|The roots of the conflict, by Bruno Coppieters||| Print ||
|Articles - Conflict|
|Wednesday, 15 October 2008 10:00|
A question of sovereignty The Georgia-Abkhazia peace process | Conciliation Resources
Bruno Coppieters is Professor of Political Science and teaches courses on the history of political thought, normative political theory and conflict resolution. He obtained his PhD at the Freie Universität Berlin in 1991. His research focuses on the ethics of war and secession and on federal techniques of conflict resolution. He has published widely on the conflicts in the Caucasus. He was a research fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University in the academic year 2003-04. His most recent publications include: Contextualizing Secession. Normative Studies in Comparative Perspective (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), as a co-author, ‘Europeanization and Conflict Resolution: Case Studies from the European Periphery’, published in 2004 as a special issue of the electronic Journal on Ethnopolitics and Minority Issues in Europe on and, as co-editor, Statehood and Security: Georgia After the Rose Revolution, Cambridge/Mass., MIT Press, 2005.
Before the war of 1992–93 Abkhazia had a population of half a million. Squeezed between the Black Sea and the Caucasus mountains it had been known as the Soviet Riviera in the 1970s and 1980s, when millions of tourists came every year to enjoy its beaches and subtropical climate. Its agriculture supplied Soviet markets with tobacco, precious woods and citrus fruits. At the end of the 1980s, however, this peaceful area became a violent zone of conflict in the Soviet Union and Abkhazia became a symbol for the failure of Soviet policies to accommodate competing ethnic claims. What went wrong with Soviet policy and why did Abkhazia in particular become the scene of a bloody war that cost several thousand lives?
Soviet nationalities policy granted political status to the major nationalities which composed the Soviet state and ranked them in a hierarchical federal system. Their place in the hierarchy depended on a number of factors such as population size, geographical location and political leverage with the Communist Party elite. In the Soviet ethnofederal construction, the union republics had the highest status, followed by the autonomous republics with the autonomous regions in the third rank. The political status of all units could change over time according to circumstances and the political considerations of the Moscow party leadership. Each national group which had received the right to constitute one of these units was recognized as its ‘titular nation’. The Abkhaz were thus the titular nation of the Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic of Abkhazia and the Georgians the titular nation of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Georgia. In the Soviet view, this type of system could not be called ethnocratic, despite the political privileges given to the titular nations, because the Communist Party and its internationalist ideology claimed to preserve the rights of all minorities and all citizens, independent of their nationality. The centralist exercise of political power was seen as the most effective means of avoiding discrimination in a federal state. With the disintegration of the Communist Party at the end of the 1980s, this institutional guarantee for minorities disappeared.
With the democratization of the Soviet system and the collapse of centralized power, the legitimacy of the federal order and hierarchical relations between union republics, autonomous republics and autonomous regions became one of the main subjects of dispute. Some national movements in autonomous republics and regions refused to be considered part of a union republic. In most of the Russian Federation, these conflicts were settled by mutual agreement, but in the North and South Caucasus the crisis of legitimacy led to political tension and in some cases to violent clashes between the capitals of the union republics and their subordinate units. In Georgia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the legitimacy of the Soviet federal hierarchy was challenged by all sides. The political leadership of the autonomous region of South Ossetia strove to upgrade the status of the region through reunification with the North Ossetian Autonomous Republic (which lay within the Russian Federation). In a counter move Tbilisi abolished South Ossetia’s autonomous status in 1990. Georgian nationalists considered such autonomy as a Soviet instrument to divide and rule its dependencies in the South Caucasus. Furthermore the Georgians did not regard the Ossetians as indigenous.
