Leila Tania, Assistant professor, State University of Abkhazia; Director, Research Programs of the Civil Initiative and Man of the Future Foundation (Sukhumi, Abkhazia)

Definition of the Conflict and Settlement Prospects

We all know that the past played a huge role in the present-day conflicts in the Balkans; the past is equally involved in the Caucasian conflicts, the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict in the first place. History influences what people think, how they perceive events and how they communicate among themselves. Certain elements of all this have become deeply rooted in the psychology of a nation or a people and are bequeathed from one generation to another. I think that people in the West where history plays a much smaller role should try to understand this.1 This brings us close to the problem of how to define the conflict type, or how to conceptualize it within the context of the entire range of problems related to the conflict settlement, and calls for something more than a mere analysis of the conflicts causes, stages, and moving forceswe should identify settlement technologies applicable to this specific problem.

In other words, conceptualization predetermines the logic of settlement. After ten or even more years of active peacekeeping efforts of international intermediaries and the conflict sides the Caucasian communities remain as far removed from peace as ever. This casts doubt on the efficiency of the settlement strategies employed so far. The Georgian-Abkhazian conflict is one of the most apt examples of the above mainly because its nature was inadequately explained. It is commonly agreed that it is an ethnopolitical conflict, yet the descriptions certain authors employ suggest that it is mainly a political conflict.

The world today knows no purely ethnic conflicts. In the majority of cases there are historical and political circumstances behind them. Experts believe that more likely than not such conflicts are rooted in lack of security and unfulfilled desire to preserve (or develop) national (ethnic) identity. It is political reasons that bring in ethnic confrontation as the conflict escalates, especially if collective ethnic traumas have been already present. This goes together with the development of varied aims, interests, values, negative ethnic stereotypes and collective ideas that include the enemy image. Political elites locked in struggle for power and resources are mainly involved in political conflicts.

A clear idea about the conflicts causes is not enough to identify its typewe need to know who is the vehicle of the conflict potential, how they might behave in future, what sort of threats, fears and apprehensions (that formed the enemy image) has struck root in the minds of those on both sides in the conflict.

It seems that unofficial peacekeeping initiatives often offer wrong interpretations of the enemy image concept, its share in the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict and in its further development. Meanwhile, this concept is one of the key indices of the confrontation level and the conflicts identity. The enemy image of the opposite side is present in the majority of conflicts (personal conflicts included) that tend to escalate. Everybody knows that an image of any object (or phenomenon) and the object itself are two different things, therefore the image of the enemy and the real enemy (or real hostile actions) are not identical. The former is localized in human minds where fears, threats, negative individual and collective ideas are concentrated; they rarely or never take shape of specific actions.

In other words, the enemy image is a phenomenon or a fact of human consciousness or subconsciousness that has little to do with reality. This is betrayed in concrete actions and behavior of the conflicting sides during the conflicts open stage or not betrayed at all during the conflicts latent phase when ethnic tension does not crop up at the personal level.

In totalitarian states the system that suppressed requirements and freedoms of individuals and large social, including ethnic, groups alike also smothered potential ethnic conflicts. This was going on in the Soviet Union till its last day.

Certain Abkhazian authors are convinced2 that before the war the Abkhazians never looked at Georgians as their enemies; they argue that otherwise they would have never sent their children to study in Tbilisi and never registered Georgians in Abkhazia. They insist that they would have attacked them every time they saw them. These deliberations show that those who say this fail to grasp the very nature of conflict development and have no adequate ideas about the nature of the Soviet state system that suppressed the rights and willpower of individuals and large communities (peoples).

In fact, the conflict between Georgia and Abkhazia can be described as an exception to the rule: in the past the Abkhazians took part in mass rallies in defiance of repressions; organized by Abkhazian intellectuals (who were deeply rooted in the common soil of the semi-patriarchal republic) rather than the political elite they demanded ethnic preservation and free development. The very nature of fears and threats (the so-called enemy image) was ethnically tinged. Repressions aimed at the Abkhazian language and culture were carried out by Georgians (top and petty bureaucrats alike) whose names were common knowledge, and were gradually creating a generalized enemy image applied to the Georgian settlers who enjoyed social privileges.

