Last-ditch effort to move Zimbabwe talks forward

As dispute persists in wake of presidential election, the country seems poised between negotiated settlement and outright civil war.

With last-ditch efforts to get talks started, Zimbabwe this week seems perched at possible turning point, with a peaceful negotiated settlement on one side, and outright civil war on the other.

Starting Thursday, the South African government initiated a new round of talks between the ruling party of Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe and the representatives of the opposition candidate Morgan Tsvangirai. Yet Mr. Tsvangirai issued a statement Friday insisting that he sent a team not to open negotiations, but to set conditions for any future talks, including the condition of ending state-sponsored violence against the opposition.

Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change claims that more than 90 of its supporters have been killed since Tsvangirai won a first round of presidential elections in March 29. Tsvangirai's victory fell short of the 50 percent required to avoid a runoff.

"We in the MDC are committed to finding a peaceful, negotiated solution to the Zimbabwean crisis and we will take every opportunity to clarify our position and to allow the voice of the Zimbabwean people to be heard," Tsvangirai said in a statement. "I and my party have stated categorically that there are no negotiations between ourselves and [the ruling party] ZANU-PF currently taking place. In addition, we have stated that no such negotiations can take place while the ZANU-PF regime continues to wage war on my party and the people of Zimbabwe."

Zimbabwe's continued political crisis – with two parties claiming victory in the presidential race – looks strangely reminiscent of the Kenyan political crisis. Yet unlike Kenya, where international and domestic pressure forced the two sides to talk, Zimbabwe's crisis shows no sign of ending soon. President Mugabe insists that talks can begin only if the opposition accepts him as the country's president. Tsvangirai insists that the two parties must meet as equals, and only after Mugabe ends the campaign of violence. South African President Thabo Mbeki, the designated mediator but nearly rejected by the opposition, has his work cut out for him.

"I'm not saying that it is out of the question that MDC would go into a powersharing agreement, but this is not going to be the route to a democratic Zimbabwe," says Steven Friedman, a senior researcher at the Institute for Democracy in Southern Africa, a think tank in Tshwane, as Pretoria is now called. "If a national unity government is going to have purchase, it will be where two sides worked out an agreement as equals."

That is not the case between Mugabe – who controls the Zimbabwean military, police, judiciary, and intelligence services, as well as several private militias – and Tsvangirai, who merely has the support of Zimbabwean voters. Mugabe and his generals seem to be using the same tactics used against Mugabe's rivals in the 1980s, the ZAPU party of Joshua Nkomo. "He crushed ZAPU, and when it was weakened, he made them junior partners. You beat on their heads enough till they do things your way."

On Friday, the United Nations Security Council delayed a vote on tougher sanctions against top members of Mugabe's inner circle. Zimbabwe's representative at the UN wrote to the Security Council that such sanctions would likely undermine the present government of Zimbabwe and "most probably start a civil war in the country." Sanctions would also turn the UN into a "force multiplier in support of Britain's colonial crusade against Zimbabwe."

Mugabe's ZANU-PF fought a 10-year war against British colonial rule, which ended in the dissolution of white-ruled Rhodesia and the creation of the new black-ruled Zimbabwe. Both in this year's elections and in Tsvangirai's previous bid for president in 2003, Mugabe derided the opposition leader as a "stooge" of British colonial rule.

Within Zimbabwe itself, violence against opposition members continues. On July 5, the burned body of an MDC driver, Joshua Bakacheza, was discovered on a farm near the town of Beatrice. Bakacheza was last seen in the custody of state security agents, along with MDC activist Tendai Chidziwo. Mr. Chidziwo and Bakacheza were ambushed by armed men and driven to an Army-owned farm before being shot. Chidziwo is recovering from a gunshot wound to the head.

Last week, South Africa's deputy foreign minister, Aziz Pahad, said that Zimbabwe would have to end the violence if it wanted talks to succeed. "If is up to Zimbabwe to take immediate steps to stop the violence," Mr. Pahad told reporters. "If they do not stop it, we will take action, whatever action is possible to stop it."

Even opposition leaders who are currently engaged in talks with Mugabe say that Zimbabwe is perched at the edge of political chaos, if talks fail.

"What is imperative for Zimbabweans is making up their minds on whether they want an armed revolution or they want to talk to each other," wrote Arthur Mutambara, who leads a split-away faction of the MDC, in an opinion piece in the Zimbabwean newspaper. Mr. Mutambara met Mugabe in Harare for talks sponsored by President Mbeki. Tsvangirai boycotted the talks. "Of course, if negotiations do not succeed there will be only one option left to the people of Zimbabwe. We will fight."

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