Expected Council Action
Following the receipt of the quarterly report from the Secretary-General, the Council is expected to renew the mandate of the UN Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG), which expires on January 31.
The conflict in Abkhazia started in the summer of 1992, when secessionist groups began to fight for independence from Georgia. The origins of the Abkhaz conflict are linked to Abkhazia’s incorporation into Georgia after the latter became part of the Soviet Union. Since independence in 1991, Georgia has faced multiple internal secessionist movements, notably in South Ossetia, Ajaria and Abkhazia. The Abkhaz have historically had close links with Russia and during the Soviet period sought, unsuccessfully, to be put under direct rule by Moscow.
International diplomatic efforts have followed the 1992 outbreak, mostly under the auspices of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS, comprised of former Soviet Republics and largely under Russian leadership), and the UN. A Group of Friends consisting of Russia, the US, Germany, France and the UK has been the main focal point for peace talks, with Russia being the main facilitator.
The parties signed a ceasefire in July 1993. The Council then created UNOMIG, but the collapse of the ceasefire led to interim reductions in UNOMIG’s activities. Georgia then joined the CIS.
The parties in late 1993 asked that international peacekeeping forces with Russian participation be deployed and in April 1994 signed a quadripartite agreement recognising the right of voluntary return of displaced persons and a declaration on practical matters such as transportation, energy and communications.
In May 1994, the parties agreed to the Moscow Ceasefire Agreement. The ceasefire provided for the creation of a demilitarised security zone and a restricted weapons zone. It also requested the deployment of a CIS peacekeeping force and UN observers to monitor the implementation of the agreement. The Council then expanded the UNOMIG’s mandate accordingly.
While UNOMIG and CIS forces have parallel mandates, particularly regarding monitoring the ceasefire and patrolling the security zone, they are independent. The 2,000-strong CIS operation, comprised of Russian troops, provides security for UN personnel, while the 120 UNOMIG observers monitor CIS activities and can investigate violations of the agreement outside the buffer zones.
However, there has been no progress on the fundamental points of contention: the final political status of Abkhazia and the return of 200,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) driven out of the region in 1993. The ceasefire remains weak, with frequent reports of violations from both sides.
The Council has historically reaffirmed Georgia’s territorial integrity. Tbilisi’s position has emphasised the territorial integrity of Georgia, albeit with the possibility of increased autonomy for Abkhazia. The Abkhaz de facto authorities have consistently opposed any compromise on Abkhaz independence and have been fearful of ethnic imbalance after the return of Georgian IDPs.
At the initiative of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General, a paper on “Basic Principles for the Distribution of Competencies between Tbilisi and Sokhumi” was submitted to the parties as a basis for substantive negotiations in December 2001 after intense negotiations within the Group of Friends. The paper encountered strong opposition from the Abkhaz side, and this opposition was criticised by the Council.
Diplomatic efforts have focused mainly on containment issues such as building confidence and achieving agreement on the non-resumption of hostilities, and on the return of refugees instead of making progress towards substantive solutions such as the status of Abkhazia. A few positive prospects in that regard emerged with the Abkhaz acceptance of the return of Georgians to its Gali district. Outstanding points still linger, however, particularly on the adoption of a document on non-resumption of hostilities, the opening of a UN human rights office in Gali and the use of the Georgian language in schools in Abkhazia.
The emergence of new leadership in Georgia and Abkhazia in the past two years has contributed to a more optimistic environment. Observers have noted that Tbilisi now prefers a less confrontational approach, building upon common interests between the sides.
The relationship between Moscow and Tbilisi, on the other hand, has soured over recent months. Georgia has repeatedly accused Russia of partiality and support for the Abkhaz, and the Georgian parliament has threatened to vote to expel the peacekeepers Russia maintains in Abkhazia and in South Ossetia under a CIS mandate. Furthermore, Georgia has approached NATO for membership, which in turn may intensify Russian concerns.
Russia warns that exerting too much pressure on the Abkhaz could lead to the deterioration of the humanitarian situation in the region. Those concerns, according to Moscow, have led it to extend benefits to the Abkhaz, such as passports and pensions, which according to observers would deepen Abkhazia’s de facto independence.
The immediate issue before the Council is the renewal of UNOMIG’s mandate. Nonetheless, the continuation of the de facto independence of Abkhazia begs the question as to whether the Council will explore any action to encourage effective peace talks.
Russia has been in the lead on issues related to UNOMIG for the duration of its operation. But several permanent members of the Council in addition to Russia-France, the UK and the US-have been engaged in the situation outside of a strict Council context, either as part of the Group of Friends or bilaterally.
