08TBILISI712, SEEKING INDEPENDENCE, ABKHAZ GET CLOSER TO RUSSIA

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Reference ID Created Released Classification Origin
08TBILISI712 2008-04-29 13:56 2011-08-30 01:44 CONFIDENTIAL Embassy Tbilisi

VZCZCXRO0778
OO RUEHBW RUEHFL RUEHKW RUEHLA RUEHROV RUEHSR
DE RUEHSI #0712/01 1201356
ZNY CCCCC ZZH
O 291356Z APR 08
FM AMEMBASSY TBILISI
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC IMMEDIATE 9351
INFO RUEHZL/EUROPEAN POLITICAL COLLECTIVE IMMEDIATE

C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 04 TBILISI 000712 
 
SIPDIS 
 
SIPDIS 
 
DEPT FOR EUR DAS BRYZA & EUR/CARC 
 
E.O. 12958: DECL: 04/23/2018 
TAGS: PREL PGOV PHUM GG
SUBJECT: SEEKING INDEPENDENCE, ABKHAZ GET CLOSER TO RUSSIA 
 
REF: TBILISI 658 
 
Classified By: Ambassador John F. Tefft for reasons 1.4(b&d). 
 
Summary 
------- 
1. (C) During an April 18-20 visit to Abkhazia, we found 
Abkhaz de facto officials in an uncompromising mood, 
reiterating that they will never agree to be reintegrated 
into the Georgian state nor permit return of Georgian 
internally displaced persons (IDPs) under current conditions. 
 They were pleased by recent Russian decisions to end 
sanctions and to expand interaction, but they also frankly 
admitted to fears of being dominated and annexed by Russia. 
They blamed the West for giving them "no choice" but a closer 
alliance with Russia and predicted that, if Russia annexes 
them, they will fight the Russians as they did the Georgians. 
 There are scattered signs of new investment in Abkhazia, but 
the Abkhaz expect much greater growth in the coming years, 
leading up to the 2014 Winter Olympics in nearby Sochi, 
Russia.  The pressure on the ethnic Georgian population of 
Abkhazia's Gali district remains palpable, as we observed on 
a UN patrol, and the Abkhaz have just begun a campaign to 
require public employees in Gali to accept Abkhaz "passports" 
and to sign statements renouncing their Georgian citizenship. 
 The de facto authorities have prevented UN human rights 
officers from using the new NGO-run Human Rights Center in 
Gali for meetings with local residents.  Nevertheless, the 
increasing capacity of Gali NGOs is one bright spot in Gali, 
together with reports of Georgian workers being employed by 
local businesses throughout Abkhazia.  End Summary. 
 
Shamba: No Interest in Georgian Proposals 
----------------------------------------- 
2. (C) In a meeting with visiting EUR/CARC Conflict 
Resolution Advisor Michael Carpenter and Poloff April 18, 
Abkhaz de facto foreign minister Sergei Shamba rejected out 
of hand Georgian President Saakashvili's recent proposals to 
give the Abkhaz wide autonomy in a united Georgia.  Shamba 
also rejected talk of federation or confederation, and said 
the time had passed when the Abkhaz would accept a solution 
based on anything short of independence.  Shamba repeated the 
Abkhaz line that they will not talk with the Georgians until 
they agree to pull out of the Upper Kodori Gorge, although at 
other points in the conversation he suggested he would be 
willing to talk to the Georgians. 
 
3. (C) Carpenter told Shamba that the recent unilateral 
Russian steps were destabilizing and should be reversed to 
avoid precipitating a crisis.  Shamba countered that the CIS 
sanctions had been starving the Abkhaz people, and he was 
very upset that the Europeans had condemned Russia's 
withdrawal from the sanctions.  Carpenter said we were most 
concerned with the military portion of the sanctions, noting 
that Russia's withdrawal undermined military transparency in 
the region and was destabilizing.  He added that if Abkhazia 
continued to allow itself to be integrated with Russia, it 
could soon find itself a part of Russia.  Shamba paused and 
said "You're giving us no alternative; who else can we turn 
to?"  Pressed further on Russian penetration of Abkhazia, 
Shamba said that if the Russians ever tried to overtly annex 
the region the Abkhaz would take up arms against them, joined 
by allies from the North Caucasus.  Shamba said Russia had 
decided not to recognize Abkhazia after Kosovo's independence 
because the Abkhaz did not give in to the Russian 
leadership's insistence that they agree immediately to 
absorption into Russia.  In a separate meeting, Shamba's 
deputy Maxim Gunjia confided to us that Shamba had genuinely 
expected Russia to recognize Abkhazia's independence after 
Kosovo, and had been very disappointed when it did not. 
 
