The end of the United Nations' monitoring mission in the breakaway region of Abkhazia will further restrict the ability of both Georgia and Abkhazia to maneuver against Moscow, Georgian analysts believe. A Russian veto in the UN Security Council blocked the extension of the mission's mandate after nearly 16 years in Abkhazia.
The mission becomes the second international peacekeeping and security monitoring body after the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to exit Georgia. Moscow insisted that the OSCE recognize the independence of Abkhazia and fellow breakaway region South Ossetia in exchange for extending its Georgian mission's mandate, which also expires this month.
The squabble over the UN mission to Abkhazia essentially came down to a dispute over how to identify the relationship between Abkhazia, whose independence Russia recognized in 2008, and Georgia, which, under international law, still holds claim to Abkhaz territory. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The UN resolution, defeated in a 10-1 vote on June 15, refers to a 2008 resolution that mentions Georgia's territorial integrity.
While Western diplomats took turns expressing their disappointment with the Kremlin, Russia's UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin asserted that if the international community does not accept changes on the world map "perhaps it makes more sense to consign the [UN's Abkhazia] mission to oblivion," the ITAR-TASS news agency reported.
The Kremlin offered an alternative scheme that could have led to a short-term extension of the UN mission, but the Security Council did not consider it. The Russian version made no mention of Georgia's territorial integrity and was fiercely opposed by Tbilisi.
In a June 16 statement, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs posited that opposition to its proposal suggested that Georgia has merely a superficial interest in Abkhazia's stability. Tbilisi is attempting to divert "public attention from the 'internal enemy'" -- what it termed Georgia's "pressing socio-economic problems" -- "to the problem of territorial integrity."
Georgian officials today tried to look on the bright side. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili termed the failure of Russia's proposal "our diplomatic victory" since it allegedly underlined international support for Georgia's territorial integrity.
Georgia's UN Ambassador Kakha Lomaia told Rustavi-2 television news that Russia had been left "isolated on this fundamental issue" [Editor's Note: Kakha Lomaia formerly worked as head of the Open Society Georgia Foundation, which is funded by the Open Society Institute. EurasiaNet operates as part of the Open Society Institute's Central Eurasia Project].
Tbilisi hopes that the European Union Monitoring Mission could pick up where the UN and OSCE left off. Foreign Minister Grigol Vashadze said on June 16 that Georgia and its Western partners will come up with an alternative international monitoring mechanism. European Union observers, however, are currently barred from entering Abkhazia or South Ossetia.
Local doubts run strong, however, about whether the EUMM novices could command Moscow's respect.
Independent Georgian analyst Paata Zakareishvili, who specializes in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, says that with the UN's exodus from Abkhazia, Tbilisi, as well as the Abkhaz and South Ossetians, will be left one-on-one with an increasingly assertive Kremlin.
"Russia has, step by step, nudged international institutions such as the OSCE and the UN out from Georgia and cemented its hold on the region," Zakareishvili told EurasiaNet.
"If one day Tbilisi and Sukhumi decide to start talking to one another on whatever issue, both sides will have to ask for Russian consent, and Russia becomes the sole powerbroker in the region," he continued.
Conflict zone specialist Mamuka Areshidze agrees. Given its own security concerns, Tbilisi should have been ready to keep the UN mission in Abkhazia at whatever cost -- even for concessions to Moscow, he argued. Similarly, the Abkhaz should understand that the UN's presence gives them a hedge against Russia, Areshidze said.
"If one day Abkhazian society wakes up and decides to shrug off Russian hegemony, they will have no one to help or mitigate the situation," Areshidze said. "As far as Tbilisi is concerned, Russia will have a freer hand to do whatever it wants in Georgia, and there will be little room for the international community to weigh in."
For now, however, officials in Sukhumi are content. "We see our [security] guarantees in the alliance with Russia and in the military presence of Russia," commented de facto Abkhaz Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba, the Apsnypress news agency reported.
For the Abkhaz, the UN's references to earlier mission agreements that "speak about Abkhazia as part of Georgia" do not "correspond to the current realities," he added.
Zakareishvili, however, believes that Abkhazia's security situation is likely to deteriorate, particularly in the predominantly ethnic Georgian Gali district, where the UN mission was a critical source of employment. "Explosions, kidnappings and killings are rampant in Gali and the UN observation mission was the only source of accurate and objective information about what was going on, and who was at fault on either side," he said.
Meanwhile, a series of mysterious blasts in areas bordering on Abkhazia and South Ossetia have heightened concerns within Georgia.
On June 11, explosions ripped through the railway station in Zugdidi, a western Georgian city close to Gali. Both Abkhazia and Tbilisi have blamed each other for the blasts, which left one railway worker injured. On June 10, an explosive reportedly destroyed a bridge that connects South Ossetia to Georgia's southwestern region of Racha. Local media and government accounts about what happened are conflicting and poorly grounded.
Giorgi Lomsadze is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi.