THE GEORGIAN-ABKHAZ CONFLICT: PAST, PRESENT, FUTURE0
THE GEORGIAN-ABKHAZ CONFLICT: PAST, PRESENT, FUTURE
"This article first appeared in the Research and Analytical Supplement (RAS) to Johnson's Russia List (JRL). JRL is edited byDavid Johnson of the World Security Institute, Washington DC. The RAS isedited by Stephen Shenfield."
INTRODUCING THE ISSUE
This issue is devoted to one of the bitterest ethnopolitical conflicts inthe former USSR, that between Georgia and the Abkhaz separatist movement.Since the Georgian-Abkhaz war of 1992-93 a stalemate has prevailed. Noprogress toward a political settlement has been detectable.
What brings the issue again to the fore at this point in time is a changein leadership on both sides. Last November the "Rose Revolution" sweptShevardnadze out of power in Tbilisi and in January President MikheilSaakashvili was inaugurated. Within a few months Abkhazia too will have anew president. The arrival of new leaders naturally inspires hope that areal peace process may finally get underway. Rachel Clogg of the Britishconflict mediation NGO Conciliation Resources (CR) analyzes what groundsthere may be for such hope. I am also including a press release from CRabout the latest in the series of unofficial Georgian-Abkhaz dialogues thatthey have organized.
We cannot of course ignore Russia's continuing role in Georgian as wellas Abkhazian affairs. Independent analyst Irina Isakova discusses theapproach that the Russian government is taking toward a settlement of theconflict.
In designing this issue I faced a dilemma. The Georgian-Abkhaz conflict,like many others, cannot be understood without knowledge of its historicalroots. A logical approach would therefore have been to devote the first partof the issue to historical pieces and the second to current prospects. But Irealized that current prospects are the primary concern for many people andthat should go first. So the first part is on current prospects while thehistorical pieces (prepared by me) are in the second part. However, I diddecide to open the issue with a highly condensed synopsis of the historicalbackground. This will help orient those readers who are not already familiarwith that background.
One small point of explanation. The name of the capital city of Abkhaziais Sukhumi in Georgian and Sukhum in Abkhaz. The choice of one form ratherthan the other marks you as a sympathizer of the corresponding side. As acompromise I add the final i but place it in brackets: Sukhum(i).
The first united Georgian state was created in the year 978: the Kingdomof the Abkhazians and the Kartvelians. It disintegrated when the Mongolsconquered the region about the year 1150.
For several centuries Georgia was divided among a dozen or so warringlocal principalities, including Abkhazia and neighboring Mingrelia.
Eastern Georgia was annexed by the Russian Empire in 1800. Abkhazia wasannexed in 1810 with the help of Mingrelian troops and a puppet princeinstalled.
Armed Abkhaz resistance to Russian rule was finally crushed at the timeof the Russo-Turkish war of 1878. Mass deportations of Abkhaz to Turkeyfollowed, leaving almost half of Abkhazia uninhabited. The empty lands wereresettled by Russians, Armenians, and Greeks from other parts of the empireand by land-hungry peasants from Mingrelia.
In 1918, after the Russian revolution, Georgia acquired independence. In1921 it was occupied by the Red Army and forcibly incorporated into the USSR.
During the early years of Soviet rule, Abkhazia and Georgia were separateand equal union republics. In 1931 Abkhazia was forced to join Georgia, butit retained some autonomy until 1936, when Abkhaz leader Lakoba was poisonedby Georgian party boss Beria.
From 1937 until Stalin's death in 1953 Abkhazia was subjected to forcedGeorgianization. More Georgians were settled in Abkhazia and Abkhaz childrenwere punished for speaking their native language.
In the post-Stalin period Abkhaz rights were partly restored. Relationsbetween Georgians and Abkhaz remained tense at all levels of society. Therewere waves of popular Abkhaz protest in 1957, 1965, 1967, and 1978.
The 1978 protests led to substantial concessions by Georgian party leaderShevardnadze. More Abkhaz were appointed to leading positions, televisionbroadcasts in Abkhaz began, and an Abkhaz State University was established.This in turn led to counter-protests by Georgians.
Perestroika created conditions for the rapid growth of both Georgian andAbkhaz nationalist movements. The Popular Forum of Abkhazia was formed inDecember 1988 under the leadership of Ardzinba and became the main vehicleof Abkhaz separatism. In the late 1980s frequent rival mass meetings anddemonstrations raised tensions higher and higher.