To find out how deep are the conflicts roots we have to find out when the enemy image as applied to Georgians started shaping in the Abkhazians minds. Independent Georgian researchers3 who recognize that such image does exist date it back to the 1930s; some of them to an even earlier period (the first decades of the 20th century).

The unofficial initiatives proceed from a conviction that the confrontation between the Abkhazians and Georgians is not as acute as that dividing the Armenians and Azerbaijanians and that the enemy image should be dated back to the recent war and the postwar period. Regrettably, this rather superficial approach was borrowed by some of the international organizations as well. Meanwhile the conflict is much more complicated than many of similar conflicts: as distinct from the Abkhazians neither the Armenians nor the Azerbaijanians are facing a very real threat of extinction as an ethnos.

Both Georgians and Abkhazians involved in the unofficial dialog prefer a rather idealistic picture of the conflicts prewar stage. This has perpetuated the superficial idea about the conflict now current among foreign actors and affects their attitudes to the conditions and possibilities of a settlement as well as their suggestions (see, for example, the Boden document).

According to some people taking part in the unofficial dialog, there was an awareness of the threat coming from Tbilisi, yet it was associated with the authorities rather than with common people. I insist on this. Mistrust on the everyday level appeared at the times of Gamsakhurdia. It naturally increased after the war.4

This interpretation of the enemy image as well as the flat denial that it did exist before the war suggests that the conflict is a political one and that a mutually acceptable solution exists. Indeed, in political conflicts federalization can be used as a road leading to different variants of a common state.

From this it follows that the conflicts theoretical identification leads to its practical settlement. Indeed, more likely than not political conflicts can be resolved through deals (very much like business deals) and compromises. In our case this approach failed: the conflicting sides grew even more radical. Caucasian experts pointed out: The utilitarian approaches to identification of conflicts and approaches to their settlement can, under certain conditions, aggravate the conflicts.5

I am convinced that a different approach to the definitions will better suit the history and realities of the Georgian-Abkhazian confrontation. It should rely on the motives of individual and collective conflict behavior. What is behind the conflict: material and pragmatic interests or values? The answer to this question divides all conflicts into the conflicts of interests and conflicts of values (identities).6 To some extent all conflicts are about interests and valuesit is their correlation that determines the nature of the conflict. Political conflicts are typical conflicts of interests while many ethnic (or ethnopolitical) conflicts are, to a certain extent, conflicts of identities. The latter may start as conflicts of interests (political conflicts) and, in the process of long escalation, acquire deeper and graver forms (conflicts of values or identities), that is, become ethnic, religious, etc. conflicts.

In this respect it is important to point out that Georgias policies went even farther than violating the Abkhazians civil and political rightsit encroached on their ethnic identity in the form of cultural genocide, assimilation and ideological falsification of their history under Stalin; they were even deprived of their self-name and were called newcomer Apsuys rather than Abkhazians. This was how the conflict of ethnic identities was triggered.

This category of conflicts cannot be resolved through negotiations, compromises and harmonization of interests applied to conflicts over pragmatic objects (power or economic resources).

In the conflicts of interests mutual concessions do lead to compromises while in the conflicts of ethnic identities (the Georgian-Abkhazian confrontation being one of them) compromises jeopardize continued existence of ethnic identity itself. This explains why the Abkhazians do not accept the federation model. Western experts pointed out that Serbia and Montenegro united into a single state precisely because there was no strong ethnic antagonism very much evident in other Balkan conflicts.

The pronounced political component notwithstanding, most of the Caucasian conflicts are conflicts of values. There is an opinion that they can hardly be resolved through compromises.7 The efforts to belittle the ethnic component of this local conflict for the sake of its civil dimension are too abstract and too utopian. It is probably more realistic to create new uniting values and new identities8 with the civil component emerging at an absolutely new qualitative level and in an absolutely new format.

Some of conflicts in the Caucasus perfectly fit a conception that says that settlement or even complete resolution does not necessarily follow negotiations. In many cases, conflicts are either settled outside negotiations or die down all by themselves.9 It seems that the confrontation between Georgia and Abkhazia may become another conflict completed outside talks if the present relations between Russia and the West prove long-lived and the sides will have no adequate resources to tip the balance of forces. In any case the Abkhazian side comes to the negotiation table with a firm conviction that the Abkhazian state status has been determined de facto and cannot be changed; it is prepared to discuss how to minimize the effects of the war, establish security, and dwell on humanitarian and economic issues and the problem of refugees.

