Stop Playing With Fire In Abkhazia

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The "frozen conflict" between Georgia and Abkhazia is glowing red-hot again. Until recently, Georgia on one side and Abkhazia and its not-so-tacit patron, Russia, on the other had constrained themselves to belligerent rhetoric. But both sides have upped the ante in recent weeks.

Georgia's military has been sending unmanned aircraft on reconnaissance missions over Abkhazia, only to see them shot down. Georgia has accused the Russian military of shooting at least one of the drones, while Abkhazia has insisted that its armed forces brought down the planes.

Russia has denied any role in bringing down the drones, but last week it did bolster what it insists is an unbiased peacekeeping force separating Abkhaz and Georgian positions in the region.

It is no secret, however, that Moscow, which is also involved in the mediation of long, frozen talks between Tbilisi and Sukhumi, favors Abkhazia in this conflict, despite its assurances to the contrary. Moscow has long backed Abkhazia's de facto independence, having granted Russian citizenship to many of its residents and recently legalizing economic ties with the separatist republic. For Russia, the conflict provides a good source of leverage on both Abkhazia and Georgia. In addition, the more Georgia seeks to distance itself from Russia, the more Russia throws its weight behind Abkhazia.

Such tactics have worked in the past, but they are not working any more. Undeterred, Georgia's leadership is actively pursuing NATO membership.

One way to disrupt Georgia's NATO aspirations would be to heat up the conflict in Abkhazia to a level that would make it unacceptable for the Western alliance, which acts by the consensus of all members, to offer membership. Alternatively, Georgia's leadership could be escalating tensions in hope of prompting Abkhazia and Russia to make a move that would leave the West with no chance but to intervene. Regardless of the motivation, whoever is stoking the conflict must realize that they are playing with fire. This brinkmanship can lead to a full-fledged war. Georgia would probably lose a war if Russia backed Abkhazia, while Russia would lose its hope of becoming a benign global player and would risk seriously straining its ties with the European Union and the United States.

It would be unrealistic to hope that a de-escalation of tensions and a subsequent resumption of talks would lead to a resolution of this conflict, given the diametrically opposing views in Sukhumi and Tbilisi on Abkhazia's future status. But still, as the Russian saying goes, "Bad peace is better than a good war."