The first violent clashes between Georgians and Abkhaz occurred in Gagra(northern Abkhazia) in March 1989. The first large-scale clashes followed inJuly in Sukhum(i), sparked by a dispute over the reorganization of theAbkhaz State University. As Georgian nationalist militias entered Abkhazia,an emerging anti-Abkhaz pogrom was halted by the intervention of Sovietinterior ministry troops from Russia.
The Supreme Soviet of Abkhazia (SSA) adopted a declaration of statesovereignty. Pro-Georgian deputies left for Tbilisi, where they constituteda rival SSA in exile.
Between August 1991 and March 1992, as the Soviet Union unraveled, theSSA asserted control over economic, security, and other governmentinstitutions in Abkhazia. However, the Abkhaz leadership reached a deal withGeorgian president Gamsakhurdia. In late 1991 new elections to the SSA wereheld on the basis of ethnic quotas.
In December 1991 Gamsakhurdia was overthrown in an intra-Georgian civilwar. The new military junta in Tbilisi invited Shevardnadze to return tohead the State Council. He did so in March 1992.
The scene was now set for war. Georgian troops invaded Abkhazia from seaand land on August 14, 1992. Sukhum(i) was occupied and the separatistleadership retreated to Gudauta.
With aid from Chechen and other sympathizers from the North Caucasus aswell as the Russian military, the Abkhaz separatists eventually gained theupper hand. They expelled the last Georgian forces from Abkhazia inSeptember 1993. Virtually the entire Georgian population of Abkhazia fledwith them and became refugees.
A peacekeeping force of Russian troops (formally under CIS control) wasdeployed in a border zone along the River Inguri. UN observers were sent tomonitor their activity.
1. THE ROSEREVOLUTION AND THE GEORGIAN-ABKHAZIAN CONFLICT: LIGHT AT THE END OF THETUNNEL?
Over ten years have passed since the signing of a ceasefire that markedan end to large-scale hostilities in the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict. Yet alasting peace settlement remains a distant prospect, and ongoing conflictcontinues profoundly to affect political and economic development in theregion. Large numbers of people, many of whom are displaced, continue tolive a precarious existence. Positions remain intransigent, insecurity andlack of trust continue to underpin attitudes, and belligerent rhetoricreinforces a conflict dynamic that leaves little room for engagement withthe other side, let alone compromise.
In spite of this, it is unhelpful to talk of the Georgian-Abkhaz conflictas Œfrozen¹. The fragile status quo has been subject to constantfluctuations in tension, including major outbreaks of violence in 1998 and2001 that threatened to trigger a resumption of hostilities. And,particularly over the last year, the region has witnessed dramatic politicalfluidity has inevitable implications for the peace process. While there hasbeen slow progress in the official negotiations under the auspices of theUnited Nations, a new dynamism has been evident on the part of theinternational community recently. As yet, there has been little to suggestreadiness on the part of the political leaderships in Georgia and Abkhazia,for different reasons, to engage anew with the basic issues that underliethe conflict or and take the risks necessary to create fresh possibilitiesin the peace process. To what extent do recent political changes in theregion now allow for this?
Georgia - how rosy the aftermath?
In November 2003, though few would have predicted it, PresidentShevardnadze exited the political stage in Georgia amid scenes of widespreadpublic support for change. If the public were largely mobilized arounddisillusionment in Shevardnadze¹s leadership, his successor, MikheilSaakashvili, was quick to make capital from this. The figurehead of the so-calledRose Revolution, he was elected as Georgia¹s third post-independencepresident in January 2004 with a resounding majority from a high turnout.The wave of optimism and sense of popular empowerment following the Novemberevents has carried over into an endorsement of his agenda for change.
These are early days to judge whether Saakashvili will live up to theexpectations of his fellow citizens, and indeed of many in the internationalcommunity. Without doubt he has a serious reform agenda, and he has beenproactive in setting out to prove that Georgia is serious aboutdemocratization and reviving the economy and public service provision. Yetthe new president and his National Movement were ill-prepared for such asudden rise to power. There are few signs of a comprehensive strategy on thepart of the new government, which is predominantly young and inexperienced.And crucially, the myriad problems that led to such widespreaddissatisfaction with Shevardnadze remain.
