her troops from the Condor Ravine. And what? They simply couldn't care less about these recommendations. Yet we have to follow them, don't we?

The conflict between Georgia and Abkhazia is very similar to the situation in the Pridnestroviye region. Tiraspol also has no intention to discuss the status of Pridnestroviye Moldavian Republic (PMR). The negotiations are stalled and the PMR government seriously thinks Kishinev may resort to using force. What are the chances of something like that to happen in Abkhazia? In our opinion, there is no real alternative to peaceful political dialogue. Once again, there are rumours that Abkhazia may be submitted by force if we don't cooperate. Until now, all such attempts, both in 1992-93 and in May 1998, resulted in nothing but more Georgian refugees fleeing from their homes. In 1998, it was the peacekeepers that helped prevent full-scale fighting. The events of October 2001 in Condor, which were intended to destabilise the situation, also failed despite international terrorists involved. The purpose of this was the destabilisation of the situation by provoking an it international incident, thus forcing Russia out of the region and bringing in the UN that is to say NATO troops.

Georgian troops being in the Condor Ravine constitute a severe violation of the Moscow agreement. And if no agreement has been honoured so far, where is the basis for mutual trust? What kind of constructive dialogue can take place, if the threat to use force is always there? Until Georgia begins honouring her promises there can be no dialogue. Our position is simple. We want peace talks, yet the threats of using force render them pointless.

There is an opinion that the strength of Abkhazian army heavily depends on Russia. What is the role of Russian peacekeepers and Russia as a country in the conflict settlement?

Our military power if based on what we have. Russian peacekeepers' role is mainly to separate the opponents, so all talk of them being the basis of Abkhazian military power is nonsense. We have enough weapons, and we have enough people who can handle it, so in case of a military aggression, we will have no other choice but protect our motherland, just as we did back in 1992-93. We are strong and determined enough to hold off Georgian troops.

Our position is unshakeable: we believe that Russian peacekeepers perform their function well, their presence a stabilising factor. We see no need to change that and welcome the prolongation of their mandate. Russia is a country that is truly interested in stability in the region and in keeping her influence here. It is sad to see how she is being pushed out. Georgia already has let the US soldiers in.

Russian peacekeepers are here because both sides agreed to their presence, thus any decision makers, especially where it concerns whether or not to prolong Russia's mandate, should take into account the opinions of Georgia and Abkhazia alike. Granting peacekeepers the authority of police force violates all international regulations, the UN Charter and the Moscow agreement. It is a situation unheard of anywhere in the world. Peacekeepers are not police. Their role is to separate the conflicting parties, preventing active hostilities. The mandate issued to the Russians suites us just fine. It would be silly to hope that the Abkhazia may destroy her defences and withdraw farther back into her territory, giving Georgians a chance to get without a shot what they could not get by force.

From the legal point of view, the mandate conditions cannot be changed without Abkhazia's consent. What is the likelihood of that Russia will disregard Sukhumi's opinion and strike a deal with Shevardnadze?

There are people living where the peacekeepers are stationed. If this happens, confrontation between civil population and peacekeepers is inevitable. I don't think Russia would like that. Russia, just like all other states, should abide by international laws and honour her promises duly signed under during negotiations.

Georgia estimates that about 300,000 refugees fled from Abkhazia. Where does Sukhumi stand on this?

According to the results of the 1989 census published in Tbilisi, before the war in Abkhazia, there were no more than 229,000 Georgians here. We estimate that number as lower, maybe about 200,000. There are facts to support this. When the census was conducted, questionaires were filled in in ink, yet the etnisity of each respondent was penciled in. In Tbilisi, lots of Abkhazians were turned into Georgians on paper. So the talk about ther being 300,000 Georgians in Abkhazia is unfounded. Currently, there are about 80,000 Georgians living in the Gall region. They all came to live there voluntarily. Shouldn't the number of refugees be adjusted? Also, there is a rule, according to which, if a refugee accepts another nationality, he or she may no longer be counted as a refugee. There are lots of refugees in Russia and the CIS states. So, if we count the people who really may want to come back, there are no more than 50,000.

Georgia uses the issue of refuges for her political games. In one of his interviews to a foreign radio station, Georgian President Edward Shevardnadze openly said that if Abkhazia should create favourable conditions for returning refugees, Georgia might lose her forever. According to the Four-lateral Agreement, the process of bringing refugees back should be organised, controlled and recorded. As was pointed out, people who committed military crimes must be prosecuted. We have enough information to suspect that many, if not all, of the Georgians who currently live in Abkhazia at some time fought against their countrymen. What their return might lead to is obvious. It is also well known that a lot of money comes from the West for the programme for the return of refugees. To admit that their number is ten times less than 300,000, means to receive ten times less money. We understand the problem of the return of refugees and agree to cooperate. We have permitted Gall region residents to come back home and resettle as a goodwill gesture on our part.

How correct is the information about Abkhazia's President Vladislav Ardzinba's serious health problem?

Naturally, years of work paying no attention to his health and working under constant stress could not have passed without consequences. At this time, Mr. President needs a complete physical check-up. Fortunately, there seems to be no need of an operation or other radical treatment. Vladislav Ardzinba is able and willing to work. His presidential term ends more than two years from now, and he intends to continue working until then.

What was reaction in Abkhazia to the appointment of Adjarian leader Aslan Abashidze Shevardnadze's plenipotentiary in the settlement of the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict?

Aslan Abashidze is respected in Abkhazia as one of Georgia's leaders. But whoever may represent the Georgian President will not affect our position. We will not negotiate our status with anyone. To us the issue has already been settled. There have been no official contacts between Mr. Abashidze and Abkhazian government yet. Negotiations are possible only if the use of force is renounced. A peacekeeping mechanism backed up by international institutions is needed. As long as Georgia continues violating agreements there is no point in signing any new ones. What else can I say about Aslan Abashidze? I feel sorry for him. This seems to be a dead end situation, and he is but a pawn in someone else's game.

Can you envision any solution of the conflict? And when?

If Georgia truly wants to solve the conflict, she should acknowledge Abkhazia's right to determine her status herself. The conflict between Georgia and Abkhazia could be solved soon, if Georgian elite realised what situation was really about. If, on the other hand, Tbilisi continues with its imperialist aggression, the problem is not likely to be solved any time soon.

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