From the declaration of independence to integration: this is the path Russia has outlined for Abkhazia. Tbilisi is indignant about the new project of the agreement ‘On alliance and integration’ between Russia and the self-proclaimed republic of Abkhazia it acknowledges, which was sent to Sukhumi from Moscow last Monday.
Georgian Defense Minister Irakly Alasania stated that this document will have no legal power.
“Abkhazia is an integral part of Georgia, like Tskhinvali (South Ossetia). I am convinced that in the nearest future, with the help of pressure on part of the international community, we will begin the de-occupation process,” Alasania noted.
This statement, which is standard for a Georgian politician or official, hides the hope to return the lost territories, however it is very difficult to find reason enough for this.
22 years ago Russia, as opposed to today, stood for Georgia’s territorial integrity. It was mentioned, in particular, in the agreement reached in Moscow on September 2, 1992, between Tbilisi, Sukhumi and Moscow. However, the famous handshake between Eduard Shevardnadze and Vladislav Ardzinba, who were literally forced into it by Boris Yeltsin, was unable to stop the war which began after the Georgian army crossed the administrative border under the command of the Defense Minister Tengiz Kytovani on August 14, 1992.
The Georgian-Abkhazian conflict did not emerge all of a sudden. The root of the conflict may be found in Stalinist national policies, one of the episodes of which includes the transition of Abkhaz schools to the Georgian language.
The escalation in the relations between Abkhazian and Georgian intelligentsia happened in the 70’s. When mass protests took place in Tbilisi in 1978 against the ridding of the Georgian language of its official status, Sukhumi protested against the abolition of the point on the sovereignty of the Abkhaz republic from the new Constitution of the Georgian Soviet Republic.
The fall of the Soviet Union in Georgia was followed by an upheaval in the national liberation movement. Georgian leaders, headed by Zviad Gamsakhurdiya held extreme nationalist positions. “Georgia for Georgians,” this motto became the harbinger of two bloody inter-ethnic conflicts.
The first one begin in South Ossetia after Tbilisi abolished its autonomous oblast status, during Gamsakhurdiya’s reign, and continued until mid-1992 (the Georgian army was then led by the famous Tengiz Kitovani). The conflict in Abkhazia was the result of the “law wars” between Sukhumi and Tbilisi, and it became military in August of 1992, in the midst of civil conflict, which included many Georgian regions after the fall of the first President.
The inter-ethnic conflict in Abkhazia resulted in the deaths of about 10 thousand people on both sides, up to 2 thousand are still considered missing. Over 200 thousand refugees from Abkhazia (mostly ethnic Georgians) were unable to return to their homes.
On May 14, 1994 in Moscow, with Russia acting as intermediary, a ‘Ceasefire and power division agreement’ was signed between Georgia and Abkhazia. Humiliated by the defeat in two conflicts, economically desolate Georgia joined the CIS and agreed to allocate collective security forces pertaining to this organization in Abkhazia. During those years there was still hope that the situation may resolve itself in Georgia’s favor, as Russia demonstrated its inclination towards the principle of Georgia’s territorial integrity. CIS countries even blocked Abkhazia economically.
Putin’s accession to power and the change of policy
However, in the next few years, no real breakthroughs occurred in regulating the conflicts. Vladimir Putin’s accession to power, however, was marked by a change in Russia’s policies. In particular, the blockade was lifted off Abkhazia. The Georgian government expressed its discontent more frequently, accusing Russia of the fact that instead of peacekeeping it encouraged separatism in pursuit of its own goals in the region.
However, relations escalated especially after Mikhail Saakachvili came to power in Georgia. Not only did he openly say that Russia was not an intermediary but a side of the conflict, but also lead the entire situation to escalate. The representatives of the Abkhazia and South Ossetia governments were called Russia’s marionettes more and more frequently in Tbilisi. The head of the Georgia Human Rights Center Aleko Tskitishvili remembers how the human rights activists tried to stop this aggressive rhetoric.
“In that period, not only did the rhetoric escalate, it looked like a military campaign. The Defense Ministry’s budget constitute 1,5 million lari, meanwhile the apparatus of the state Minister for Conflict Regulation had only 600 thousand. It is an absolute lack of balance in a country which is trying to regulate the conflict by means of peace,” says the Georgian expert.
After the August 2008 war and Russia’s acknowledgement of the independence of the separated regions, Georgia withdrew from the CIS and broke diplomatic ties with Russia. The government approved the law on occupied territories. Russia did not take it silently: as a permanent UN Security Council member it blocked the mission of the United Nations and the OSCE in Georgia.
All these years Tbilisi tries to gain permission for the refugees to return. Georgia considers it a diplomatic success that despite Moscow’s resilience, the UN Assembly passes annual resolutions on the refugees’ right to return to Abkhazia and South Ossetia. However, the position of the representative of the so-called governments does not change.
This is what the current Abkhazian leader Raul Khadzhymba told Echo Kavkaza back in 2011, when he ran for President of the self-proclaimed republic: “I think we have already solved this problem: as of today, we have returned a significant number of people. Not a single conflicting side in any other region of the world can post this. About 60 thousand refugees returned to the territory of the Galsky and other districts of Abkhazia. And we have to think on the issue of adaptation and creating conditions for these people.”
Having come to power, Raul Khadzhymba intends to annul five of the six checkpoints through the administrative border along the Inguri river. This was preceded by ridding 20 thousand Georgians in Gali of their Abkhazian passports.
The law ‘On occupied territories’
The expectation that after the ‘Georgian Dream’ comes to power the situation will change did not become reality. Though Tbilisi has been keeping its aggressive rhetoric silent for the past two years, all the officials are talking only about peaceful conflict regulation. The State Minister for Georgian Re-Integration is now head of the renamed Ministry for Civil Peace. Former conflict expert Paata Zakareishvili is part of it. Of course, not all of his peaceful initiatives find support in Georgia. For example, he has been uselessly trying to make the Parliament abolish the law ‘On occupied territories’ for a year now, as it prescribes criminal responsibility and punishment for Russian citizens’ entry to the de-facto republics.
“With the support of European institutions we will achieve the fact that this law will fight occupation and not the people living on occupied territories,” says the politician.
Russia demanded the softening of this regime. However, observers do not think that Moscow will allow any compromise even if it happens. For example, agreeing to Tbilisi’s proposal to sign a complete ceasefire treaty.
Russia, like the Abkhazian and Ossetian sides, insists that such an agreement should be made with Sukhumi and Tskhinvali. Tbilisi refuses, responding that the signing of such agreements would legitimize these so-called republics. Besides, Georgia needs to ensure itself against Russia and not the regions that separated from it.
The course towards NATO integration continues
There is no light at the end of this tunnel yet. Moscow experts do not hide the fact that Russia needs Georgia in its entirety, Georgia which would refuse integration into Europe and accession to the NATO. Only this could hypothetically force the Kremlin to change its policies. By the way, the de-facto republic feared this quite a bit, says head of the Georgian-Abkhazian Relations Institute Zurab Shengelia.
“The Abkhazian society, just like its political elite, still live in fear that Georgia may become close to Russia and that Moscow would ‘swap’ the Abkhazians for Georgians. And this fear increased after the Georgian government was replaced,” the expert says.
However, the ‘Georgian Dream’ which came to power, though it does make attempts to establish good relations with Moscow, definitely has not intention to change the vector of the country’s development. Georgia signed the Association Agreement with the EU and is making every possible effort to speed up further integration into the NATO. The calls to change this vector, the most marginal Georgian politicians, have practically no weight whatsoever.