THE GEORGIAN-ABKHAZIAN CONFLICT: WHAT NEXT?
View from the Left Bank of the Inguri
Paata Veshapidze, Editor-in-chief of the newspaper 24 saati (24 Hours) (Tbilisi, Georgia)
In the fall of 1993, when an endless flow of emaciated refugees came through the Kodor Gorge from Abkhazia, few imagined that ten years later they would be unable to return home. An acquaintance of mine often recalls that he did not even close the gate of his house in Gulripshi and had to ask neighbors to watch his pigs for him.
The superfluous attitude toward the cause, and later toward the political and humanitarian consequences of the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict, is the main reason for the deadlock which currently besets the settlement process, since none of the sides wants to look within to find an explanation for what happened. Preconceived ideas and a biased choice of ways to achieve at least minimal mutual understanding between the sides are basically to blame for the talks having not essentially budged an inch in ten years. What is more, during these years, the problem has worsened, and the viewpoints of the sides are diverging even more.
We will try to analyze the possible developments in the negotiation process, taking into account the current realities and trends, and look at the political, economic, and social aspects of the compromises that could get attempts to settle the conflict off the ground. The visit by Georgian journalists to Moscow (14-18 September, 2003) organized by the RIA Novosti Information Agency, the itinerary of which included meetings with high-ranking representatives of the Russian government, provided a good excuse to reflect on this topic. Naturally, these meetings mainly focused on the Abkhazian problem.
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The fundamental and irreconcilable differences currently defining the divergence in viewpoints between the Georgian and Abkhazian sides are as follows: the incompatibility between creating an independent Abkhazian state and Georgia’s territorial integrity; Tbilisi’s orientation toward the West, and Sukhumi’s toward Moscow; the weakness of Georgia’s state institutions and the strong dependence of the Abkhazian government on the Russian power structures.
On the whole, these differences are giving rise to a vicious circle that cannot be broken either by the numerous U.N. resolutions, or the U.N. Secretary General’s Group of Friends, or the Geneva process, or the so-called Dieter Boden document. And it is these same differences that are preventing hundreds of thousands of refugees from returning home.
Abkhazia’s political status is the cornerstone of the entire settlement process. This question has its historical aspects, discussion of which is beyond the scope of this article. Particularly since their biased interpretation by both Georgian and Abkhazian scientists played an ominous role in fomenting the conflict to begin with and is still a bone of contention in any discussion and any dialog.
The Georgian side has stated more than once, including from the U.N. podium, that (in compliance with world practice) it is willing to grant Abkhazia the broadest autonomy. But for a long time, these statements were only declarations that did not acquire the form of specific proposals. This “long time” lasted for at least eight years, years which proved irretrievably lost.
The thing is that during this time unrecognized Abkhazia naturally sought ways to overcome its severe socioeconomic crisis and political isolation. And the more successful this search was, the more irritated Georgia became, which ultimately put the brakes on the political settlement process. Sukhumi’s attempts to establish international economic and political relations were essentially illegal, since in world practice contacts with separatists are viewed as aiding and abetting such regimes. Abkhazia’s isolation was made even worse by the decision adopted at the CIS summit in 1996, following which all the member states were obligated to seek Tbilisi’s consent before establishing contacts with official Sukhumi, and it was prohibited to send even humanitarian aid to Abkhazia without Georgia’s knowledge. On the one hand, this was a correct decision, since separatist enclaves are in the habit of becoming territory for illicit drug and arms circulation, and so on. Tbilisi had the opportunity to establish at least minimum control over the autonomy, which was breaking free from state jurisdiction. On the other hand, Georgia’s weak state structures, including those guarding the country’s borders, and the high level of corruption in the customs service made it impossible to exercise this control effectively. The Georgian authorities simply underestimated the actual situation and their own potential. In the end, the gap between Abkhazia and Georgia widened and mistrust deepened.