The models that the intermediaries (Russia and the U.N.) offereda union and later a federative statewere rejected by the Abkhazian public; this affected to a great extent the official and diplomatic course of the republics leaders (the 1995-1997 protocols on Georgian-Abkhazian settlement, the Boden document). At the unofficial level (expert document and the unofficial dialog) the Abkhazian side formulated several approaches that can be reduced to three main ones.

1. Mutually acceptable compromise reached through democratic and legal mechanisms and a possibility of a common state based on this compromise.10

2. Search for intermediary11 or other temporal forms of relationships12 designed to restore trust and reach vaguely described forms of coexistence.

3. An inability in principle to harmonize the demands (positions) of Abkhazia and Georgia13 because this may create great risks for both sides from which it follows that independence is the only realistic alternative for Abkhazia. Indeed, the fundamental differences of the collective behavior motives in a conflict (stemming either from basic requirements or interests) should become the key factor in any discussion of possible variants different for each of the sides involved in a conflict. Obviously, if Abkhazian independence is recognized, the Georgians will have to agree on a compromise under which they will suffer certain economic and political losses. If the Abkhazians agree on a compromise, they (in the present demographic situation) will have to look after their own security and ensure their continued existence. This approach calls for an active quest for arguments (of the geopolitical, economic, and military-strategic nature) to support the idea that the world community will profit more from Abkhazian independence than from Georgias territorial integrity restored by force and fraught with another bout of violence in the region.

The first two approaches very much popular among those involved in the unofficial dialog fit well, and even confirm and stimulate, the present approaches of international organizations to the problem of settlement. It should be said that the conflicts concept accepted by the unofficial dialog is hardly supported in Abkhazia either by the elite or by the public at large.

This probably explains why the Abkhazian side in the unofficial dialog that is exerting certain influence on international organizations is reluctant (with rare exceptions) to discuss its positions at home, let alone promote them among the fellow countrymen. Western experts tend to explain this by ethnic loyalty very much prominent in the Caucasus.14

It seems that the very limited effect of peoples diplomacy can be explained by the fact that the positions of the sides have little in common with what people think and want. Unofficial peacekeeping is detached from the real conflict to the extent that the national elites and the authorities mistrust peacekeepers. Their initiatives are too ideological, they tend to sacrifice a serious analysis of the conflict and recent development to short-lived political expediency and superficial stereotypes. Regrettably, this has become the common trait of the majority of unofficial peacekeeping efforts in the Caucasus.

International organizations are also responsible for this; mediation becomes ineffective because it underestimates or ignores the specific and political-cultural contexts of all sorts of conflicts, including those smoldering in the Caucasus.

The different settlement strategies applied to the Georgian-Abkhazian and probably to other regional conflicts at the official and unofficial levels have a logic of their own stemming from certain conceptual considerationsthe definition of confrontation and tactics, and the assessment of the present stage and settlement prospects. On the whole, one can differentiate three strategies created by different domestic and foreign factors within the official and unofficial negotiation process: contact, distancing, and integration.15 The first variant presupposes that a compromise can be reached through mutual concessions; the second is based on the rivalry strategy (designed to obtain advantages for one side only); the third is oriented toward cooperation for the sake of mutual advantages.

It seems that since the Caucasian conflicts are of an axiological nature when no settlement can be achieved through discussions of the political side only, they call for different mediation criteria. Integration makes it possible to resolve contradictions while not infringing on the sides interests and to remove the conflicts causes stemming from unsatisfied basic requirements or interests of the conflicting sides.

Until recently this strategy remained underestimated; it calls for the search for bypassing ways leading to a settlement and creation of supranational integration models. At that same time, public opinion, at least in Abkhazia, is demonstrating a greater bias to it than to all other strategies.

