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Georgia: Ten Years After The War, Tbilisi Still Laments The Loss Of Abkhazia

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

The unrecognized Southern Caucasus republic of Abkhazia today marks the 10th anniversary of its military victory over Georgia. Three days ago, Georgians remembered the fall of the Abkhaz capital into the hands of separatist troops. For the majority of Georgians, the loss of Abkhazia remains an open wound and a scapegoat for many of their hardships.

Prague, 30 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Ten years ago today, armed rebels drove the last Georgian soldiers from the Black Sea province of Abkhazia, ending one of the bloodiest conflicts of the post-Soviet era.

A little more than one year later -- on 26 November 1994 -- the parliament of Abkhazia declared the province's sovereignty.

Despite a ceasefire and international assistance in the effort to agree on a peace treaty, Tbilisi and Sukhumi today remain formally at war.

For Georgia, severance from Abkhazia has meant not only the loss of a popular resort region and one of its most fertile areas but also of a major transport route to Russia.

A few months before the Abkhaz conflict broke out in August 1992, Georgia had lost another of its provinces -- the tiny mountainous republic of South Ossetia, which had seceded in the final years of the Soviet Union. Yet, unlike the South Ossetian conflict, which is also unresolved, the Abkhaz war remains a bleeding wound in Georgia's collective consciousness.

Rachel Clogg agrees. She is associate manager of the Caucasus Program at Conciliation Resources, a London-based nongovernmental organization that provides assistance to people and groups in areas of armed conflict and potential violence. She says the South Ossetian conflict does not have the same degree of political impact within Georgia as Abkhazia does:

"I think it does not have the same emotional impact either. Abkhazia -- partly because of where it is located and [because of] the fact that it was a big resort area and a key transport link along the [Black Sea] coast -- is a bigger issue for Georgia, and it has had more internal impact. [Both conflicts] are perceived similarly, but I think that with [South] Ossetia, there is still a lot more coming and going. It is much easier to cross into [South] Ossetia [from Georgia]. There is not that sense of total divide between the two, and I think that makes some difference," Clogg said.

Svante Cornell is the deputy director of the Johns Hopkins University's Central Asian Caucasus Institute (CACI) in Washington. He believes another factor that explains why the loss of Abkhazia is felt more keenly by most Georgians is that -- like the first Chechen war in Russia -- it followed a bitter military defeat:

"Among everything that has happened [in the early years of independent Georgia], I think Abkhazia is the issue that has harmed the Georgians' self-consciousness, or national consciousness, the worst. It is, so to speak, seen as the worst humiliation and the worst hit that Georgia took on its way to building an independent state. There is no question that, from the perspective of all Georgians -- or, should I say, most Georgians -- the Abkhaz issue is more and more being identified as the underlying reason for Georgia's failing to become a functioning state," Cornell said.

According to various estimates, between 7,000 and 11,000 Georgians died during the war with Abkhazia. In addition, some 250,000 ethnic Georgians were driven out of the breakaway region. Before the war, ethnic Georgians represented nearly 50 percent of Abkhazia's population.

Towering over the Georgian capital's main artery, the dilapidated Iveria Hotel -- with hundreds of internally displaced persons (IDPs) packed into shabby rooms -- remains a vivid reminder of one of the country's darkest periods.

Following the end of the conflict, the government resettled many IDPs in hotels in Tbilisi and neighboring cities. The move was originally meant as a temporary measure, but the presence of these shelters 10 years after the conflict testifies to the inability of the Georgian government to deal with the economic consequences of the Abkhaz conflict.

British analyst Clogg says that, although the issue of Abkhazia has given way to more immediate concerns among Georgia's impoverished population, the existence of a large IDP community in many urban and rural areas goes a long way toward keeping the Abkhaz issue alive.

"In a way, Abkhazia now within Georgia is not high up the list of priorities. I think there are a lot of concerns about internal political and socio-economic developments in Georgia and, for many people, Abkhazia has sort of dropped off the agenda. But at the same time, [because of] the fact that it remains unresolved and that there is a large IDP community within Georgia, there is the potential, at times of political crises, for Abkhazia and the conflict with Abkhazia to come right to the top of the agenda and really destabilize. And there are forces within Georgia that I think certainly manipulate the IDP community, which is the one community that has the most at stake in terms of wanting to see some sort of resolution," Clogg said.

Georgian authorities and opposition leaders last week marked the 10th anniversary of the fall of Sukhumi, the capital of Abkhazia, to separatist troops.