Isolation also had a negative effect on the domestic political processes in Abkhazia itself. As pressure on it intensified, the separatist regime relied increasingly on those circles in the Russian government and society seeking revenge, that is, on those who dreamed of restoring the U.S.S.R. and of “punishing” Georgia and its president for their supposed “contribution” to the collapse in the “great state.” Sukhumi’s irreconcilable policy and Tbilisi’s inactivity augmented Moscow’s influence to such an extent that, contrary to every international legal norm, Abkhazia expressed the desire to officially become part of the Russian Federation. It was most likely this that stirred up the forces in Abkhazian society opposed to President Ardzinba, most of the members of which are former fighters for whom the most important thing is creating an independent Abkhazian state. In the spring of 2003, right after Abkhazia announced its desire to become an associated member of the Russian Federation, the situation in Sukhumi became strained to breaking point. There was a series of personnel changes in the government and the situation was defused, but the question of Abkhazia’s status and future in general remains open, even Sukhumi does not have a unanimous opinion on this subject.
However the alternatives for building its state structure are still being developed. The greatest interest is aroused by notable formulations that differ from the official. At meetings held under the auspices of international organizations (with the participation of Georgian and Abkhazian political scientists, conflict specialists, and lawyers), increasingly bold ideas were expressed, on the basis of which it may be possible to create mutually acceptable legal models of relations between the conflicting sides. Versions of a single state structure are mainly being elaborated. The model of broad autonomy, which Georgia and representatives of the international community, including the U.N., talked about (the Dieter Boden plan), has lost its relevance, since no one could determine what precisely “broad autonomy” implied. Reality, however, essentially precludes Abkhazia consenting to Georgia, albeit formally, giving it, as an autonomy, any powers. Sukhumi’s response to this is, whoever gives powers can also take them away.
Talk has recently been revolving around the possibility of creating a single state, in which Georgia and Abkhazia will be equal members, but the Abkhazians have their doubts about this alternative. More acceptable in some circles of Abkhazian society (taking into account the interests of the pro-Russian government) is the condominium model—joint rule or a joint protectorate, which is in fact being practiced today with respect to Andorra. In light of Abkhazia’s high degree of independence, this model envisages dividing the functions of the protectorate between Georgia and Russia, which Tbilisi is balking at. The main reason for this being that the current Abkhazian authorities depend too much on the anti-Georgian Russian establishment.
Albeit timidly and at an unofficial level, talks are nevertheless being held in Georgia on granting Abkhazia its independence, but only if Georgian refugees are guaranteed a dignified return home and Sukhumi agrees to certain territorial concessions. There is a taboo on such initiatives in Tbilisi, but all the same there are certain daredevils who are trying to promote their viewpoint. However, there are doubts that this alternative has any chance of success. First, the Georgian authorities are unlikely to consent to such a drastic and very unpopular step, and second, it is more than likely that Moscow will obstruct such a course in events. After all, Georgia’s recognition of an independent Abkhazian state will be a rather unpleasant and notable slap in the face for Russia, which is already bogged down in the quagmire of the Chechen war. And creating a sovereign country even in part of the territory controlled by Sukhumi will give a significant incentive to the North Caucasian constituencies of the Russian Federation striving for self-determination. Moscow well recalls that the idea of forming an independent state with its capital in Sukhumi has long been popular among the indigenous peoples of this region. Such conclusions are graphically confirmed by an episode during the meeting between Georgian journalists and Alexander Voloshin, then head of the Russian presidential administration. To the question: “How do you think Russia will react if Georgia decides to recognize Abkhazia’s independence?”, he replied unequivocally: “Russia will try not to allow such a development in events and will stick closely to the principle of Georgia’s territorial integrity.”
