Perspectives on Stabilizing Georgia’s Relations with Abkhazia and South Ossetia
“Democracy must be something more than two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner.”
– James Bovard (1994)
Five years have passed already since the 2008 war in South Ossetia. Georgia ’s President Saakashvili initiated this war trying, among other things, to return the self-proclaimed republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia to Georgia. Solving the conflict between Georgia and South Ossetia was a precondition for Georgia’s joining NATO.
However, as a result of this war, about 1,000 people have been killed and at least 158, 000 people have been displaced, and the independence of these two republics have been recognized by Russia and four other UN-member states.Georgia has broken off diplomatic relations with Russia. In order to further secure the region, Russia and the breakaway republics agreed to place military bases in South Ossetia and Abkhazia for 49 years, hosting about 7,000 troops.
Russia has significantly reinforced itspositionintheregion. The relations between Russia and Georgia as well as Russia’s interests in the region have become dominant in its motivation to encourage or curb Tbilisi’s potential attempts to interact with South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Moreover, Georgia ’s striving for Euro-Atlantic integration enhances the present status quo in the region even more. That suits the Russian leadership and corresponds to its geopolitical interests.
When Bidzina Ivanishvili became Prime Minister in October 2012, relations between Russia and Georgia thawed a little. The rapprochement began when Ivanishvili declared his determination to restore Georgian-Russian relations. His policy to concentrate on top priority problems rather than on complex ones proved fruitful immediately. Being aware of cooperating with Russia as one of the key factors to strengthen confidence with South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Bidzina Ivanishvili initiated a policy of “small steps.” 
His first step to normalize relations with Russia was to appoint Zurab Abashidze as the Prime Minister’s Special Representative for Relations with Russia, a post specially created for this. Thus, apart from the existing format of the Geneva talks over the security of the Caucasian region, another platform for confidential relations with Russia was created.
During this year, the negotiations between Abashidze with his Russian partner, Grigory Karasin, brought forth significant results. They reached agreements on questions of trade, economic development, transport, humanitarian and cultural relations. One of the key factors of the positive dynamics of this interaction is its independent character without touching the subjects of the Geneva talks. This approach of separating the subjects necessary for restoring relations between the two states from the most sensitive questions concerning the breakaway regions is productive and strategically sound.
The security in the region during the forthcoming Olympic Games is also the common interest of both countries. Irakli Alasania, Georgia’s Minister of Defence, repeatedly declared Georgia’s readiness to cooperate in this question. The interaction of law enforcement bodies of both countries may give an impetus to better develop Russian-Georgian relations.The creation of a special group initiated by Bidzina Ivanishvili to investigate the circumstances of the five-day war is of no small importance and is another positive signal for the Kremlin.
Apart from the fruitfully developing Abashidze-Karasin talks and a relatively stable course of Ivanishvili ’s government toward Russia and thebreakawayrepublicsofAbkhaziaandSouthOssetia, the Russian and Georgian Orthodox churches are another powerful link between the two countries. They play a special role in the settlement of Russian-Georgian relations. Patriarch Ilia ’s unprecedented influence in Georgia cannot be overestimated. He is the most outstanding and popular figure in Georgia’s religious, public, and political life. The Patriarch’s recent visit to Moscow has become an important signal of the Russian-Georgian rapprochement.
The alleviation of the law on “the occupied territories” is among other positive steps made by the Georgian Government that is worth noting. Its amendments suggest introducing a fine for the first violation of the rules for entering Abkhazia and South Ossetia instead of a previous criminal persecution. Thus, this makes it easier for people to enter Georgia, including experts and organizations interested in improving Russian-Georgian relations and solving the existing territorial conflicts.
However, there exist serious, unsolved questions unrelated to the territorial disputes but limiting the interaction between Russia and Georgia. First it concerns the unilateral visa regime which significantly complicates the process of entering Russia for Georgians, thus hindering the improvement of bilateral relations and normal communication. Nevertheless, there is a possibility of easing the regime by inviting business people and the relatives of Georgians living in Russia. The other important question for discussion is restoring regular flights between the two states.
