Abkhazia's Uneasy Peace

The end of September marked one year since the cessation of military activity between Georgia and Abkhazia. During the long fighting there, Abkhazia proved convincingly that Georgia simply cannot exist as a single, integrated state. The ongoing, Russian-mediated negotiations in Geneva have yet to yield any significant results. Sukhumi has no intention of giving up anything that it gained during the bloody war, as demonstrated by its recent declaration of sovereignty. For its part, Georgia, which is riven by internal contradictions, is in no position to solve the Abkhazia problem by force.

The last round of the Geneva talks was held Nov. 21, and it proved only that neither side had significantly changed its position. The next round, scheduled for Dec. 2, has been postponed by the Georgian side in the wake of the Abkhazian declaration. Nonetheless, the talks themselves, proceeding under the auspices of the United Nations, are very much in the interests of Abkhazian politicians and represent an important step toward eventual international recognition.

On Sept. 30, at a celebration in honor of "liberation," the chairman of the Abkhazian Supreme Soviet, Vladislav Ardzinba, who just last weekend was elected president of the republic, congratulated the crowd on its victory and announced that he believes it may be possible to negotiate a confederation-type arrangement with Georgia. This declaration, though, was most likely just a tactical manuever, since Tbilisi is unlikely to consent to any arrangement that would lead to Abkhazia's recognition.

The situation in Abkhazia is difficult. Economics Minister Daura Bargandzhiya estimates that the direct damages of the fighting amount to more than $7 billion. Production has fallen sharply and the republic's budget revenues for 1994 are estimated to be only 7 to 8 percent of what they were in 1992. The destruction in Sukhumi is truly devastating and the burned-out shell of the Supreme Soviet building, unlike Moscow's White House, is unlikely to be rebuilt any time soon.

Moreover, the population remains heavily armed. Every night one can hear the sound of automatic-weapons fire in the darkness. During the "liberation" celebrations, a boy and a girl were wounded by stray bullets. The government, considering the unpredictable political situation, has not taken any steps to disarm the population or to register its weapons. Moreover, many say, it will not undertake such measures since it does not want to leave the population helpless in the face of growing crime that the authorities are unable to control.

Relations with Russia are also far from simple. Abkhazians generally view the Russian peacekeepers there positively, seeing them as a guarantee of the cease-fire. Nonetheless, an incident that took place between Sept. 14 and Sept. 16 threatened to explode into a general Russian-Abkhazian conflict.

At that time, after two Russian officers were killed in the Russian-controlled safe zone, the Russian Defense Ministry put all Russian troops on a state of alert. Local forces were mobilized in response and the republic seemed on the verge of renewed war. It is estimated that nearly 7,000 local troops were mustered to take on the Russian contingent of between 1,500 and 2,000 troops.

The Abkhazian leadership has little confidence in Russia and feels certain that Moscow would not hesitate to sacrifice Abkhazia's interests for its own ends. Moreover, there have been a number of small conflicts that have exacerbated the situation. Abkhazians complain that they must pay considerable bribes to Russian border guards to ship their fruit and vegetables across the border into Russia. Also, the Russian postal service has issued an order that all mail from Russia to Abkhazia must pass through the international exchange point in Tbilisi. This has led to routine delays of around six months.

However, officials at all levels recognize that it will be impossible for Abkhazia to repair its war damage without Russia's help. Since it has not been possible to establish contacts with Moscow, Sukhumi has been forging ties directly with the nearby regions of Russia. Several of them, including Bashkortostan and Tatarstan, have already concluded cultural and economic agreements with Abkhazia, presenting them to Moscow only after the fact. It is anticipated that other territories of the Russian Federation, especially those located in the northern Caucasus, will soon follow suit.

Perhaps the most contentious issue in this region is the return of Georgian refugees to Abkhazia. The majority of the local people consider these former neighbors to be irreconcilable enemies. Even the most level-headed locals realize that the return of these refugees will be extremely dangerous, primarily for the refugees themselves. "The war wounds have not yet healed," said the deputy chairman of the Abkhazian Supreme Soviet, Gennady Alamiya. "There is not a single family that did not lose a father or a son or a husband or a brother. Bitter feelings are running high and the population is heavily armed."

Of course, there are other reasons why the locals would not like to see the refugees return. As a result of the damage caused by the war, many apartments and homes that once belonged to Georgians are now occupied by Abkhazians, Russians and Armenians who fought against Georgia. The only exception is the Galsky region, where the local Georgian population generally did not participate in the fighting. But even if all the refugees are returned to that region, the overall demographic situation will remain unchanged. All parties must face the fact that, regardless of any official agreements between the political leaders of Georgia and Abkhazia, it is extremely unrealistic to hope that Georgians will be able to return to this land for a very long time.

Vladimir Gubarev is a reporter for RIA-Novosti. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.