Ceremonies were held in many places where Abkhaz war veterans are buried, a new memorial was inaugurated in one of Tbilisi's central squares, and a minute of silence was observed nationwide to honor the dead.

In an address to the nation, President Eduard Shevardnadze said neither efforts made by his government, nor mediation offered by foreign countries under the aegis of the United Nations, have provided any breakthroughs in the peace process.

Shevardnadze also blamed the Abkhaz leadership for "continuing its destructive policy and ignoring international calls for a peace settlement with Georgia."

In an obvious attempt to exploit the Abkhaz issue for domestic political purposes, Tbilisi City Council chairman and opposition leader Mikhail Saakashvili called on his fellow countrymen to disavow what he described as Shevardnadze's "criminal regime" in the 2 November parliamentary polls and make it pay for the loss of the region.

CACI deputy director Cornell says Georgian politicians -- including Shevardnadze -- are always keen to use the Abkhaz issue for political purposes: "Abkhazia is constantly used as a political tool [in Georgia], just like the Nagorno-Karabakh issue is in Armenia or in Azerbaijan. Softness on Abkhazia can be a severe accusation against any Georgian politician. In order to be a full-fledged politician with some ambitions [in Georgia], you cannot ignore the Abkhaz issue, and you cannot appear to be too soft on the Abkhaz issue, I think. The potential for political manipulation of the Abkhaz issue is taking place all the time."

Georgia has persistently blamed Russia for preventing any peace deal with Abkhazia.

While denying any involvement in the dispute between Tbilisi and Sukhumi, Moscow provided logistical and direct military support to the separatists during the war. At the same time, the Russian military garrisoned in Transcaucasia handed over a large number of its weapons and equipment to the Georgian side, allowing the conflict to drag on.

Moscow is a member of the group of nations mandated by the UN secretary-general to mediate in the conflict and has 1,800 peacekeepers posted along the Georgian-Abkhaz demarcation line. It recently accelerated steps to meet the demands of all Abkhaz residents who apply for Russian citizenship. The move raised concerns in Tbilisi, which protested at what it said was a gross violation of its sovereignty.

Analyst Clogg of Conciliation Resources says that although Russia continues to influence the political situation in the region, it is not the only one to blame for the failure of Georgian-Abkhaz peace talks.

"I do think that although Russia is playing a very destructive role and Russia, obviously, has its own interests in Abkhazia as a lever on Georgia and as a foothold in the South Caucasus as a whole, there is a lot more that could be done -- could have been done and I think could still be done -- by the Georgian government if there were the political will, really, to make the difference," Clogg said.

Cornell agrees that Russia remains the main power broker in the region. Yet, he says Georgia has largely failed to prevent Abkhazia from drifting further toward Moscow.

"The Georgians have failed to, so to speak, give the Abkhaz an incentive of any form to come back into Georgia, and I think that is one of the main problems on that side. Yes, the Russian problem is there, there is no denying it. But, at the same time, you have to circumvent it somehow, and the only way to circumvent it is to give the Abkhaz an incentive. And the Georgians have not been very good at trying to give the Abkhaz an incentive," Cornell said.

Many Georgians believe the Abkhaz issue is the main obstacle on their country's road toward economic prosperity and political stability. Official figures put the economic loss caused by the 1992-1993 war at more than $11 billion.

While saying it is difficult to quantify the economic fallout of the war on the national economy, regional experts agree the conflict has had a dramatic impact on Georgia's nation-building process. Clogg believes the small Southern Caucasus country is entangled in what she describes as a "vicious circle."

"Until Georgia has a stronger democracy and there is more respect for the rule of law and a much more stable economy, it is very difficult to see how Georgia can become more attractive to the Abkhaz and how it can actually take a more strategic approach to conflict resolution," Clogg said. "But at the same time, it is very difficult, while the conflict with Abkhazia remains unresolved, to really focus on building democracy in Georgia and strengthening the economy and all the rest of it. So I think there is a very difficult tension between the two."

While partially agreeing with this assessment, other experts believe that solely blaming the Abkhaz issue for Georgia's economic shortcomings is an exaggeration.

"On the psychological level, yes, it is true that the loss of Abkhazia and the feeling of being a crippled state has affected the Georgians' ability to develop their country," Cornell says. "But I would rather say that Georgia's problems have much more to do with the total absence of government control over its own institutions and the corruption of state [structures]."