One of the key pillars in recovering bilateral relations is the clear understanding of the states’ positions and their ideology. Unfortunately, Russia does not have a fully developed plan towards Georgia. It is determined by the Kremlin’s uncertainty and the low level of trust in Tbilisi and its foreign policy orientation. At present, the negative past experience of interacting with Georgia is one of the factors of the Kremlin’s distrust. From Moscow ’s point of view, among the reasons that destabilized Russian-Georgian relations was the unpredictability of Saakashvili and his government in domestic and foreign policy, his frequent violations of agreements with Russia and his belligerent rhetoric aimed especially at Russia.
Russia’s perception of Georgia slightly improved after the government of Georgia had changed. Moscow began to treat it as a stable, balanced, and mature partner having no intentions to complicate domestic and foreign policy situation for Russia. If further political processes in Georgia are not adverse and unstable, then future interaction, hypothetically, may facilitate the creation of a favourable soil for achieving a success and for getting the sensitive territorial question moving.
Both countries understand well that the dialog over the breakaway republics is a serious step that should be postponed until all four sides are psychologically and politically ready. It is clear that it is necessary to build up relations of confidence and political stability in Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia and in their interactions.
Possible Alternative Statuses of South Ossetia and Abkhazia
At present, the problem of status of South Ossetia and Abkhazia remains unsolved. The international community does not recognize the independence of these republics and insists on Russia’s renunciation of its recognition. Russia’s official position in respect of recognizing the independence and sovereignty of these regions remains unchanged. In a recent interview, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said, “the decision about the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia will not be revised.”Grigory Karasin also emphasized that, although the decision to recognize the independence and sovereignty of Abkhazia and South Ossetia was difficult, it is now irrevocable. Russian independent experts and specialists on Caucasian problems unanimously believe that the position of Russia’s leadership in respect of recognizing the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia will not shift.
In the opinion of Russian experts, the war situation as well as the denial of the Russian proposal to include the provisions about the ceasefire and the international discussion of security guarantees for Abkhazia and South Ossetia into the agreement forced Russia’s leadership to make this hard decision. The motivation for recognizing the independence had been determined by Russia’s foreign policy commitments to South Ossetia and Abkhazia, their population and Russian citizens living on these territories to guarantee their security.
Nevertheless, Russia ’s leadership has noted, “if, let us say, Georgia’s leadership and the leaders of Abkhazia and South Ossetia sit at the negotiating table and think over their further co-existence, maintaining law and order in the region, their destiny as close nations and over what they can ever potentially create, it is their own business. And if it ever comes to this, Russia will never prevent that.” Taking into account such position, we may assume that if Abkhazia and South Ossetia speak out for a dialog with Georgia, Russia will not put obstacles in their way.
Although Georgian-Abkhazian and Georgian-Ossetia relations are at the very bottom and the solution of this conflict is not likely in the near future, it would be unreasonable to believe that there is no way out of the crisis in principle. Russian independent experts and specialists on Caucasian problems unanimously note that at the present stage of Russian-Georgian relations, it is too early to discuss any methods of solving the territorial problems. In the first place, Georgia, Russia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia should be aware of the impossibility to solve this question in the near future and at once. Sufficient time should pass before all sides are capable to analyse the situation clearly and pragmatically in order to come up with concrete proposals that may well satisfy them all. Constructive negotiations suggest avoiding obviously unacceptable proposals that would be turned down at once, thus undermining the confidence of all sides of the conflict.
The Russian expert community is convinced that there is no alternative status for South Ossetia and Abkhazia which may be agreed upon in the short and medium term perspective. And although there exists no way of reintegration of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in the near future, a model of confederation, the only one in the long run, may be acceptable for all parties concerned. It is an idea of confederation that has been put forward most often in the proposals of Abkhazia, Georgia and Russia as a means of solving the territorial problem and sovereignty.
However, because Russia provides South Ossetia and Abkhazia with significant economic support and military security, the dialog of Georgia with South Ossetia and Abkhazia without improving Russian-Georgian relations and restoring confidence between these states seems illusory. In order to take part in the process of rapprochement of South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Georgia, Russia should first be interested in this. The way out of this situation is a foreign policy choice by the Georgian leadership to join certain military-political alliances. If such decision could be postponed for the time being, Russia would hypothetically be more receptive. In the negotiating processes of Georgia with Russia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, it is strategically important not to mix up the questions of improving cooperation with sensitive territorial subjects.