4. (C) Carpenter suggested to Shamba that the Abkhaz should 
at minimum agree to resume a dialogue with the Georgians on 
some of the economic confidence-building measures (CBMs) 
discussed at the Geneva meeting of the UN, Group of Friends 
of the Secretary General, and Georgian and Abkhaz sides in 
February, including the maritime connection between Sukhumi 
and Trabzon, Turkey.  Shamba said he was interested in the 
Trabzon link and would consider the idea of Georgian 
immigration/customs officials checking the ships in Trabzon 
if Georgia accepted CIS, UN, and Abkhaz inspection in 
Sukhumi.  Shamba expressed some skepticism that Turkey would 
agree to such an arrangement, and Carpenter replied that the 
idea should be given a chance to work. 
 
5. (C) Pressed on the issue of IDPs, Shamba said the Abkhaz 
population would never welcome the Georgians back to most 
parts of Abkhazia because of what happened in the war.  He 
claimed that all the IDPs who wanted to return to Gali had 
already done so.  Carpenter objected that the Abkhaz were 
keeping the security situation in Gali intentionally 
 
TBILISI 00000712  002 OF 004 
 
 
unstable, depriving the Georgian residents of basic civil 
rights, and forcing the Georgians to become stateless persons 
by requiring them to renounce their Georgian ci
tizenship in 
order to receive Abkhaz "passports."  Shamba agreed that the 
citizenship issue was a concern, and said the Abkhaz were in 
the process of developing a residency permit that could be 
distributed in lieu of an Abkhaz passport.  Carpenter told 
Shamba that the international community would never accept 
his rejection of multi-ethnic coexistence, at which point 
Shamba changed course and said that all Georgian IDPs could 
return, but only after enough of the Abkhaz diaspora had 
returned from Turkey to protect the Abkhaz from being 
demographically overwhelmed by the Georgians.  (Note: The UN 
estimates that, despite years of Abkhaz lobbying, only 
600-700 diaspora families have come to Abkhazia from Turkey, 
and most of those do not reside in Abkhazia full-time.  End 
Note.) 
 
Gunjia Envisions a Western Future, but Not a Georgian One 
--------------------------------------------- ------------ 
6. (C) De facto deputy foreign minister Maxim Gunjia 
reiterated in separate conversations with us that Abkhaz 
society would never accept re-joining Georgia, but added that 
he hoped Abkhazia could imitate some of the impressive 
reforms Georgia has made in recent years in throwing off the 
legacy of communism, including building democratic 
institutions, uprooting low-level corruption, and 
establishing closer relations with Europe.  He showed us new 
hotels and businesses built with Turkish and Russian 
investment, and predicted much more would come.  (Note: UN 
officials agreed that construction was picking up in Sukhumi, 
so much so that companies had begun employing ethnic 
Georgians workers, leading some Abkhaz hardliners to complain 
publicly about the Georgian language being heard once again 
in the city.)  On a trip to the Russian border at the Psou 
River (crowded with mostly private cars waiting to be 
processed on both sides of the line) Gunjia said he was 
working on new procedures to speed up processing at the 
border, which can currently leave visitors waiting in their 
cars up to twenty-four hours at the height of the tourist 
season.  He said last year Abkhazia received 2 million 
tourists, and he thought there would be many more this year 
because much of Sochi is "closed" to tourists for pre-Olympic 
renovation.  He stressed that Abkhazia -- and its younger 
generation in particular -- was eager for ties with the West 
and did not want to be swallowed up by Russia. 
 
7. (C) Deputy Special Representative of the UN Secretary 
General Ivo Petrov told us April 18 that de facto president 
Sergei Bagapsh had told him Russia was insisting on the 
elimination of customs tariffs between Russia and Abkhazia in 
connection with Putin's decision to expand ties.  Bagapsh 
expressed concern that this would cause a huge loss in Abkhaz 
budget revenues.  No Abkhaz officials raised this with us, 
however, and when we asked at the border neither Gunjia nor 
Abkhaz customs officials appeared aware of any upcoming 
change in customs procedures. 
 
Life in Gali Remains Difficult 
------------------------------ 
8. (C) UN human rights officials described for us the 
continuing pressure on the ethnic Georgians who have returned 
to the ethnic Georgian Gali district in southern Abkhazia, 
most recently evidenced by a campaign the Abkhaz authorities 
initiated on March 21 to distribute so-called Abkhaz 
passports in Gali.  At least at first the Abkhaz are focusing 
on distributing the passports to public sector employees -- 
teachers, medical workers, administrators -- and some of 
these employees have told the UN they have been threatened 
with the loss of their jobs if they do not comply.  Despite 
the fact that having an Abkhaz passport is a requirement to 
vote, to buy or sell property, and to receive higher 
education, everyone we spoke to agreed that Gali residents 
are reluctant to accept them because Abkhaz law requires them 
to first renounce their Georgian citizenship.  The UN said 
that passport application forms in Gali, unlike those used 
elsewhere in Abkhazia, contain a statement for applicants to 
sign renouncing Georgian citizenship.  According to the UN, 
the Georgian government does not consider these renunciations 
of citizenship to be valid, but even so people are unwilling 
to sign them.  UN officials told us it is commonly suspected 
that Bagapsh is pushing the passports in order to increase 
the number of Georgians who can vote in the Abkhaz 
presidential election in 2009.  The Georgians supported 
Bagapsh by a large margin in his first election against a 
more hardline opponent. 
 
