Accessibility links

Breaking News

Georgia: Could More Dialogue, Fewer Demands, Be Ticket On Abkhazia?

Georgian students demonstrate against elections in Abkhazia (InterPressNews) For Georgians and Georgia-watchers, it's a familiar scene that plays out every few years: Tbilisi unveils its latest proposal offering its breakaway region of Abkhazia a promise of political, economic, and cultural rights in exchange for reintegrating with Georgia. Abkhazia strenuously refuses. And the dialogue begins anew.

The latest offer came March 28, just days before President Mikheil Saakashvili traveled to Bucharest to argue his country's case for receiving a NATO Membership Action Plan. Georgia's unresolved territorial disputes in Abkhazia and a second breakaway region, South Ossetia, have cast a shadow on Tbilisi's bid to join the military alliance, and the Georgian leader may have hoped for a last-minute deal with Sukhumi to improve his prospects.

The proposal was a modification of a 2006 offer of "broad internal sovereignty." This time, the overture included what was termed "unlimited autonomy," complete with the promise of a free economic zone, representation in the central government, and veto rights on issues related to Abkhazia.

No matter. Sergei Bagapsh, the region's de facto leader, dismissed the plan as "unacceptable" -- empty propaganda aimed only at warming hearts at the NATO summit. Compromise, he suggests, is not an option.

"They came to our home, to Abkhazia -- and South Ossetia -- to kill and destroy us. You should find the records of the 1992 war, when the [Georgian] Defense Minister Ghia Karkarashvili said he was going to use 100,000 Georgians to destroy 92,000 Abkhaz," Bagapsh told RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service. "For us, this is an indication. We're fighting for independence not out of some whim, but because we want to be preserved as an ethnic group, as a nation."

Many Players

Abkhazia, which lays claim to a distinct ethnic and cultural history, has enjoyed de facto independence since separatists, with support from Russia, defeated Georgian forces in a bloody war in the early 1990s. Fifteen years after a short, brutal war that left some 16,000 people dead and displaced more than 200,000 ethnic Georgians, it is clear that any resolution of the conflict cannot be reached by Georgia and Abkhazia alone.

The United Nations, which this week extended the mandate of its observer mission in Abkhazia, has a small but still significant role in the region. More importantly, there is Russia. Determined to thwart Tbilisi's goals of reintegration, it remains a steadfast supporter of the breakaway regime and maintains considerable leverage as the dominant player in international mediation efforts.

In recent weeks, Moscow has actively stepped up its presence in the breakaway regions, lifting economic sanctions and moving to establish semi-official "embassies." Russian President Vladimir Putin on April 16 ordered his government to recognize legal entities registered in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Moscow, mindful of its own separatist conflicts, is likely to stop short of recognizing Tskhinvali and Sukhumi's self-declared independence. But such moves are still deeply aggravating to Tbilisi, and ensure that Russia will continue to play a decisive role in the region.

Still, within Georgia, some observers say the inability to resolve the Abkhaz question -- a gap that impacts virtually all aspects of the country's foreign- and domestic-policy goals -- is ultimately Tbilisi's burden to bear. Critics blame Georgian authorities for an inconsistent policy on Abkhazia, and for failing to engage the Abkhaz people and leadership in a meaningful way.

High Passions

Although Abkhazia and South Ossetia are often linked together as two of several "frozen conflicts" created in the wake of the Soviet collapse, for Tbilisi they represent different and very distinct conundrums.

In contrast to South Ossetia, where the ethnic composition of the population is still fairly diverse, Abkhazia -- with the exception of its Gali district -- has virtually no ethnic-Georgian population left. Geography is also a factor. South Ossetia is situated in north-central Georgia, surrounded by Georgian villages, and within easy reach of Tbilisi. Abkhazia, by contrast, is far more detached, jutting as it does from the northwestern tip of Georgia proper, bordering the Black Sea.

Some observers also suggest that while the de facto government in Tskhinvali maintains close, cooperative ties with the Kremlin, the Abkhaz authorities are more insular and independence-minded. (That said, as in South Ossetia, more than 80 percent of Abkhaz residents hold Russian passports, and the ruble is the local currency.) So while they are not necessarily pro-Russian, the Abkhaz public is seen as being far more nationalistic and anti-Georgian than their counterparts in South Ossetia.