Strategies of Settlement

Settlement strategies




Assessment of the contemporary stage


of settlement



Compromise + cooperation

Temporal ethnic separation

Common state



Partial avoidance + rivalry

Settlement outside talks (de facto). Ethnic and political separation

Two independent states


Conflict of identities + ethnopolitical conflict


Political and ethnic separation. Quest for a regional consensus model

Multitude of states within a common Caucasian integration model

Integration Initiatives and the Prospects for Conflict Settlement

Recently the local experts and their Western colleagues arrived at a conclusion that integration was the answer to the Caucasian conflicts. One can point to the well-known Stability Pact for the Caucasus created by Belgians. Even if the Caucasian participants cannot accept it in practice (because the unrecognized republics remain parts of the vertical of power), the approach itself looks promising. Such projects have another major flawthey are designed to meet the interests of outside patrons rather than those of the Caucasian conflicting sides irrespective of their international statuses. The Stability Pact presupposed that the OSCE would become the patron, yet the conflict can never be resolved if the interests of the sides involved and of the outside actors remain ignored. The Stability Pact that so far remained a unique document failed to account for Russias interests: it removed it from a direct involvement in the Caucasian developments, something that can hardly lead to long-term stability.

Caucasian integration experience illustrated among other things by the Mountain Republic formed after the 1917 October revolution and the Confederation of the Caucasian Peoples set up on the eve of the Soviet Unions collapse makes it possible to establish why regional integration failed. It seems that the projects proved still-born because the sides involved were pursuing the aims of individual members and their coalitions rather than working toward a system of collective security and cooperation; in addition, international actors had had no reason to extend their support to such projects. Despite this, the Caucasian nations do need security and stability, and this makes the idea of regional integration highly attractive and very much topical.

Integrational or supranational regional models could promote new common values to serve as a more realistic foundation for settling the conflicts of values more or less in the same way as European integration helped create European identity. Caucasian identity as a reflection of cooperation (that is, mutually advantageous relationships) could extend the space within which the balance of interests could be achieved (this relates not only to the conflicting sides but also to the leading geopolitical players).

In this case the new values and new standards of coexistence of the Caucasian peoples (under which development and security for each of them would be guaranteed at the international, Caucasian and local, i.e. bilateral level) will gradually move the hard-to-resolve ethnopolitical conflicts to the civil context. Democratization of all Caucasian communities rather than democratization on the territories chosen by foreign countries and international organizations will create local conditions conducive to domestic reforms and a common Caucasian democratic expanse.

Little by little many of the European experts have come to accept this approachthere is a clear understanding that security of individual nations and states depends on the system of collective security guarantees. Abkhazian authors are convinced that the common Caucasian integration structures can be functionally linked to the European ones.16 This corresponds to what Bruno Coppieters17 says about a possibility for the unrecognized states to be represented in one way or another in the European security structures (such as OSCE). The EU structure allows the federation subjects defend their interests.

It seems that objectively Russia might be interested in this approach to the unrecognized states (including Abkhazia). In fact, Moscow looks at them as an important element of the mechanism designed to protect its interests in the Southern Caucasus. Russian analyst A. Krylov has the following to say on this score: Russia is building up a system of promoting its geopolitical interests in the Southern Caucasus on an absolutely new foundation. This system involved as active members, together with Armenia and Iran, other states with no independence status Joint policies that would combine Moscows military presence and Western financial potential can become an efficient means of stabilizing the Caucasus and setting up a good basis for a peaceful settlement of all local conflicts, of which that between Georgia and Abkhazia is one.18

The problem is which practical mechanisms will be used to set up the collective security system in the Caucasus. I have already written that one of the variants offers direct representation in European organizations (the OSCE, European Council and, in future, in the European Union). Another approach suggests that a transitory model (the South Caucasian community in the Stability Pact) should be set up under the patronage of European organizations, the OSCE in particular. Both approaches separate the recognized and the unrecognized states and are oriented toward the no longer existing vertical hierarchy. This explains why they cannot be used in practice to set up a collective system of security and cooperation.

It seems that the third approach is a much more promising one. It presupposes the creation of a Caucasian integration structure proper that could use the institutional mechanisms of the OSCE and EU as a model in which all local states irrespective of their international status should be represented for the sake of an equal and interested cooperation. Membership of Russia, the EU and the U.S. together with regional countries (Turkey and Iran) would supply international security guarantees. In fact, this will create a collective negotiation structure of the EU type to give all members equal rights; this will promote the best possible solution based on the regional consensus.

