Dieter Boden
Ambassador (ret) Former Special Representative of the UNSG in Georgia (1999 - 2002). Germany.

It may sound utopian today but there have indeed been efforts in the past to help solve the Abkhazian-Georgian conflict in a comprehensive deal. One of these efforts dates back to the years 2001/2003. It was then that in my capacity as Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General and Head of the UNOMIG Mission in Georgia I was authorised to launch a document on the "Distribution of Competences between Tbilisi and Sukhumi" worked out by my Mission in Tbilisi. In substance, this was an attempt to have the Abkhazian and the Georgian sides to the conflict sit down at the negotiating table and elaborate modalities for a peaceful-settlement within the framework of certain principles laid down in the Document.

The settlement of the ethno-territorial conflict between Georgia and Abkhazia was at the core of my UN mandate when I served in Georgia from 1999 to 2002. From my very arrival in Georgia I was encouraged by well-intentioned people from both sides not to give up hope of engagement in what they called a basically hopeless matter. Soon I realised that this was indeed going to be a Sisyphean task – due to, in the first place, the devastating war of 1992/93 between Abkhazians and Georgians which led to Abkhazia‘s secession and had left the population on both sides deeply traumatised. Positions seemed irreconcilable with the Abkhazians insisting on independence and the Georgians on the return of Abkhazia into the Georgian state. There was zero readiness to compromise as I soon learned in meetings with the main protagonists, President Shevardnadze in Tbilisi and President Ardzinba in Sukhum/i.

During the long history of their being close neighbours, the relationship between Abkhazians and Georgians was characterised over the centuries by both peaceful co-existence and also by controversy. The demise of the Soviet Union resulted in an abrupt worsening of relations and finally in war. The document which I was supposed to submit to both sides had one particularly sensitive key-clause in Article 2: "Abkhazia is a sovereign entity, based on the rule of law, within the State of Georgia".

In 2001 the overall political climate around Georgia seemed to be conducive to this new initiative. Incidents on the cease-fire lines were on the decline, with the exception of the Upper Kodor(i) valley where units of the Georgian armed forces were introduced in violation of existing agreements. There were also indications of some greater flexibility on behalf of Russia, which up to this point had been rather reluctant to back any fresh moves on key aspects of the conflict, particularly the so-called status issue. The terrorist attacks in New York of 11 September gave an additional boost to efforts to reset US-Russian relations on a range of hitherto contentious matters, including conflicts in Georgia.

For a short while, a window of opportunity opened up which seemed to allow for conflict-settlement between Abkhazia and Georgia on the much-disputed basis of Georgia's territorial integrity, a position held at that time by all members of the United Nations, including Russia.

It was obvious that for any successful initiative on the Georgian/Abkhazian conflict Russia as a key player had to be on board. From spring 2001 I received signals from high-ranking Russian officials that a new negotiating proposal to the two conflict sides might be of use provided such a proposal was "equally unacceptable to both of them". Following up on this hint I circulated a draft paper to the representatives of the "Friends of the UN Secretary-General" in Tbilisi, i.e. the accredited Ambassadors of France, Germany, Russia, the US and the United Kingdom. After a meeting which I had with the then-Permanent Representative of Russia to the UN, Sergej Lavrov, on 31.10.2001 in New York I got the impression that a breakthrough was possible. The "Friends" subsequently gave the green light to the submission of the Document to the two conflict sides. President Shevardnadze, whom I had kept informed, equally signalled agreement.

On 7 December 2001, I was mandated by the UN Secretary-General to submit the Document to the two sides to the conflict with a view to initiating meaningful negotiations.

It became clear immediately that the Abkhazian side was taken aback by this course of events, despite the fact that I had, in a general way, informed it that a new initiative for conflict settlement might be forthcoming. Obviously, Abkhazian consultation with Russia on the matter had left something to be desired. Sukhum/i was facing a delicate choice: how to deal with a negotiating proposal approved by its closest ally? In Sukhum/i Prime Minister Anri Dzhergenia was acting for Ardzinba, who had fallen seriously ill. He chose the tactic of delay. When I finally met him mid-January 2002 Dzhergenia was visibly embarrassed and refused to receive the Document. His comments implied hidden criticism of Russia. Shortly after our meeting, Dzhergenia went to Moscow. After his return, the tone of Abkhazian reactions changed drastically. In a press conference Dzhergenia rejected the Document in strong terms, still using language which indicated doubts about the reliability of the Russian partner ("As far as I have been informed...“).

