On the Brink of War


Peace talks will resume no sooner than the blockade of Abkhazia is lifted


Izida Chania, Express Chronicle, Sukhum

May 23, 1997


"The signing of the peace treaty is an extremely important event and a great achievement for Russian President Boris Yeltsin and for the Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov," said Abkhaz President Vladislav Ardzinba of the recently signed peace treaty. Abkhaz politicians pointed to the similarity between the Chechen agreement and the agreement signed by Abkhazia and Georgia on April 4, 1994, saying that if a similar document were to be signed by Abkhazia and Georgia, this would be an important step in restoring peace and mutual trust. Apparently, Abkhazia's leadership is ready to support any initiative in this direction.


The reality of the situation gives few reasons to predict any such developments, or any further progress toward peace at all. Georgian extremist politicians - the same ones that were initially in favor of war with Abkhazia - have done all they could to heighten tensions. Time has passed, but their slogans remain the same. "The problem of Georgian-Abkhazian relations can only be solved through military means," they say, and call for the withdrawal of CIS peace-keeping troops from Abkhazia. But even prior to their withdrawal, they want to get a bonus: the Gal region of Abkhazia. It was with this very goal, and with the support of Russia, which still cannot decided what its policy in the Caucasus should be, that leaders at the CIS summit agreed to widen the mandate of the peace-keeping forces as proposed by Georgian leader Edward Shevardnadze.


Immediately, Russian military emissaries started flocking to Abkhazia, trying to persuade the Republic's leadership that it is somehow necessary to widen the zone controlled by the peace-keepers. After the last visit by General Zavarzin, second in charge of the CIS military command, there should be few doubts that, even when faced with a pull-out of the peace-keepers, Abkhazia will not surrender territory peacefully. A letter to the CIS Commander by Sergey Shamba, Abkhaz Foreign Minister, says as much: "Attempts to exploit the peace-keepers for political reasons will destabilize the region."


The decision of the CIS leaders is a concern not just for the Abkhaz, but for the various international organizations as well. International visitors have now added another stop to their tour: a session with the peace-keepers, during which (usually, behind closed doors), they discuss questions concerning cooperation between the peace-keepers and the UN observers, and other such questions.


What will Abkhazia do if the peace-keepers pull out? Everybody wants to know the answer. It is unclear, how real a prospect that is. Probably just as real as the flooding of the territory with volunteers from Northern Caucasus. Abkhaz military people generally answer the question by saying that they are ready.


All of this will only become clear in July, when the peace-keepers' current mandate expires, and the CIS leaders once again assemble in Moscow to discuss its renewal. Upon their decision depend further developments in the zone of the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict.


Meanwhile, Abkhazia endures the CIS economic blockade, completely isolated, and without phone service... With no plans to surrender. "How long can you endure the blockade?" asks a foreign diplomat. The answer is: a long time. But that is not the point: as Sergey Shamba says, the blockade is not conducive to the peace process; negotiations will not resume until the blockade is lifted.