For Georgians, too, the 1992-93 war remains an intensely emotional subject. Muscular slogans like "we will return" are heard frequently; the "lost war" is a favored theme for the country's pop stars and poets. It's this environment, says Archil Gegeshidze of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies, that has clouded Georgia's judgment on Abkhazia and weakened the credibility of its peace efforts.

"Militaristic rhetoric and [peace] initiatives end up coinciding, and this has made the peace efforts of the Georgian side seem not very convincing," Gegeshidze says. "This was confusing not only to those on the other side of the conflict, or to Russia. It was also confusing to our partners and well-wishers in the West."

'Candy And Whip'

A notorious example of this schizophrenic approach came in 2006. Just months after Tbilisi offered a peace proposal to Abkhazia, then-Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili, a hawkish and bellicose member of Saakashvili's coterie, stoked tensions with a series of aggressive declarations, crowned with a vow to "ring in the new year in Tskhinvali." The remark played well among some Georgians, but in Abkhazia and South Ossetia it was tantamount to a war declaration.

Okruashvili has since experienced a spectacular fall from political grace; he currently faces possible extradition from France to stand trial for corruption. Even in his absence, however, the government rhetoric on the breakaway regions at times remains combative.

When two Georgian journalists were detained in Abkhazia in February, Saakashvili threatened to send in police forces to intervene. Although the journalists were released without incident, Saakashvili's remarks did little to advance the peace process.

Another signal comes from Georgia's defense spending, which has risen exponentially in the past several years. Tbilisi has defended the buildup by pointing to its NATO aspirations and an overall rise in military spending in its South Caucasus neighbors, Armenia and Azerbaijan. But to the breakaway regions and Moscow, the trend can interpreted as a threat that Tbilisi may be preparing to reclaim Abkhazia and South Ossetia by force.

Temur Iakobashvili, the new state minister for reintegration, is on the front lines of Georgia's struggle to reclaim its breakaway regions. He defends Tbilisi's approach to Abkhazia and South Ossetia, saying that while a peaceful resolution to the conflicts is the only option, Georgia must use both carrots in sticks in its approach.

"I think the government has acted in a fairly coordinated manner. The fact that the military component is growing in the country does not mean that we are declaring war," says Iakobashvili, who has held the post since January. "There is no point to negotiations if you're holding only candy, and no whip. This is an important element in being taken seriously. It doesn't necessarily mean I'm going to use the whip. The main thing is that this whip be controlled by public and political forces, so that its use doesn't come down to the whim of a single person."

Common Ground?

Since coming to power in 2004, Saakashvili has made restoration of his country's territorial integrity a keystone of his presidential agenda. Many observers, however, suggest such an approach is misguided. Irakli Tabliashvili, the chairman of Abxaz-Info, a nongovernmental association that supports media and information projects promoting a peaceful resolution of the conflict, says Georgian negotiators would do well to focus their efforts not on reintegration, but on a more gradual course of reconciliation with the Abkhaz.

"We need to distinguish between conflict resolution and restoration of territorial integrity," says Tabliashvili, who earlier led the information department of Abkhazia's government-in-exile, a holdover from Abkhazia's Soviet-era status as an autonomous republic and the only Abkhaz government structure recognized by Tbilisi. "The latter can still be achieved by Georgia's armed forces, and maybe the refugees can return as well. But if this happens in this way, the conflict between ethnic Georgians and ethnic Abkhaz will only deepen."

Abkhaz leader Bagapsh said this week that Abkhazia will never agree to "any broad autonomy status as part of Georgia," adding that authorities in Tbilisi could "spare themselves the trouble" of refining the March offer.

Indeed, observers like Archil Gegeshidze say Georgia's efforts toward resolving the Abkhazia deadlock will never bear fruit until the question of a final status is removed from the equation altogether.

"We should remove this issue from the agenda, postpone its discussion for later, and start talking about other issues that will promote a sense of mutual trust and mutual interests," Gegeshidze says. "We have to assure the Abkhaz that we are able to understand and address their real grievances better than anyone else in the world -- first and foremost Russia. Their proximity to Russia, in the long term, presupposes assimilation and acculturation."

RFE/RL Caucasus Report

RFE/RL Caucasus Report

SUBSCRIBE For weekly news and in-depth analysis on Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Russia's North Caucasus by e-mail, subscribe to "RFE/RL Caucasus Report."