The first major test to Saakashvili¹s leadership has been the situationin Ajara. This predominantly Muslim region on the southeast Black Sea coastwas for years semi-independent of Tbilisi under its charismatic autocratAslan Abashidze. In an attempt to assert his authority, Saakashviliconfronted Abashidze head on, challenging his control over the electoralprocess in Ajara. Saakashvili stated in no uncertain terms that Œin case ofa threat to Georgia¹s territorial integrity, we will use force withouthesitation.¹ He appealed to parliament for authorization to disarm Œillegalarmed groups,¹ leading to speculation about possible military intervention.In the event, Abashidze relinquished his control and left for Russia, andserious violence was averted.
The stand-off is illustrative of Saakashvili¹s leadership style. Heprojects the image of a strong leader backed by a loyal army and withGeorgian unity at the heart of his political agenda. This image is certainlyin keeping with the steps that Saakashvili has taken to shore uppresidential power since his election. With surprisingly little consultationhe has introduced constitutional changes that ensure the president adisproportionate degree of power and greatly diminish parliament¹s role. Hehas also postponed local elections until 2005 and preserved a system wherebyheads of local government are appointed by the president, arguing the needfor a temporary consolidation of central control. The results of the Marchparliamentary elections, in which the National Movement won the majority ofseats, fuel fears that democratic institutions are growing weaker underSaakashvili. His approach to the corruption issue has also been telling.While decisive and bold in tackling this much-needed reform, Saakashvili hasbeen willing to turn a blind eye to the rule of law: a number of prominentofficials have been arrested in the glare of media publicity and with littleregard for due process.
An emotive and populist politician, who tends to be swayed by what hisaudience would like to hear, Saakashvili has been liberal with his promises.As the dust settles following the euphoria of last November, many are nowbeginning to ask whether he can deliver. Hardly surprisingly, cracks areappearing between Saakashvili and his prime minister, Zurab Zhvania, and theparliamentary election turnout may indicate that public support is beginningto wane. Certainly, the new president faces an uphill struggle in addressingthe challenges of governing Georgia, and the next six months will be crucialin determining the direction his leadership will take.
Abkhazia - end of an era
The government of Abkhazia has been keeping a watchful eye on thedevelopments in Tbilisi and sizing up the new president. Shevardnadze¹sdeparture and the avoidance of major instability and violence in Tbilisiwere greeted with relief but also wariness. Shevardnadze was a knownquantity; Saakashvili is far from predictable.
Adding to this sense of nervousness is the anticipation of significantinternal political change in Abkhazia, which though unrecognized by theinternational community has now enjoyed de facto independence for ten years.This autumn, presidential elections will mark the end of Vladislav Ardzinba¹sterm in office and the first change in the Abkhaz leadership since thecollapse of the Soviet Union. In a region in which personalities continue todominate politics, the succession will be key in determining Abkhazia¹sfuture direction.
In anticipation of the election, political debate has grown increasinglyvibrant over the last year. A change of government in 2003 brought a numberof younger politicians to the fore. Yet tensions within the executive,exacerbated by the president¹s chronic ill-health, have led to a degree ofparalysis in the system of governance. Demands that Ardzinba step down werelargely articulated by Amtsakhara, one of the larger political movements.These have now abated, and it is likely he will serve out his term.
Tensions between the executive and legislative branches of power havealso become more evident as parliament seeks to assert its power. InFebruary this year a law was finally passed on a mechanism for amending theconstitution. This had essentially been vetoed by the president for sometime - and may have a significant impact on the forthcoming electioncampaign. One element of the presidential election law currently beingdebated involves a clause in the constitution requiring any candidate tohave been resident in Abkhazia for five years preceding the election. If therestriction is removed, this would open the way for candidates from amongthe Moscow diaspora and would widen the race. Also controversial has beendebate on a draft language law. As in Georgia, there are tensions betweenpromoting an ethno-national agenda (particularly in the face of theperceived threat to Abkhaz language and identity) and democratic reform.Since a significant proportion of the population is non-Abkhaz speaking (includingmany of the large Armenian community in Abkhazia), talk of introducing wideruse of the language has prompted fierce debate.
Candidates for president will be formally announced when the electiondate is set later this month. Eight to ten individuals are currently in therunning, though the number may decrease with the emergence of a newpolitical movement, United Abkhazia, that brings together several potentialcandidates with the aim of fielding only one of them. Others that may putforward candidates include Aitaira, the first explicitly oppositionalmovement with a liberal-democratic reform agenda; Akhiatsa, a broadlycentrist movement; and Amtsakhara, a movement that initially grew out of aconcern for the social rights of ex-combatants.