There is another scenario of development in the negotiation process, but it threatens the future of the Abkhazian people. The thing is that the latest actions and statements of Sukhumi politicians are clearly tending to deviate from the ideology of creating an independent Abkhazian state. The statement on Abkhazia joining the Russian Federation as an associated member is politically and legally unsound. But it is an alarming signal to which the autonomy’s public should unequivocally react, if of course its main goal is still to save the Abkhazian ethnos. In other words, an unusual imbalance of interests among all the participating sides is manifested in discussions on the political status and future of Abkhazia, and the deadlock appears insurmountable. It is absolutely clear to me that as soon as the first symptoms of restoring trust between the Georgians and Abkhazians appear, the vicious circle of discrepancies will begin to break down. But time is needed for these two peoples to believe in each other again, and not only to heal the wounds of the bloody war. It is needed even more to recognize that the roots of all the misfortunes (both Abkhazia’s and Georgia’s) undoubtedly go back to the communist-totalitarian era, when freedom not only of the nation, but also of the individual was prohibited. It is precisely the slow-fuse bomb of ethnic clashes planted during that era that has provoked all the conflicts in the post-Soviet space. In counterbalance to this, both nations need to remember those periods of history when they had a supreme degree of sovereignty and, relying on each other, defended their common independence. The Abkhazian and Georgian czar—it was rulers with precisely that title who wrote the best pages in the multi-century history of the Georgian and Abkhazian people.
Such “enlightenment,” I am sure, will only come when the Abkhazians and Georgians are finally free of all the vestiges of the communist bureaucracy, which to this day occupies leading posts in the establishment and political elite both in Tbilisi and Sukhumi. But for the moment mistrust is deepening, and the number of adventurers and radicals calling for settling the problem by force is increasing. So we must look for any paths whatsoever that lead to mutual understanding. And they must be found before they become entirely overgrown with hate and hostility.
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The standstill in the settlement process has also been largely caused by the fact that the economic and management relations between Georgia and Abkhazia interrupted during the post-war decade have still not been restored. No one has seriously tried to find an alternative to the congealed political processes and take advantage of the common economic and financial interests of both nations. And after all, they have a magnificent precedent in this respect—cooperation in operating the Inguri hydroelectric power plant. Georgian and Abkhazian specialists work side by side in the turbine department of the hydro complex, which is located on territory controlled by the Abkhazians. In emergencies arising during the operation of the power plant, both sides are able to reach mutual understanding without any particular problems. Unfortunately, this example has not become a catalyst for searching for and recreating similar points of contact in other spheres. Of course, it can be retorted that during these years Georgia was hardly able to make ends meet itself, so how could it be expected to pique Abkhazia’s economic interest. But this argument only partially corresponds to reality. In actual fact, Tbilisi is entirely capable of putting forward proposals which the Sukhumi leadership is vitally interested in implementing. A graphic example of this is the question of restoring railroad service through Abkhazia. If the Georgian authorities ever decide to take this initiative, it would not only be an effective move for Tbilisi, but also an impressive humanitarian act, which would undoubtedly help to resurrect mutual trust. Georgian nongovernmental organizations put forward this proposal in 1998, but it was ignored by the country’s leadership. In all likelihood, it was afraid of an unequivocal reaction from the refugees. But this project would not have required particularly large investments on Georgia’s part, since Russia and Armenia are economically interested in reviving operation of the Transcaucasian railroad.
At this juncture, Georgia has already missed the opportunity, and now the ball is in Russia’s court. It is a case in point that Abkhazia views restoration of railroad communication between Sochi and Sukhumi primarily as a humanitarian act on the part of its Russian friends.
On the whole, Georgia’s economic incapacity and lack of political will in the Abkhazian question, as well as Sukhumi’s unequivocal orientation toward Moscow, have significantly changed those realities that existed just two years ago. Russia is increasingly moving away from the role of mediator in the conflict and unceremoniously pursuing its own political and economic interests in Abkhazia. By its unilateral restoration of rail and sea communication with Sukhumi, as well as its participation in rehabilitating the resort infrastructure, Moscow has removed Tbilisi from the picture even more.