9. (C) Nor is this the only recent example of abuses against 
Gali residents.  UN human rights officers told us their 
investigation had confirmed the reports that Abkhaz security 
services instructed a Georgian IDP priest, Father Pimeni, to 
 
TBILISI 00000712  003 OF 004 
 
 
leave Abkhazia April 10, and escorted him immediately to the 
cease-fire line (reftel).  The security services had acted at 
the request of the Abkhaz Orthodox Church, which opposed the 
priest because he represented the Georgian Orthodox Church. 
We accompanied UN military monitors on a patrol in Lower Gali 
April 20, and many of the civilians we encountered were 
unwilling to answer the patrol leader's questions about the 
security situation.  While we were speaking to one woman, 
another villager came up and said to us (in English, which 
was unlikely to be understood by other locals) that no one 
would tell the monitors the real situation because they did 
not want to cause trouble for themselves. 
 
10. (C) The UN currently has one international human rights 
officer, Frenchwoman Melanie Gingue, based in Gali, and a 
second position is currently unfilled.  Gingue works out of 
the UN military base because the Abkhaz authorities recently 
refused her permission to use Gali's new Human Rights Center 
(run by a consortium of Gali, Sukhumi, and Ochamchira NGOs) 
for confidential meetings with Gali residents to discuss 
human rights abuses.  The UN intends to push again in a few 
months for permission to use the Center in this way. 
(Comment: We have always seen this as a particularly 
important role for the Center, absent an Abkhaz agreement to 
set up a full-fledged UN-OSCE human rights office in Gali as 
called for in UN Security Council resolutions.)  The UN human 
rights operation in Abkhazia is also constrained by its own 
rules against issuing public reports.  Carpenter asked UN 
Human Rights Officer Ryszard Komenda if he would consider 
sending his reports to the Group of Friends, and Komenda said 
he would look into it.  Despite these obstacles to UN 
activities, civil society is showing signs of progress in 
Gali, as was evidenced by the two NGOs we met, Democracy 
Institute (which has the lead in running the Human Rights 
Center) and Alert.  Both organizations appear to have grown 
in capacity over the last year, and have promising projects 
underway in areas such as legal assistance to Gali residents 
and exchanges between ethnic Georgian and Abkhaz youth. 
 
11. (C) We raised human rights concerns with the Abkhaz de 
facto presidential representative in Gali, Ruslan Kishmaria, 
April 20.  He gave little ground, claiming that no government 
would employ people who did not accept its citizenship.  When 
Carpenter noted this in effect made people stateless -- 
requiring them to renounce a recognized citizenship for an 
unrecognized one -- Kishmaria claimed that residence permits 
were already available for those who preferred them.  This 
contradicted what we were told by other Abkhaz officials and 
the UN, who told us the idea of residence permits was only 
under consideration.  Kishmaria said the security situation 
in Gali had improved in recent years because the security 
services had become professional.  Like Shamba, Kishmaria 
said the West had given Abkhazia no alternative to its 
relationship with Russia, even though this relationship was 
not the "best option." 
 
Comment 
------- 
12. (C) In many ways, the Abkhaz message was similar to what 
we have heard on previous visits.  Even with the downing of a 
Georgian UAV in Gali while we were there, the overall 
attitude of de facto officials and UN staff we met in 
Abkhazia seemed generally business-as-usual.  This contrasts 
with Tbilisi, where recent Russian actions have left the 
Georgians deeply concerned that Russia is in the process of 
taking Abkhazia out of their reach forever.  The Abkhaz did, 
however, put a notably greater emphasis during this visit on 
their fears of getting so close to Russia that they are 
subsumed and lose their identity.  Repeatedly we heard 
predictions that the Abkhaz would be willing to fight the 
Russians if it came to that.  Unwilling to engage seriously 
with Georgia or to protect human rights in the territory they 
control, the Abkhaz authorities have put themselves on a path 
toward greater domination by Russia.  This is not the outcome 
they want, but they seem unable to change course. 
 
13. (C) The Georgian policy of isolating Abkhazia through 
sanctions and political pressure has clearly pushed the 
Abkhaz further into the Russian orbit.  However, there 
appears to be at least limited potential for fostering 
economic, social, and cultural ties between Georgians and 
Abkhaz, perhaps initially in Gali and then eventually in the 
rest of Abkhazia.  A policy of engagement would also garner 
greater political support from the Friends and could 
therefore give the GOG greater diplomatic leverage to 
pressure the de facto authorities on key issues like IDP 
returns.  Exposing the closed Abkhaz society to Georgia's 
economic success and fostering business and social contacts 
across the ceasefire line would be difficult to reverse, and 
could act as a long-term catalyst of Abkhazia's reintegration 
into the Georgian state. 
 
TBILISI 00000712  004 OF 004 
 
 
 
TEFFT

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