MOSCOW. (Sergei Markedonov for RIA Novosti) - The world is closely watching the political situation around Abkhazia.
In the past six months, the issue of the breakaway Caucasian republic has been discussed twice in the UN Security Council, and Russia and the United States have worked out a compromise on it.
Resolution 1716, which is highly critical of Georgia, was approved almost unanimously when Russia agreed to vote favorably on the issue of North Korea. In early 2007, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon delivered a report on the ethnic and political situation in Abkhazia. The week before the Security Council session, he presented his view of the situation in the Gali district of Abkhazia, where outbreaks of violence were registered shortly before the New Year.
Russian politicians and diplomats feared attempts to "internationalize" the Abkhazian problem. But events of the past few months showed that it will not threaten Russia's national interests, on one condition: Russian diplomats must learn to choose their priorities wisely.
This may sound paradoxical, but internationalization can promote Russia's national interests if its format is determined clearly. At any rate, it would be unreasonable to reject the idea of external involvement in the Abkhazian settlement, provided we know which forces should be involved and at which stages.
Russia should highlight the role of the UN and its Security Council, which are the focal points of the international community to which all countries, including Georgia, appeal for justice. Russia has levers of influence in the UN, and the Kremlin may use them to strengthen its own role and join the internationalization trend.
The UN Mission in Georgia, which is working in situ and knows everything about events in Abkhazia, has become almost immune to Mikhail Saakashvili's PR projects. Russia should maintain ties with Abkhazia's political and business elite and promote contacts between Sukhumi's third power and European state and private structures that influence public opinion in their countries.
If the Kremlin wants Abkhazia to become a national state de jure, it should stop trying to keep the breakaway republic on a short leash and cut off from the international community.
Russia can recognize Abkhazia as an independent state without damaging its own interests only if such recognition is backed by a "a consortium of powers." In its absence, Moscow should limit itself to political assistance to Abkhazia, whose forceful incorporation into Georgia will destabilize the situation in Russia and the North Caucasus.
In a word, the Kremlin will benefit from internationalizing the Abkhazian problem. There is no "global anti-Abkhazian conspiracy," but the world does not have an adequate view of the situation in that republic. Foreign experts and NGOs have changed their views on Abkhazia dramatically when they learned more about the situation there. So, the Kremlin should do its best to provide an accurate information on Abkhazia.
The peacekeeping operation in the zone of the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict is a separate issue. Russia must not give up its "exclusive role" there.
The idea of having "an international policing unit or international policing force in Abkhazia - maybe not so much in Kodori, but for certain in the Gali region," put forth by Matthew Bryza, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, during his tour of the South Caucasus, cannot be implemented without damaging Russian interests.
The deployment of an international policing force there will create several clashing centers of power, with the peacekeepers viewed as "pro-Russian" and the policing force as "pro-Georgian." Instead of restoring peace, this would defreeze the conflict and involve external forces in it.
The presence of Russian peacekeepers in the conflict zone has ensured the return of some 60,000 refugees to their homes in Abkhazia. Despite the political blunders the Kremlin has made in Georgia, Russian peacekeepers have been a stabilizing force. They prevented the reactivation of the conflict in May 1998 and in the fall of 2001, despite strong prerequisites for that.
By combining military-political domination in the zone of the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict with the internationalization of the Abkhazian elite's contacts and of political debates on conflict settlement, and by complementing its peacekeeping mission with an active involvement of the UN, Russia may greatly strengthen its positions as the guarantor of peace in that turbulent region.
To attain this goal, it should create situation alliances with the U.S. and EU countries, and pursue a correct and more flexible policy. The matter at stake - stability in the North Caucasus - is important enough to make the Kremlin policy there more realistic and pragmatic.
Sergei Markedonov is head of the ethnic relations department at the Institute of Military and Political Analysis.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and may not necessarily represent the opinions of the editorial board.