“Russia is helping, and we don’t need anything from Georgia,” say the Abkhazians, and this viewpoint is not surprising. What is surprising is official Tbilisi’s indifference. Even after Russia began restoring the Abkhazian section of the railroad, Georgia could still have asked to be included in the project. But instead of this, it began to express official protest, although everyone perfectly understood that these unreasonable and poorly justified objections would not yield any positive results and that this only underlined yet again the helplessness of the country’s government. Tbilisi still has the opportunity to show it has a will of its own, particularly since Moscow and Erevan are openly announcing their interest in restoring the Transcaucasian railroad.
Within the framework of the above-mentioned visit by Georgian journalists to Moscow there was an interesting meeting with the leadership of RAO EES Rossii (Russia’s Joint Energy System). Abkhazia, along with Russia and Georgia, is represented as one of the sides in the projects of this large energy company, which made its debut on the Georgian market several months ago. In purely formal terms, this should arouse Tbilisi’s protest, but we need to remember that such objections will again yield nothing positive, since RAO EES Rossii will carry out its plans anyway. The matter concerns restoring the Inguri hydroelectric power plant and overfall cascade and building a high-voltage power transmission line on the Abkhazian coast. The interests of all the sides have been clearly designated in these projects. The Inguri hydroelectric power plant is of great significance for Georgia’s electric power industry, since it is the only plant that stabilizes the country’s entire power system. What is more, major overhaul of the installation and the rational and high-tech use of the water resources will increase the volume of electricity generated at least four-fold. And the hydroelectric power plant will ensure uninterrupted operation of the Sochi power system, which is very important for Russia. Building a high-voltage power transmission line on the Abkhazian coast will allow RAO EES Rossii to export electric power to Turkey, and Sukhumi will be provided with a stable electricity supply.
In the talks with Georgian journalists, director of this company, Anatoli Chubais, did not hide the fact that this project also has political implications since at the meeting between Vladimir Putin and former president of Georgia Eduard Shevardnadze in Sochi an agreement was reached in this area, with respect to which RAO EES Rossii was given a corresponding assignment and is relating to it with all seriousness. It follows from Chubais’ statement that the Georgian leadership gave its principal consent (or “was forced” to consent, which is no longer of any import). But Tbilisi has taken offense again and is not even trying to take advantage of the opportunity presented and participate at least to some extent in restoring Abkhazia’s energy system. After all, even the minimum amount of participation would help to establish new contacts and strengthen those relations that already exist in the energy sphere. But again everything is leading to Russia becoming more chummy with Abkhazia, and Georgia more estranged.
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It is entirely clear that the Abkhazians expect Georgia to take the first step toward finding a compromise. But the low level of legitimacy did not allow the Georgian authorities to take unpopular political steps that entail long-term results. One of the main reasons the settlement process has ground to a halt is seen precisely in the fact that Georgia was unable to put its own sovereignty into full-fledged practice and create efficient state institutions. According to Georgian conflict specialist Paata Zakareishvili, “the problem stems not from the alienation between the Abkhazians and Georgians, but from the Georgian’s alienation from the idea of statehood” (the newspaper 24 saati, 13 September, 2003).
It is very important for the Georgian state institutions to begin purging themselves of the totalitarian way of thinking, since this will change their very approach to analyzing the reasons for what has happened. First, Georgia must take a critical look at itself, which will help it to make an objective assessment of reality and begin looking for a rational way out of the current negotiation impasse.
In conclusion, I would like to note that the critical tone of this article in no way means that only Georgia is to blame for the current situation. (The author thinks that whereas Moscow could not technically be considered a participant in the conflict at the beginning of the settlement process, after most residents of Abkhazia adopted Russian citizenship, it indeed became one.) It stands to reason that each side is responsible to some extent. This is our view of the problem, that is, our assessment of it from the left bank of the Inguri, and an attempt to look within.