Tbilisi/Moscow/Brussels, 5 June 2008: Moscow and Tbilisi need to cease military preparations in and around Abkhazia and cool their rhetoric lest their increasingly dangerous confrontation bring war to the Caucasus.
Georgia and Russia: Clashing over Abkhazia,* the International Crisis Group’s new report, released as EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana visits the region for the first time, examines the dispute’s causes and gives recommendations to all parties involved.
“Russia should withdraw the troops and equipment it has deployed over the past two monthsï¿½?, says Magdalena Frichova, Crisis Group’s Caucasus Project Director. “At the same time, Georgia should adopt a new approach to the Abkhaz, encouraging their links to the outside world to lessen dependence on Russia and emphasising genuine confidence buildingï¿½?.
Concerned that prospective Georgian membership would bring NATO to its most sensitive border, Moscow deployed reinforcements to Abkhazia in April and May, continuing a pattern of escalation. This includes an upgrading of ties with the breakaway territory, statements that force will be used to protect Russian citizens there if hostilities resume and the downing of Georgian drones. Georgia argues Russia undermines its territorial integrity by supporting Sukhumi’s independence bid, economically, financially and militarily. Many in the West agree that Moscow has become a party to the conflict.
The West must use its influence to press for peaceful resolution. Persuading Russia to withdraw its new troops and to accept changes to the negotiations format that emphasise direct Georgian-Abkhaz dialogue and give the EU a role on a par with itself and the UN, would improve the chances for diplomacy.
Georgia’s President Mikheil Saakashvili offered a new peace plan for Abkhazia in March, with extensive autonomy, a jointly-controlled economic zone and gradual merger of law enforcement and customs agencies. If it is to have an opportunity to succeed, Tbilisi must drop consideration of war scenarios and take steps to persuade the Abkhaz it is serious about engaging with them and acknowledging their grievances, not simply making a show for the benefit of its Western partners.
“Neither Georgia nor Russia probably wants war, but it could all too easily come by miscalculation, and if it does, it could set the Caucasus – North and South – ablazeï¿½?, says Sabine Freizer, Crisis Group’s Europe Program Director. “All sides need to recognise the risks in their policies, return to the negotiations table and support confidence buildingï¿½?.