In the Georgian view, the Abkhaz were different. They had the right to preserve their political status as an indigenous people, provided that the rights of the Georgian population in Abkhazia were significantly extended. Georgians made up some forty-five per cent of the population and were challenging the political privileges of the Abkhaz titular nation, which comprised only eighteen per cent. The political leadership in Tbilisi did not see any reason why the Soviet hierarchical system should not be preserved and even enforced after the achievement of independence. The politically privileged position of the Abkhaz minority was unacceptable to them. The leaders of the Abkhaz national movement refused to acknowledge the authority of the Georgian political leadership in Tbilisi and before the dissolution of the USSR had already striven to upgrade Abkhazia’s status from autonomous republic to union republic. After its dissolution they demanded equal status with Georgia in a loose federative framework. This form of withdrawal from the authority of the Georgian state would, in the view of the Georgians and of Abkhaz radicals, have paved the way for full secession and the establishment of an independent Abkhaz state.The conflict over political status reached its climax with the war of 1992–93 when Georgian troops, consisting mainly of paramilitaries, intervened in the political conflict between the two main nationalities of Abkhazia. They were driven out by Abkhaz troops supported by nationalist movements from the North Caucasus and by the Russian military. As a consequence of this victory the Abkhaz authorities attempted to consolidate their position by changing the demographic situation. The majority of the Georgian inhabitants of Abkhazia fled to Georgia and these internally displaced persons (IDPs) were not allowed to return. To date no solution has been found to the political and humanitarian dilemmas at the heart of the conflict. Russian troops were deployed on the ceasefire line between the parties in 1993, formally becoming the CISPKF in 1994. The United Nations has sent military observers to the conflict zone and is mediating between the two sides, with Russia acting as facilitator, but negotiations on political status have not led to significant results. Since 1997 the negotiation process has concentrated on economic and humanitarian cooperation, also without substantial progress. Indeed, in May 1998 violence erupted in the Gali region of southern Abkhazia again, causing a major setback in relations. Over the previous three years the spontaneous return of IDPs to the Gali region had, in the Abkhaz view, provided cover for Georgian guerrillas. Clashes between them and Abkhaz militia led to a resumption of hostilities, resulting in a new wave of IDPs fleeing the region. In order to avoid the accusation of ethnic cleansing, the Abkhaz authorities began to organize the return of Georgian IDPs to the Gali region from March 1999 but refused any direct Georgian involvement in securing their safety. The Georgian government considers bilateral agreements giving security guarantees for the returning IDPs to be vital. The Abkhaz government, however, sees the lifting of the CIS- imposed blockade as a necessary first step in a process of normalization.
There is no commonly accepted analysis for the Georgian–Abkhaz conflict among either those who are politically involved or among outside observers. Different explanations are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but each explanation has specific political implications which determine the type of resolution that is most appropriate.
The conflict may be seen primarily as a consequence of conflicting views and of existing fears with regard to the preservation of language, culture and national identity. The Georgians feared the Russification of Abkhazia by cultural means and the loss of the ‘historical’ Georgian character of this region. They criticized the close links between the Abkhaz leadership and Moscow. The Abkhaz feared that the Georgianization of Abkhazia, which in their view was far advanced under the Soviet regime, would be completed through the integration of Abkhazia into a Georgian framework. They were concerned that a rise in the number of Georgians through further ‘colonization’ would lead to the exclusion of the Abkhaz from political power in their own homeland and limit their rights. In the view of both parties, political sovereignty – which meant in practice full control of the state apparatus of Abkhazia – was the sole instrument to counter that fear of extinction. Concepts such as shared sovereignty had no practical meaning for politicians whose experience was restricted to Soviet practice. The Leninist regime had never recognized any form of division of powers as legitimate. A federal division of political power into various levels of authority with separate jurisdictions was unknown in the Soviet Union.
Those citing fear of cultural extinction as the cause of the conflict emphasize the ethnic and cultural understanding of nationhood by political elites. The Georgian and Abkhaz concept of the nation is based on language, religion and common descent and emerged as a consequence of the modernization of the region at the end of the nineteenth century. The debates between historians and linguists from both communities on national descent were linked to territorial claims on Abkhazia. Some Georgian historians claimed that the Abkhaz had settled in the area only a few centuries ago. From the Abkhaz perspective, Georgians had settled in Abkhazia as a result of Tsarist and Soviet colonization policies. According to this type of explanation, the national projects which both communities developed included claims of an exclusive right to sovereignty over Abkhaz territory. The root of the conflict is seen in the ethnic nature of Georgian and Abkhaz nationalism, which was bound to have explosive results as the communist regime weakened. Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika did indeed lead to a radical redistribution of power between the national elites. The leaderships of Georgia and Abkhazia proved incapable of reaching agreement in renegotiating their political relations after the disappearance of an overarching Soviet framework, which left the use of force an increasingly likely possibility.
Any perspective of a political settlement to the conflict based on federal principles has to take into account the geopolitical context. No federal system may be considered stable if outside powers constantly intervene. Some authors therefore plead for a policy of neutrality for Georgia and Abkhazia. Only by refusing to be part of a ‘great game’ between external powers would both communities be able to reach a stable federal arrangement in which they would not constantly seek external support.