Therefore, such an illusory scenario may turn into reality, if the following important conditions are met:
- Georgia’s signing an agreement on the non-use of force against South Ossetia and Abkhazia which the leadership of these republics and Russia insist on.
- Georgia’s recognizing the independence or political sovereignty of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. This may be a package decision together with the simultaneous signing an agreement on the creation of a confederative system.
- Providing South Ossetia and Abkhazia with a desired autonomy and sovereignty approved and accepted by consensus.
- Safeguarding equal protection, freedom and active participation rights in politics.
- Adopting a grassroots approach to the regional development, including the participation and empowerment of the local people in the decision making process that will lead to the development of democratic principles in the communities.
- Creating common economic and social projects for developing and financing the regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia supported by Georgia and Russia or under the umbrella of Russia.
- Developing an image of a common future for easing tensions in the region.
- Deepening the social, economic, and transport integration of the whole region.
- Opening the railway through Abkhazia that will enhance cooperation among Georgia, Abkhazia and Russia.
- Restoring the Ergneti market which used to stimulate contact between Georgians and South Ossetians.
- Safeguarding the security in the North Caucasus collectively.
Obstacles to achieving agreements:
- Mutual distrust of all sides with respect to long term intentions of other parties makes difficult both the process of negotiations and the creation of institutional and legal procedures.
- The intensive process of Georgia’s North-Atlantic integration lowers the confidence and interest of Russia to facilitate the reconciliation of Georgia with South Ossetia and Abkhazia and therefore the solution of territorial problems.
- The high level of nationalism in each country prevents restoring normal ties between them.
- The problem of internally-displaced persons’ (IDPs) return that is difficult to solve.
- The lack of security guarantees and the threat of new clashes and violence.
- The reluctance of each party to take the first step with well thought out proposals.
- Incompatible needs of all sides in satisfying their desire to retain territorial integrity, the right to self-determination, and the principle of equality among national communities and of non-interference in internal affairs.
- Georgia’s lack of powerful economic and social levers which could make South Ossetia and Abkhazia refuse from Russia’s protection.
- The lack of adequate understanding the positions of all sides and their desire to start a serious negotiating process.
- The lack of a direct dialog between Russia and Georgia.
- Russia’s diplomatic representation in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Apart from the above reasons, IDPs coming back is another serious problem which makes difficult any negotiating process in respect of a status of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. At present, this process seems to be next to impossible because of the threat of ulterior separatism in Abkhazia’s regions populated by Georgians and of a flare- up of new trouble spots. In the words of Sergey Markedonov, “such a discussion subject is unacceptable for the leadership of Abkhazia. None of the Abkhazian politicians will agree to a full return of the Georgian population.”
The nature of this conflict may be characterized among other things as ethno-political, and the “ethnic property” problem makes it difficult its peaceful settlement. The safe IDPs’ homecoming requires solving certain problems:
- IDPs’ homecoming seems to be difficult because their homes are occupied by the local people.
- Ensuring refugees’ safe homecoming under the control of international police. The governments of South Ossetia and Abkhazia will hardly agree on this.
- Creating refugees’ local government which will hardly be greeted by other participants of the process.
In any case, the process of refugees’ homecoming remains the most difficult problem to solve in Georgia-Abkhazia and Georgia-Ossetia relations, and its solution requires careful thinking over all possible alternatives of soft and gradual reducing the confrontation among the peoples of the regions. Crossing the border should be simplified in the first place in order to increase and secure contacts. Creating common projects causing new working places and the atmosphere of cooperation among the people of these countries should also be taken into consideration. Restoring the Ergneti market and opening the railway through Abkhazia could stimulate Georgia-Ossetia and Georgia-Abkhazia interaction.
At present, the situation in the world undergoes serious transformation. Dangerous processes in North Africa as well as heightened tension and numerous clashes in the Middle East monopolize the attention of the international community, military-political blocs and alliances. Moreover, the financial crisis and economic instability in many countries require great efforts and transfer of all means to fight the decline which in its turn directly has an impact on NATO’s budget and capabilities. Apart from this, political players and leaders on the international arena have also changed which brings about a shift in the focus of their attention and their choice of priorities.
