Throughout the peace process Russia has played a dual mediating role. On the one hand, acting on its own, Russia has convened separate and joint meetings with the parties, frequently aimed at developing proposals which could be adopted by the UN negotiating process. On the other hand, Russia has played an instrumental role in the multilateral forums of the CIS and the UN and as a member of the Friends of the UN Secretary-General on Georgia.
Russia has been able to initiate separate talks at a senior level on key issues dividing the parties precisely because it is an interested party with complex and long-standing political ties to both sides. Russian mediation has sometimes blurred the boundary between influence and pressure, pushing the parties towards concessions partly in search of a solution but also to retain the initiative itself. As early as July 1995, for instance, Russia succeeded in having the Protocol on the Settlement of the Georgian–Abkhaz Conflict, which allowed for a federative structure, initialled by both sides. Abkhazia subsequently disavowed its representative’s signature insisting on establishing confederative relations with Georgia instead. This indicates that Russia’s use of pressure to get agreement was sometimes counterproductive.
Russia only gradually established a proper diplomatic infrastructure to deal with the conflict. The Ministry of Defence negotiated the ceasefire, but since the beginning of the war in Chechnya and the appointment of Evgenii Primakov as Foreign Minister, the Foreign Ministry has assumed the leading role. Nevertheless, a gap persists between the military and political elements of Russian peacekeeping. The CISPKF command has to take decisions of a political nature on its own and its weekly consultations with the conflicting parties and UNOMIG officials in the security zone are used to address tensions on the ground. However, while making a certain political contribution to the settlement process, the CISPKF command has only limited influence. While Shevardnadze has spoken in favour of establishing a CIS mission head the Russian Foreign Ministry has not yet put the appointment of a high-ranking political official in the conflict zone onto the agenda.
The peace process has been characterised by a lack of clarity in the formation of Russian policy. In April 1998, the Ministry for cooperation with CIS Member States, which included South Caucasian problems as a priority, was disbanded due to its ineffectiveness. The distribution of responsibilities between other departments is not clear-cut despite a decision to hand co-ordination to the Foreign Ministry which continues to play the central role in the elaboration and realisation of policy relating to the conflict. However, cooperation with the central executive authorities is not always co-ordinated. At the CIS Summit meeting in October 1997, for instance, President Yeltsin supported an amendment tabled by Shevardnadze in accordance with which the economic reconstruction of the region and the normalisation of the border and customs regime would be postponed until the return of the refugees had been completed. The Foreign Ministry had previously spoken categorically against this.
While the State duma is not directly involved in the decision-making process regarding peacemaking and peacekeeping policy, it nevertheless exerts influence on Russian policy in the region, reflecting the predominance of the Communists in the duma. Sympathies lie with the Abkhaz, as indicated by several votes ranging from support for Abkhaz accession to the Russian Federation to the normalisation of the border and customs situation on the Russian border with Abkhazia. Together with North Caucasian empathy for Abkhazia this acts as a constraint on Russian policy in the region.
Attempts have been made to facilitate top level meetings between the conflicting parties on the assumption that this is the best way to hammer out a deal. Such a meeting, brokered by the intensive shuttle diplomacy of Russian Foreign Minister Evgenii Primakov, took place in August 1997 in Tbilisi between Shevardnadze and Ardzinba. Although this helped the negotiation process move to a new phase, contributing to the development of the UN-sponsored Geneva Process in which the parties could meet more regularly than before, it could not change the basic parameters and underlying problems of the negotiations. After the May 1998 fighting, Russian mediators again worked to promote a meeting between Shevardnadze and Ardzinba, the fourth since September 1992. But this meeting has not happened and anticipation of the meeting unrealistically raised expectations, despite the failure of previous meetings between the two to make substantial inroads in the fundamental divisions.