Furthermore, in view of the stagnation of the operation and the situation on the ground, Council members have begun to raise questions about the wisdom of maintaining the status quo. Given the recent interest by the US in revitalising UN peacekeeping in situations where peace processes are stalled, the Council may begin to look into possible changes of that mandate.
One option, which at this stage seems the most likely, is to renew the mandate of UNOMIG through the passage of a resolution that will be almost identical to the ones passed every six months during the last few years. Another option would be to renew the mandate for another period but contingent on specific political steps to be taken by the parties prior to a further extension. Any suggestion of the change in the status quo is likely, however, to encounter strong opposition from Russia.
Abkhazia has achieved the appearance of de facto independence. However, it has nonetheless been economically isolated from the rest of the world, apart from links with Russia. Widespread lawlessness, the activities of Georgian paramilitaries and the porosity of the border have raised concerns as to the future stability of the region.
One critical aspect is the geopolitical importance Georgia has enjoyed with its role in the delivery of Caspian Sea oil. Bilateral relations, particularly with the US, have improved significantly. US interests in the region stem mostly from its investments in oil extraction in the Caspian Sea and in counterterrorism. US-Georgian relations are boosted by Georgia’s participation in the coalition in Iraq, and the use of its ports to transport military equipment to Afghanistan.
Russia also has both economic and strategic interests in the region. Economic ties with Georgia are also prominent, given Russia’s position as the main supplier of natural gas and electricity. It is also keen on maintaining influence in the oil-rich Caspian region and countering the incursions of Chechen rebels in Georgia.
|Selected Security Council Resolutions|
|Selected Secretary-General’s Reports|
|July 2005||The Russian Federation began the phased handover of military facilities to Georgian authorities.|
|A protocol on strengthening the 1994 ceasefire was signed.|
|January 2005||Sergei Bagapsh elected de facto president of Abkhazia.|
|May-August 2004||Tensions increased with breakaway South Ossetia.|
|March-May 2004||Tensions arose between Tbilisi and the de facto autonomous region of Ajaria, culminating with the resignation of Ajarian leader Aslan Abashidze.|
|January 2004||Mikhail Saakashvili was elected president of Georgia.|
|August 2003||Georgia sent troops to Iraq.|
|May 2003||Construction of the Georgian section of the Baku-Ceyhan oil pipeline began.|
|Renewed tensions over Chechen fighters on Georgian soil emerged. The Russian Federation warned of possible military action. Russian special forces launched cross-border raids without approval from Tbilisi.|
|December 2001||The “Basic Principles for the Distribution of Competencies between Tbilisi and Sokhumi” was submitted to the parties.|
|October 2001||Renewed fighting between Abkhaz separatists and Georgian paramilitaries. Russia accused Georgia of harboring Chechen forces. A UN helicopter was shot down in the Kodori Valley, Abkhazia.|
|April-May 1994||The Moscow Ceasefire Agreement and the quadripartite agreement were signed. As a result, CIS peacekeeping troops were deployed and UNOMIG’s mandate was expanded. Agreement was also reached on practical measures on topics such as transport and communications.|
|September 1993||The ceasefire collapsed. Georgia became a member of the CIS and agreed to the establishment of three Russian military bases on its soil.|
|August 1993||UNOMIG was established to monitor the ceasefire.|
|July 1993||A new ceasefire was reached under the Sochi Agreement.|
|October 1992||The ceasefire collapsed, and inter-ethnic fighting in the Russian North Caucasus erupted.|
|September 1992||Both parties signed a ceasefire and peacekeeping plan.|
|August 1992||Conflict between Georgian troops and Abkhaz separatist forces began.|
|April 1991||Georgia became independent after a popular referendum. The Abkhaz population, however, voted to remain part of the Soviet Union.|
|1990||South Ossetia declared independence, seeking unification with North Ossetia, Russia.|
|1978||The Abkhaz Autonomous Socialist republic sought unsuccessfully to secede from Georgia and joint the Russian Republic.|
|1931||Abkhazia was incorporated into Georgia by Soviet authorities.|
|1921||Georgia became part of the Soviet Union.|
|Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of Mission|
|Heidi Tagliavini (Switzerland)|
|Size and Composition of Mission|
132 total uniformed personnel, including 120 military observers (31 October 2005)
|August 1993 to present|
|1 July 2005 – 30 June 2006: $36.38 million (gross)|
|Size of CIS troops: about 2,000; Contributors: Russia|