NATO’s Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen stated that in 2014 Georgia would not be accepted into the military-political bloc. However, Georgia still has a partnership action plan with the alliance that it has to follow. It is clear that the interests inside the Alliance have changed and its enthusiasm for Georgia has declined. Partly this happened because the operation in Afghanistan has come to an end and the geopolitical interest in Georgia has become somewhat weaker at present. Therefore, the question of Georgia’s joining NATO has lost momentum for some time. However, nobody rules out that the situation in the world may change so that the interest in Georgia will be revived again and start gaining momentum.
Abkhazia and South Ossetia distrust the European Union and NATO and do not support the Georgian idea of Euro-Atlantic integration. Moreover, Ossetia and Abkhaz communities believe that it is Saakashvili’s Euro-Atlantic course that led to the August 2008 tragic events. Therefore, a lesser degree of involvement of the European Union and NATO in the process of settling Georgia-Ossetia and Georgia-Abkhaz relations will ensure more confidence and peace inside the breakaway regions. Vyacheslav Chirikba, Minister for Foreign Affair of Abkhazia, put it bluntly, “…the United States and the European Union put a great deal of pressure on the leadership of any state who sympathizes with an idea of Abkhaz independence. This is the main problem here.”
As before, there still exist serious factors that have a negative impact on the possibility of reconciliation between South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Georgia. The European Union and NATO actively avoided and are avoiding taking part directly in the settlement of Georgia-Ossetia and Georgia-Abkhazia conflicts. Russia had no interest to help Georgia in the conflict settlement during the rule of Saakashvili. The format of the Geneva talks has brought no significant results at the present time.
The situation in Georgia has somewhat changed with the new leadership. And although the Georgian government intends to continue the course of Euro-Atlantic integration, it also insists on improving its relations with Russia. Moscow welcomed such a development. Georgia’s “new political leadership adopted much more pragmatic position according to the changes that had taken place in the political system and in the constitution of the country. We are glad about this,” Dmitry Medvedev underlined in his interview. It is also important to note his positive mood concerning bilateral relations. “You know I am an absolute optimist in this respect. I am sure everything will be fine,” he added.
Does it mean that after a full stop there is still a possibility to put a comma in Russian-Georgian relations, to correct “an annoying mistake” in the future perspective? It is important that such Russian-Georgian rhetoric about restoring relations should be followed with practical actions.
According to sociological surveys, 82 percent of Georgia’s population firmly support the restoration of the dialog with Russia. Nevertheless, the aspiration for Euro-Atlantic integration is also supported by 80 percent of the Georgian population. The sensitive problem of settling the Abkhaz and Ossetia conflicts is still urgent for both the population and the government of Georgia. A certain part of Georgia’s population believes that Russia could play an auxiliary role in settling this question. However, many Georgians are convinced that in the near future Georgia may become successful and attractive in terms of economic and social development at the expense of using modern Western models, and politically significant on the international arena. In this respect, it is hoped that the demonstration effect may influence the behaviour of Abkhazia and South Ossetia so that they will choose integration with Georgia.
Neither Abkhazia nor South Ossetia is self-sufficient in the economic development. Annually, Russia allocates a lot of funds for the development of these regions and creates projects to renovate the infrastructure. However, this is not enough. In addition, neither Abkhazia nor South Ossetia has any other guarantor of their own security but Russian military bases. The demographic situation in Abkhazia is at risk while South Ossetia faces the threat of depopulation. Thus, the territories of both republics are in need of serious socio-economic and demographic development which is unfortunately next to impossible without outside help at the present time. In this respect, Georgia should build up its policy taking into account these circumstances.
What should happen to make the idea of resuming relations with Georgia attractive for Abkhazia and South Ossetia? In this respect, Tbilisi is required to recognize them as political entities, to ensure political stability in Georgia itself, and to pursue a state ideology suggesting no threats to the security of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Of great importance is also the economic independence of Georgia and its capability to ensure not only its own development, but also the development of these regions. And last, the neutrality of the Georgian government in respect of NATO is needed because otherwise Russia is likely to block the process of rapprochement of these countries with a perspective of their reunification.
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This paper was presented at the 8th Workshop of the Study Group “Regional Stability in the South Caucasus”, Reichinau, Austria, November 7-9, 2013