The intense political debates of recent years have been taking placeagainst the backdrop of ever closer relations with Russia. In spite of thefact that many feel uncomfortable doing so, significant numbers of thecurrent population of Abkhazia have taken Russian passports in order to beable to travel to Russia and beyond. Increasingly, in spite of officialRussian support for the CIS trade restrictions, Abkhazia has been drawnfurther into Russia¹s economic orbit. Abkhazia's infrastructure is weak, themajority of the population have no sources of income, and Russian investmenthas been welcomed. There are politicians and public figures who argue thatperpetual isolation is dangerous for Abkhazia and that it is necessary tobuild a state worthy of the respect of the international community. Yetbecause of its unrecognized status Abkhazia has few ties apart from its linkwith Russia. The CIS peacekeeping force that patrols the ceasefire zone ismade up entirely of Russian Federation soldiers. To many (though by no meansall) in Abkhazia, Russia is perceived as the one source of military andeconomic security to which they can appeal. Recently there have again beencalls for associative status with Russia in order to institutionalize thelink.
This only fuels Georgia¹s fears that Abkhazia is drifting further fromits sphere of influence and suspicions that the Abkhaz are necessary toRussia as a means of leverage on Georgia. Saakashvili has shown himselfwilling to try to engage in a more constructive relationship with Russia,which will in the long run be important for Georgia. Yet Russia is unlikelyto relinquish its influence over Abkhazia in the near future. Russia willhardly recognize Abkhazia's independence (nor would any otherinternationally recognized state unless Georgia took the lead). Neither,however, is Russia likely to strike a deal with Georgia that would lead to arenewal of bloodshed and instability in Abkhazia.
Meanwhile, most people on both sides of the conflict are weary of theongoing instability, economic hardship, and restricted opportunities of thelast decade. The status quo plays into the hands of the various criminalgroups that have a vested interest in its preservation. And there is a senseamong many Abkhaz that their aspirations are met better by the currentsituation than by any alternatives they could envisage. But time is on theside of neither Georgia nor Abkhazia. If widespread emigration,infrastructural demise, and social disintegration continue neither will beable to shape the sort of communities and societies they ultimately want tocreate.
Whither the peace process?
Saakashvili has been preoccupied since coming to power with pursuing anumber of key issues put on the agenda by the election, state finances andthe struggle against corruption among them. He has made relatively littleexplicit reference to the conflict with Abkhazia, and it certainly has notbeen high on the agenda thus far. Saakashvili would be wise to keep it thatway until the autumn. The issue of Abkhazia¹s relationship with Georgia isextremely sensitive, and few Abkhaz politicians will be willing to engagewith it in the run-up to the presidential election.
Thus far, what little has been said in public is not indicative of achange in attitude in Tbilisi. For years the Georgian approach has been oneof isolating Abkhazia, using trade restrictions and economic pressure andthreatening rhetoric and occasionally behavior to attempt to force theAbkhaz into compliance. The situation in Ajara is hardly comparable withthat in Abkhazia, but examples of heavy-handed and coercive behavior andSaakashvili¹s emphasis on Georgia¹s national unity and the restoration ofits territorial integrity deliver an implicit message. At times this hasbeen made more explicit. For instance, at a ceremony to posthumously honorZhiuli Shartava, the Georgian civilian head of the government in Sukhum(i)at the end of the war, Saakashvili spoke of the likelihood of blood beingspilt to re-establish Georgia¹s territorial integrity. A politician fond ofsymbolism, elements of Saakashvili¹s behavior can certainly be read asprovocative. Thus at a recent meeting in western Georgia with Georgianrefugees from Abkhazia he handed one of them his wristwatch and proclaimedthat by the time the watch battery ran down in two years they would be backhome.
So the Abkhaz see little in Georgian behavior that would encourage closerrelations. If anything, Abkhaz mistrust of the Georgian leadership isgreater now than it was under Shevardnadze. Georgia is seen to havesignificant US backing in the form of $64 million in grants and the ongoingTrain and Equip program that provides military hardware and training. Whilethis is not intended for use against Abkhazia, Abkhaz fears of renewedaggression or precipitous action are tangible.
