A Conflict Worth Settling

The Georgian-Abkhaz war blocks oil trade and progress

Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze visited Washington last week to win help for his country's struggling economy. The West's stake is self-evident. Georgia's Black Sea port of Supsa is the terminus of a new pipeline that will give access to the vast oil and gas reserves of Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan by a route that skirts the Russian Federation. Georgia is also a pace-setter for political and economic reform in the former Soviet Union.

But to help Mr. Shevardnadze, the West must reclaim a diplomatic role in ending a destructive civil conflict on the northern Black Sea coast - a violent five-year war between Georgians and Abkhaz. This conflict is destabilizing Georgian politics, discouraging private investment, and permitting Russia to continue as a wild card in Georgia's future.

The Abkhaz are a north Caucasus people with bad memories of their larger neighbors. Russia absorbed them in the 19th century. A brief period of independence after the 1917 Revolution ended when Stalin folded the Abkhaz into Georgia in 1931.

Most Abkhaz and Georgians now prefer to look west, rather than east. A rich portfolio of Western constitutional arrangements, economic reconstruction, and some Western diplomatic topspin could help the Georgians and Abkhaz find a way out of current theological debates over how to structure a future relationship - "autonomy" versus "confederative union."

The Abkhaz war didn't play on CNN, but its destructiveness is searing. Some 250,000 refugees, including Georgians, Armenians, and Greeks, were forced to flee Abkhaz territory. Many are in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, others in Moscow. Shevardnadze faces the constant goading of parliamentary opponents to resettle the refugees - even to take military action to recapture Abkhazia's southern Gali region.

The Abkhaz are also bitter after a war in which ill-disciplined paramilitaries ravaged civilians on both sides. Georgian forces advanced northward in 1992, capturing Abkhazia's elegant capital city of Sukhumi, a key Black Sea port. The Abkhaz national library and archives were burned to the ground.

There is no trust here. The Abkhaz broke a cease-fire in 1993 to drive scaled-down Georgian forces south of the Inguri River. Since 1994, Russian troops, acting as CIS peacekeepers, have separated the sides, but the Georgians complain that, as in Cyprus, the peacekeeping creates an artificial border guarding Abkhazia's de facto independence.

The southern Gali region is a no-man's land. Its tea plantations were booby-trapped in the war. Georgian nationalists have killed more than 50 Russian peacekeepers with land mines. The Russians are undermanned and rarely paid. They don't venture far afield. UN military observers had to wait a year for the delivery of mine-resistant "Mamba" vehicles from South Africa in order to conduct patrols. These unarmed observers, including four American officers, still lack South African mine-clearing equipment or a helicopter for medical evacuation. A new hydroelectric plant on the Inguri River stands idle. The 50,000 Georgians who cross the Inguri to tend their fields are largely on their own, facing violence from Abkhaz irregulars.

The analogy to Bosnia is uncomfortably clear. Peacekeepers deter large-scale combat, but they can't guarantee refugee return. Refugees are a political counterweight, tipping any referendum on a political future.

Neither Georgians nor Abkhaz will rely on the Russians. Russians helped the Abkhaz early in the fighting with munitions, money, and air support. Since the debacle in Chechnya, Russia has wanted stability in the Caucasus and now enforces an economic blockade to push Abkhazia towards a settlement. Abkhaz leaders retort that a ruined local economy can't reintegrate refugees.

Georgian leaders say they may demand the withdrawal of Russian peacekeepers when the current mandate expires on July 31. This could have explosive results. Georgia wants a multinational peacekeeping force, but that is unrealistic in light of the casualties suffered by the Russians, a financially strapped UN, and the international community's reluctance to affront Russia. A more practical Georgian suggestion is to reopen a diplomatic track in the West, with sustained negotiations in Geneva through the "friends of the secretary-general" - the United States, Germany, France, Britain, and Russia. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has appointed a new special representative, a former Romanian dissident named Liviu Bota, who could help jump-start negotiations.

There is a window of opportunity for revived diplomacy. The missing element is Western attention and elbow grease. The economic and strategic importance of Georgia - and the destabilizing prospect of a renewed campaign to crush the Abkhaz - make this a diplomatic track worth pursuing.

* Ruth Wedgwood, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and professor of law at Yale University, recently returned from Tbilisi and Abkhazia.

Eduard Shevardnadze

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