The collapse of UNDP’s effort to use economic assistance to push the peace process forward is only one manifestation of the broader fact that there has been little progress towards a political settlement of the Abkhaz conflict. This dismal conclusion is the result of several factors.
It reflects issues and processes over which the UN has little control. Ultimately, the conflict is not yet ripe for resolution: the two sides remain unwilling to accept compromises on the key issue of status. Although the Abkhaz have retreated from the objective of full independence, the two sides remain divided on whether status should be confederal or meaningfully federal, on whether the relationship between Sukhumi and Tbilisi should be horizontal or vertical. Lack of progress on the matter of status prevents movement on other issues such as the return of IDPs and refugees and economic and social questions.
An additional problem is engagement in the conflict by external powers and notably Russia. The Russian Federation played a substantial role in the active phases of the conflict, apparently seeing it as a means of bringing Georgia back into the fold. A complete resolution of the conflict, particularly if this occurred in a negotiating process controlled not by Russia but by the UN would result in a further decline in Russian influence over Georgian politics and policy. There is little doubt that the existence of parallel UN and Russian tracks in the negotiations has impeded the effort to reach a compromise. The existence of a parallel channel has made it easier for the parties to resist concessions. However, given the other obstacles to successful negotiations it is unlikely that this has been a significant determining factor.
The failure of the UN in Abkhazia also reflects problems internal to the organisation, most notably generating consensus at the level of the Security Council. The issue here is that the fundamental interests of the permanent members differ substantially one from another. The Western powers seek conflict resolution, the consolidation of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the states of the region, and the integration of their economies into a global economy dominated by the West. UN involvement is seen as an instrument in the pursuit of these objectives. Russia, on the other hand, has for much of the post-Soviet period sought to maintain or to re-establish its influence over the Caucasus region and the dependence of the smaller states on Russia. It has claimed special rights and responsibilities in the region on the basis of its preponderance of power and its historical role there. Russia’s control over the northern Caucasus is vulnerable to instability in the Caucasus itself, giving the Russians a more direct security interest in the affairs of Georgia and Azerbaijan. The completion of the Baku–Supsa oil pipeline and the consequent end to the Russian monopoly on oil export from the Caspian basin gives Russia yet another incentive to sustain its influence in Abkhazia. For Russia, a robust UN role might well be a threat to its regional agenda.
This said, it is not clear that UN effectiveness would be dramatically enhanced were Russia to change its policy. The other permanent members of the Security Council have remained unenthusiastic about a more direct UN peacekeeping role, despite Georgia’s apparent desire to replace CISPKF with a genuinely multilateral force. This reflects the general crisis in UN peacekeeping in the post-Somalia, post-Bosnia context. Experiences in these cases and elsewhere suggest that the UN has neither the resources nor the will for robust and effective peace operations in civil wars. In the meantime, the disaster for US forces in the Somali conflict has removed any enthusiasm the Americans have for substantial participation in potentially dangerous UN operations. Nor have any viable regional peacekeeping alternatives appeared on the horizon. Notably, although NATO’s operations in Kosovo have encouraged speculation about the possibility of similar operations in the Caucasus, there is very little likelihood that NATO would oblige.
Although the UN has not delivered peace (and it is not clear whether it could have done so given the attitudes of the two parties and the limited capacities of the UN itself) it has made a positive contribution to the management of the conflict and ceasefire. The presence of UNOMIG personnel in the field enhances transparency and limits the capacity of CISPKF to pursue a unilateral agenda in the conflict zone. It has probably had some effect in improving the security of civilians in zones patrolled by the mission, but has not curtailed the persistent, if low, level of violence and criminality in the region. UNOMIG has been of great use in facilitating humanitarian assistance in the Gali region and elsewhere in Abkhazia by providing a modicum of security of movement in often quite dangerous circumstances. More generally, the UN and other international agencies were instrumental in preventing what otherwise might have been a complete meltdown of Georgia and total collapse of order within its borders.
The presence of the UN in the early days also reduced the sense of isolation and desperation on the Georgian side. Although the lack of involvement by UN humanitarian agencies on the Abkhaz side in the first years of the conflict may have had the opposite effect in Abkhazia, since 1996 the specialised agencies have made a conscious effort to pursue proportionality in its delivery of assistance to both sides.