Analysis of the roles of the UN and OSCE and the nature of UN Security Council Resolutions reveals a markedly tougher stance with regard to Abkhazia than to other conflict and refugee situations in the Caucasus. For example, the Security Council expressed at most serious concern about the demographic changes in Nagorno-Karabakh, while demanding of Abkhazia the return of refugees with no prior conditions and before the differences which had provoked the conflict were resolved. The Security Council stressed the unacceptability of linking the process of the return of refugees to a political settlement, whereas they have not exerted similar pressure on the Armenians over Karabakh.
For the Georgian leadership the return of the refugees is above all a political question. A long-term policy of Georgianisation resulted in Georgians constituting the largest ethnic group of Abkhazia’s pre-war multinational population. With the departure from the Georgian – occupied territories of the Greek and Jewish populations during the war and the economic migration of some Russians, Armenians and Abkhaz, mainly to Russia and Armenia, the mass return of Georgian refugees alone would create a demographic situation clearly favouring Georgia. After its recent defeat in the war Tbilisi has no confidence in its ability to resolve the ‘Abkhaz problem’ on its own and is trying to use the Georgian population from Abkhazia, under the cover of international organisations, as an instrument for forcing a resolution of the conflict in its favour. This strategy lies behind the revived proposal to expand the Security Zone beyond the Gal region and give the peacekeeping forces police functions. Many in Abkhazia believe this would simply create a larger area of instability and further embroil the peacekeepers in conflict since it is in the Security Zone that the Georgian guerrillas are most active.In Abkhazia the Georgian refugees are generally distrusted. Those who fought with or supported the Georgian forces are often regarded as traitors. In these circumstances Abkhaz society could only countenance the return of Georgians who did not fight on the Georgian side once Abkhazia receives recognition as an independent state. Given the history of Georgian–Abkhaz relations only international recognition would convince Abkhaz society that the return of the refugees would not represent a threat to its security. What is more, the Abkhaz believe that descendants of Abkhaz refugees from the nineteenth century Caucasian War now living mostly in Turkey, should be allowed an equal right to return, whereas Russian sanctions ban the entry into Abkhazia of foreign citizens.
While the humanitarian plight of the refugees is a factor that looms over the negotiation process, those who claim to represent them play a negative role. The Georgian government does not formally support the ‘government-in-exile’ (the ethnic Georgian former members of the government and parliament of Abkhazia, now mainly based in Tbilisi and Zugdidi and linked to guerrilla groups sent into Abkhazia). Nevertheless, there is constant reference to them as an alternative if Abkhazia does not agree to the compromises Georgia wants. The Abkhaz refuse to negotiate with representatives of the ‘government-in-exile’, because this would narrow the subject of negotiations to relations between two communities from Abkhazia, instead of between Georgia and Abkhazia.
In October 1998 leaders of the ‘government-in-exile’ founded the Party for the Liberation of Abkhazia which adopted a resolution stating that the return of Georgian refugees would be possible only after Georgian jurisdiction has been established over the whole territory of Abkhazia. Inflammatory language and the threat of mobilising refugees for future campaigns in Abkhazia has done nothing to promote reconciliation, rather it has inclined Abkhaz to be increasingly negative about return. However, the refugee leaders’ only option is to return to Abkhazia victorious. The Abkhaz will not allow them back with other refugees because they consider them to be responsible for the war of 1992–93 and the following terrorist activities. In this context the Abkhaz are unlikely to let them be a party to the negotiations. Nevertheless, when a political solution is achieved it is with refugees that Abkhaz society will have to rebuild relations, however antagonistic they currently are.
The return of refugees to the Gal region of Abkhazia, which before the war was populated predominantly by Mingrelians who did not on the whole participate in military action on the Georgian side in 1992–93, has been regarded in Abkhazia as a less painful option. By the beginning of 1998, international organisations estimated that more than sixty thousand people had returned to the region. However, in 1998 alone thirteen civilians, thirty-six Abkhaz militiamen and eight peacekeepers died at the hands of terrorists. In May 1998 the situation changed drastically with the sharp rise in terrorist activity by Georgian paramilitary units. This led to clashes with the Abkhaz militia and an unsuccessful attempt by Georgia to seize the Gal region, as a result of which some thirty thousands residents were again displaced. Having experienced another defeat the government in Tbilisi, which had until then distanced itself from the ‘partisans’, practically admitted its responsibility for the events by signing an agreement on a ceasefire and separation of forces. The Gagra Protocol of 26 May 1998 obliges Georgia ‘to take effective measures to halt the penetration into Abkhazia of terrorist and sabotage groups, armed bands and individuals’, but no criminal case has yet been instituted in Georgia in connection with terrorist activity. On the contrary, Zurab Samushia, the commander of the White Legion terrorist unit gives press conferences in Tbilisi and terrorists continue to penetrate the Gal region and occasionally beyond.
Georgia’s bad faith frequently goes unchallenged by the international community, repeating a familiar pattern in which the Abkhaz are censured for their activities but abuses committed by the Georgians go largely unmarked. The August 1992 invasion of Abkhazia is ignored and no condemnation is levelled at Georgia for the mass human rights violations and killings during the war, while Abkhazia is accused of ethnic cleansing. In January 1999 on the eve of the UN Security Council session the Abkhaz president called on Tbilisi and international organisations to support Abkhazia’s unilateral decision to allow the return of refugees to districts which previously had compact Georgian populations – namely the Gal region. However, the Georgian government, despite its own previous demands for the return of the Georgian population to Abkhazia prior to a political solution, now linked the safe return of the refugees to a political settlement, understanding by this the establishment of Georgian jurisdiction over Abkhazia. The Security Council responded to the Abkhaz initiative on 29 January 1999 by referring to the Lisbon resolution of the OSCE, which interpreted the mass exodus of the Georgian population during the liberation of Abkhazia from Georgian armed forces in September 1993 as ethnic cleansing.