However, it is too early to discount the possibility that the Georgiangovernment may find a way to break out of the vicious circle. Somechallenging commentators on the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict have been electedinto the new Georgian parliament, and some figures in the new administrationhave a more open view on Abkhazia than was the case under Shevardnadze. Thereplacement of Tamaz Nadareishvili as leader of the government in exile ofthe Georgian refugees from Abkhazia and debate about refugee representationin the Georgian parliament are also perhaps signs of positive change. Fromnow on all of Tbilisi¹s efforts in regard to the Georgian-Abkhaz conflictwill be coordinated in one ministry under Giorgi Khaindrava, State Ministerfor Conflict Resolution, and the indications are that the new government isworking on its strategy. There are also perhaps some grounds for hope inSaakashvili¹s inconsistency. Very recently, in the midst of speculation overviolence in Ajara, Saakashvili reiterated hopes for a peaceful resolution ofthe Georgian-Abkhaz conflict.
The first real test of the new government¹s approach to Abkhazia will bein response to the election. It remains to be seen whether Saakashvili willcapitalize on the high degree of public support he enjoys to engage hisfellow citizens in discussion of possible concessions and encourage them tore-think Georgia's approach to the conflict. With Abkhazia's presidentialrace still wide open, it is hard to predict what Abkhazian policy will bethis autumn. Certainly in the near future it is unlikely there will be anyfundamental shift in Abkhazia's position with regard to Georgia, nor willAbkhaz aspirations change. Yet if the leadership in Sukhum(i) were to seeevidence of consistent, trustworthy, and reliable behavior on the part ofthe Georgian authorities and a preparedness to exclude the use of force,that could be highly challenging to them. It would place the ball firmlyback in Abkhazia's court.
2. PRESSRELEASE FROM CONCILIATION RESOURCES
The thirteenth dialogue workshop in an ongoing series on the Georgian-Abkhazconflict and peace process took place in Berlin from 7-11 May 2004, bringingtogether government officials, politicians and public figures from bothsides of the conflict. These workshops provide a forum for participants todiscuss and analyse opportunities and obstacles in the peace process in anenvironment that encourages creative thinking, realism and mutual respect.As an informal and non-official process no decisions are taken.
Political events in Georgia over the past six months, from the "RoseRevolution", through the election of President Mikheil Saakishvili to thedeparture from office of Aslan Abashidze formed an important part ofdiscussions. Likewise the Georgian participants were eager to hear from theAbkhazian participants about recent developments in Abkhazia and inparticular about the process for conducting the presidential election inAbkhazia that is expected to take place in October 2004, and its possibleoutcome. The participants recognised that the integrity of the democraticprocess in Abkhazia is of considerable importance, notwithstanding the factthat the election is not recognised by the international community or theGovernment of Georgia. All acknowledged that the new leaderships on bothsides will have the opportunity to impact more on the negotiations processbut that any new approach will need to be sensitive to what is publiclyacceptable.
In discussing the current and prospective political situation it wasevident that there are often misunderstandings between the parties. Theparticipants were challenged to think about whether or not statements andactions by politicians and public figures are always perceived as intendedby the other side.
Participants explored the commitment of the two sides to their statedpositions that of territorial integrity on the part of Georgia and that ofrecognition of independence on the part of the Abkhazians and whether theycan articulate their positions in a way that better incorporates theaspirations of the other party. Those taking part in the seminar examinedoptions for the future and the importance of a framework for negotiationsthat satisfies the needs of the parties to the conflict.
In exploring these issues the participants were mindful of importantrecent international developments such as the conduct of the war in Iraq andthe referendum on the territorial arrangement of Cyprus.
The workshop was characterized by a constructive exchange. It is hopedthat this will contribute to a culture of dialogue and understanding betweenthe respective communities.
The Abkhaz participants in the workshop were Arzadin Agrba, Laura Avidzba,Beslan Kubrava, Leonid Lakerbaia, Garik Samanba and Alkhas Tkhagushev. TheGeorgian participants were David Berdzenishvili, Giga Bokeria, ArchilChitava, Zurab Jguburia, Giorgii Khaindrava, Konstantin Kublashvili, andPaata Zakareishvili. Everyone took part in their individual capacity, notrepresenting any organization or institution.
The workshop was organized by the Berghof Research Center forConstructive Conflict Management (Berlin) and Conciliation Resources (London),two international non-governmental organizations that have worked in theCaucasus for a number of years and with experience facilitating similarprocesses in other regions of the world. Facilitation was by Clem McCartney,Jonathan Cohen, Oliver Wolleh and Rachel Clogg.
The workshop was funded by the Swiss Federal Department for ForeignAffairs and the United Kingdom Global Conflict Prevention Pool.
Jonathan Cohen (Conciliation Resources) 13 May 2004