As for Tbilisi, I counted on affirmative reactions. But, to my astonishment, the Georgian political leadership avoided expressing approval of the Document, for some time adopting instead a position of "wait and see". The support for the initiative turned out to be deplorably weak. President Shevardnadze cancelled a meeting which I was supposed to have with him before my departure for a brief Christmas holiday. To add to my bewilderment, a media campaign unfolded against UNOMIG and me personally on the basis of leaked text excerpts from the Document. Offence was mainly taken at the formulation which defined Abkhazia as a "sovereign entity". This was interpreted as a plea in support of independence, and I was accused of high treason, with some members of the Georgian Parliament demanding my expulsion. My reference to the constitutional practice in Switzerland – where some of the cantonal constitutions claim „sovereignty“ as a basis while remaining fully loyal members of the Federation – was ignored.

By that time I had come to realise that the UN were at risk of being drawn into a controversy of domestic Georgian policy. Very obviously assurances had been given to the so-called "Abkhazian Government in Exile", led by Tamaz Nadareishvili, that the Document would pass only with their express consent. I met with their representatives, trying to convince them that the interests of Georgia were fully safeguarded in the Document. At the invitation of the Chairwoman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Georgian Parliament, Mrs. Burdzhanadze, I went to argue in its favour in a session of the Committee which took place in a heated and agitated atmosphere. Valuable time was lost before the Georgian political leadership reconsidered the matter and finally came out with clear support for the UN initiative.

Meanwhile, the Abkhazians had seized their chance and realigned powerful allies in Moscow to their cause. Although the next UN Resolution on Abkhazia adopted by the Security Council on 31.1.2002 carried a strong appeal to the Abkhazian side to receive the Document, no action followed. At Russian request a clause had been added to the text stipulating that nothing should be "imposed" on the conflict sides. The Abkhazians readily took this up in order to sidestep any commitment. There was another factor which worked in their favour, namely an increasingly tense situation in the Kodor(i) valley. Unfortunately, the Georgian side had missed undertaking steps for a de-escalation during the crucial days when the Document was at stake.

The Document remained high on the agenda before my UN assignment in Georgia came to an end in early June 2002. But by then the window of opportunity was closing. The Abkhazians’ resistance to the Document stiffened despite numerous efforts to explain to them the advantages that it could also offer for their cause. During a visit to Moscow in mid-May, I urged my Russian counterparts, among them Foreign Minister Ivanov, to take this matter up again with the Abkhazians with a view to persuading them to commit. The answers were evasive; I was given to understand that priority now belonged to the Kodor(i) issue. The following UN Resolutions on Abkhazia until 2006 continued to appeal to the Abkhazians to reconsider their position, but they all remained a dead letter. Afterwards, reference to the Document was dropped. Relations between Russia and Georgia had meanwhile reached a new low and were soon to end up in the 2008 war.

Repeatedly there have been misinterpretations of the 2001 UN Document: it does not offer ready-made solutions for the conflict but invites parties to engage in a negotiating process leading up to such solutions. The UN clearly appears in the role of mediator, whereas the main responsibility for action lies with the Abkhazians and the Georgians as sides to the conflict. In those days neither of them was ready to seize the opportunity, apparently due to a lack of political will and an unwillingness to engage in compromise. The Abkhazians were adamant in their rejection of any solution „within the State of Georgia“; any search for alternatives was equally ruled out. The Georgians ignored the fact that, for the Document to be successful, a serious cooperative effort on their behalf would have been needed; they were all too reliant in the belief that time would anyway work in their favour. Today at least the Georgian side is realising that an opportunity has been wasted – possibly the last opportunity to solve the Abkhazian conflict on the basis of Georgia‘s territorial integrity.

Re-activating the Document today in its original shape will make no real sense. The August 2008 war in Georgia has dramatically upset the political coordinates. With the subsequent recognition of an independent Abkhazia by Russia the very basis on which the 2001 Document rests has been shaken. However, it is an established fact that one-sided actions can never solve conflicts. As long as there is no negotiated agreement which involves all sides concerned in the Georgian/Abkhazian conflict instability will linger on in the South Caucasus infesting the region, including also neighbouring EU countries. The war in the Ukraine has additionally complicated matters. But all this should in no way detract from efforts to keep the issue on the agenda, albeit in the light of changed geopolitical circumstances. The experience over the failed initiative of 2001/2 may then serve as a useful lesson.