Results of the parliamentary elections in Georgia have become a central theme in the Eurasian media in recent weeks. The success of the opposition bloc Georgian Dream, led by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, and the first electoral defeat of President Mikheil Saakashvili’s party in ten years have prompted discussion about changes to the domestic and foreign policies of Georgia.
Within Ivanishvili’s own coalition there are politicians and public figures who have consistently rejected confrontation with the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, favoring more flexible approaches. Can we expect a fundamental change in the official policy of Tbilisi toward these regions?
In the history of post-Soviet Georgia there has been a sad tradition of ethno-political conflicts. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, every single Georgian leader has faced some form of ethno-political crisis. The short term of the first president Zviad Gamsakhurdia was marked by the Georgian-Ossetian conflict. Eduard Shevardnadze, his successor, tried to address the issues of legitimacy and unification facing his government and the nation through a conflict with Abkhazia. As a result, both problems were left unresolved and territorial integrity of Georgia was not achieved.
From 2003–2004, it appeared that a new government, under the leadership of Mikheil Saakashvili, potentially could resolve the conflicts. Saakashvili had not been associated with the military clashes in Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the early 1990s, and the first steps taken by his government brought hope for the peace process. He reformed pro-Georgian structures that had pretended to represent “Abkhazia in exile,” and his government stopped supporting the activities of paramilitary groups such as the Forest Brothers or the White Legion in the eastern part of Abkhazia. But the momentum achieved through this promising start was immediately dashed by irresponsible political rhetoric from the Georgian leadership.
The new president made the restoration of Georgia’s territorial integrity the central idea of his domestic and foreign policy. He tried to demonstrate his pledge to overcome the legacy of Eduard Shevardnadze, saying in May 2004: “We will return Abkhazia within my presidential term.” Subsequently the Georgian authorities began destroying the existing political, legal and military status quo in South Ossetia, violating the 1992 Dagomys Agreement that ostensibly had marked the end of the Georgian-Ossetian conflict. For the first time since that cease-fire, military clashes and bloodshed devastated the breakaway region. All hopes that a new generation of Georgian politicians could put forward peaceful approaches to the settlement of these protracted conflicts were shattered. Instead, these policies led to the unfreezing of the conflict, the five-day war of 2008 and the recognition of Abkhaz and South Ossetian independence by Moscow.
For the last four years, the official policy of Tbilisi toward Abkhazia and South Ossetia has been consistent and predictable. These de facto republics were declared, in accordance with Georgian legislation, “occupied territories.” Georgian diplomats began actively lobbying for recognition of this “occupied” status as an alternative to their recognition as former autonomous entities of the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic.
Everything But Recognition
In 2012, Saakashvili suffered his biggest defeat after the “Rose Revolution.” It is not an accident that after the revolution the Georgian Dream proposed a new concept for relations with the breakaway regions called “everything but recognition.” According to Paata Zakareishvili, a contender for the post of minister for reintegration, the objective of this policy is to pursue “non-aggressive behavior” and avoid the use of the residents of the Gali district of the Abkhazia and Akhalgori district of South Ossetia, which are populated by ethnic Georgians, as a counterweight to Abkhaz and South Ossetian interests.
This new policy is in its first draft. Even so, its main features already can be identified. First, representatives of the Georgian Dream coalition will, for the first time after the “hot August” of 2008, pursue direct negotiations with those who previously were treated as “aggressive separatists” and “puppets of the Kremlin.” Second, the policy would move forward discussions of both security issues and non-use of force agreements (in the format of the Geneva talks). Third, the new governing coalition would welcome the revival of economic and trade ties with both Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Fourth, it promises to investigate a number of incidents related to the detention of people in the border areas. Fifth, the Georgian Dream would reconsider the legislation concerning the “occupied territories,” not seeking its complete elimination but rather pursuing revisions to it, especially on the issue of legal prosecution for traveling to Abkhazia and South Ossetia without Georgian approval. But the new government, just like the previous one, will not discuss recognition of the two breakaway regions.
These ideas look very different from the policies of Saakashvili’s team. Many figures within the Georgian Dream coalition opposed the previous policies of the Saakashvili government, making risky public statements that were critical of the official policy. Despite all this, they have not been able to overcome a few myths that have accompanied the process of conflict resolution for many years.
First among these misconceptions is the belief that direct talks with de facto leaders, absent the intervention or involvement of Moscow, will inevitably lead to success. As a result, the role of Moscow has been profoundly exaggerated and overly dramatized. This approach seems a deliberate oversimplification. Russian policy toward Abkhazia and South Ossetia has varied for nearly two decades. There were some periods when Russia forced the breakaway regions to negotiate with Tbilisi on Georgian territorial integrity. This policy did not bring the breakaway regions closer to Georgia. In a military clash of 1992–1993 between Georgia and Abkhazia, about three thousand Abkhaz perished. Considering the prewar Abkhazian population of ninety-three thousand, this was a demographic catastrophe. Hence there remains a powerful motivation, without Russian influence or pressure, for self-determination regardless of international support.
Another myth concerns the sustainability of South Ossetia, which is regularly contrasted with the Abkhazia in terms of their respective resources for national independence. South Ossetia is weaker and more dependent on Russia. The prospects for its statehood are genuinely uncertain. But this should not obscure the fact that after three military conflicts over the last twenty years, South Ossetians, who were originally much more integrated into Georgian society, are not ready to discuss a future existence within Georgia.
These new initiatives put forward by Ivanishvili’s team, even with all the nuances and caveats, do open the way to more balanced, nuanced and pragmatic discussion on the Abkhaz and South Ossetian conflicts. Yet it remains unclear whether this new policy will gain traction or prove to be durable. To ensure that it will not remain an empty declaration, all high expectations and hopes for a quick resolution of these long-standing problems should be discarded. Much more focus should be placed on small steps forward that will help achieve peaceful coexistence. As the experience of the Balkans, the Middle East and Cyprus have demonstrated, the status disputes may not be solved for years. But this should not lead to the complete freezing of relations between the neighboring entities.
Today in Abkhazia, Georgian sovereignty is considered history. But future relations are not only about the Georgian state and the Georgians in Abkhazia as an ethnic community. There is also a renewed focus on a Georgia that desires peaceful and predictable diplomatic relations, as well as open economic and cultural contacts. All parties must seek a relationship that is not characterized by the pursuit of revenge in one form or another.
Sergey Markedonov is a visiting fellow in the Russia and Eurasia Program of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Image: Yana Amelina