Obviously, at the early stages the Caucasian integration model should seek security, economic cooperation and rehabilitation, and a common policy in the legal sphere. A common legal system may become a powerful instrument of settling contradictions and a firm foundation for the relationships between states and nations. While adhering to the international, European in particular, standards this structure could take account of ethnocultural specifics and the local political traditions to a much greater extent than the foreign actors that cannot always look deep into local problems. Institutionalized regional integration will make it possible to create a coordinated regional foreign and domestic policy in line with democratic values and international legal norms, aimed at liquidating the existing and preventing new regional threats fraught with disintegration. All conflicts can take a more civilized form of economic and political rivalry in the same way as it takes place in the EU.

At an early stage the process can involve individual states, while in the future it should embrace all Caucasian participantsthe Russian areas and the Southern Caucasus. It seems that life in the conditions of active integration can resolve the territorial integritythe right to self-determination dilemma that has so far evaded solution; in some cases it will be resolved in favor of the former, in other, in favor of the latter. Today this opposition is regarded by many as a political anachronism deprived of any meaning. Integration may serve as a condition and a social-political context of a gradual and step-by-step conflict settlement based on different logicpriority of collective interests and decision-making by consensus.

It seems that granted there is political intuition and will of the Caucasian members as well as interested support from international institutions, discussion of the regional integration model and its structure should start as early as possible. In any case, the suggestions that international mechanisms of security and cooperation should be tied together (with the help of Russia and the West, Europe in particular) with the Caucasian structures do not look utopian. They look as a sound instrument with the help of which the Caucasus may achieve stability.

1 Ch. Blendi, Kavkazskiy region. Novye vyzovy bezopasnosty, in: Formirovanie atmosfery mira, stabilnosti i doveria na Iuzhnom Kavkaze, Erevan, 2002, p. 50.
2 See: N. Akaba, Mif o troianskom kone, Ekho Abkhazii, No. 42 (351), 2002.
3 See: G. Nodia, Konflikt v Abkhazii: natsionalnye proekty i politicheskie obstoiatelstva, in: Gruziny i abkhazy. Put k primireniu, Ves mir Publishers, Moscow, 1998, p. 30.
4 A. Inal-Ipa, Aspekty gruzino-abkhazskogo konflikta, Irvain, No. 6, 2001, p. 40.
5 M. Zardarian, Problemy uregulirovania konfliktov v kontekste sovremennykh geopoliticheskikh transformatsiy, in: Formirovanie atmosfery mira, stabilnosti i doveria na Iuzhnom Kavkaze, p. 85.
6 See: V. Avksentiev, Etnicheskaia konfliktologia v poiskakh nauchnoy paradigmy,, 2002, p. 7.
7 See: Ibid., p. 8.
8 See: Ibid., p. 10.
9 See: V. Avksentiev, Problema iskhoda etnicheskikh konfliktov: sovremennye vozzrenia, Materially konferentsii Etnicheskie konflikty i ikh uregulirovanie: vzaimodeystvie nauki, vlasti, grazhdanskogo obshchestva, Stavropol, 2000 [].
10 See: N. Akaba, A. Inal-Ipa, Stenogramma gruzino-abkhazskoy vstrechi v Tbilisi, Grazhdanskoe obshchestvo (Sukhumi), No. 5, 2000, pp. 5-7.
11 See: A. Lepsaia, K proektam uregulirovania, in: Aspekty gruzino-abkhazskogo konflikta, Irvain, No. 7, 2001, p. 213.
12 See: L. Kvarchelia, in: Aspekty gruzino-abkhazskogo konflikta, Irvain, No. 4, 2000, p. 121.
13 See: O. Damenia, in: Aspekty gruzino-abkhazskogo konflikta, Irvain, No. 8, 2002, p. 34; L. Tania, Obshchestvennoe mnenie i gruzino-abkhazskiy mirotvorcheskiy protsess, Novaia Evrazia: Rossia i strany blizhnego zarubezhia, Moscow, 2002, p. 104.
14 See: B. Coppieters, Federalizm i konflikt na Kavkaze, Moscow Carnegie Center, No. 2, 2002, p. 37.
15 See: L. Tania, op. cip., p. 93.
16 See: L. Tania, Kollektivnaia bezopasnost i uregulirovanie konfliktov na Kavkaze, Ekho Abkhazii, No. 13 (129), 1998.
17 See: B. Coppieters, op. cit., p. 49.
18A. Krylov, Georgia and Abkhazia: Foreign Factor in the Conflict, Central Asia and the Caucasus, No. 4 (10), 2001, pp. 172-173, 175.

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