Audi alteram partem

Two year anniversary of August War 2008, by Irakli Khintba

Abkhazia's situation is more complex than some Western policymakers seem to realise

Irakli Khintba

IISS - The International Institute for Strategic Studies | Caucasus Security Insight

The recognition of Abkhazia as an independent state has not resolved the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict, even if some are under the illusion that it has. Segments of Abkhazian society are confident that, under a Russian military umbrella, all problems with Georgia have disappeared. They see no link between the prospects for Abkhazia's further international recognition and its normalisation of relations with Georgia.

At the same time, the official Georgian line denies the existence of a Georgian–Abkhazian ethno-political conflict. Instead, the source of the conflict is considered to be an external element – the conflict between Russia and Georgia – in which Abkhazia is viewed as Russia's puppet.

In both instances, there is no real vision for a proper settlement (or transformation) of the conflict, or for defining the future basis for a regional security order.

Meanwhile, Western actions tend to ignore the status quo after the August 2008 war, which has dramatically changed the situation in the region. The US has decided to choose a policy of 'strategic patience,' which in essence means preserving the status quo and avoiding any radical moves in its South Caucasus policy.  

This policy is based on the following strategic calculus: Wait until Georgia becomes economically prosperous, with high living standards, and the Abkhazians finally realise the threat to their ethnic and political identity coming from Moscow. Under these circumstances, the West assumes, the Abkhazians themselves will gravitate towards Georgia, attracted by the benefits of Western civilisation it could offer them.  

The problem with such an assumption is obvious. It is based on a conceptual misunderstanding of the nature of the Georgian–Abkhazian conflict (as a conflict with an ethnic dimension). It is also ignorant of public discourse in Abkhazia regarding relations with Russia. Strife for independence is unarguable, but if anything, Abkhazia would sooner become a part of Russia than accommodate itself to returning to Georgia.   

The European Union continues to apply the same ineffective approaches towards the Georgian–Abkhazian conflict that it used prior to 2008. The EU does not appreciate the fact that it can neither strengthen its role in the region nor solve the conflict there by constantly declaring its commitment to Georgia's territorial integrity.  

Admittedly, over the past year the EU's Special Representative for the South Caucasus has indicated a possible reversal of this strategy as far as Abkhazia is concerned, under an engagement without recognition strategy. However, the implementation of the strategy has stalled because of insufficient political will and the inflexibility of the EU decision-making process.  

Today, there are two ways of ensuring both the transformation of the Georgian–Abkhazian conflict and a significant role for both the EU and US in strengthening regional security. They are:

  • The signing of a non-use of force agreement between Georgia and Abkhazia. Such an agreement could help lay the foundation for a legal framework to re-establish an international presence in Abkhazia. This is particularly important considering the June 2009 termination of the mandate of the UN mission there. Unfortunately, Georgia refuses to sign such a document with Abkhazia, insisting instead on signing a Russian–Georgian document.
  • Taking all acceptable steps to lift Abkhazia's isolation. To pre-empt the implementation of a European policy of engagement without recognition, the Georgian government has adopted a strategy of engagement through cooperation. However, the wording in the Georgian policy document replaces the concept of 'lifting the isolation' with one of 'de-occupation' and seeks to encourage Abkhazians to engage with Georgia without the involvement of the Abkhaz authorities. The Abkhazians have said they find such an approach unacceptable, so any US or EU support for this Georgian strategy would lead to the further isolation of Abkhazia and increase its dependence from Russia. Does this benefit Western interests? Hardly. Therefore, in developing its future strategy towards Abkhazia, the West should abandon strict legalistic frameworks – i.e. adopt a neutral position towards Abkhazia's political status – and try to cooperate with Abkhazia directly, rather than though Tbilisi.

At the same time, the West should understand that it is impossible to find any solution that does not attempt to correlate its interests with those of Russia. Russia's role in the region is immutable both historically and geopolitically. 

In fact, the five-day war between Georgia and Russia in August 2008 can be seen as the re-emergence of realism in early twenty-first century global politics. By recognising the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Russia has not only reinforced its military presence in the region, but also confirmed the importance of its privileged interests in the South Caucasus. This was further highlighted by Russian domestic opinion, which focused on the theme of 'the revival of Russia' and the success the country achieved in securing its foreign-policy goals.  

Russia's actions were rhetorically condemned by the West. However, most of the threats the West issued, including possible sanctions against Moscow, appeared to be superficial. Given the reset in US–Russian relations, as well as Russia–EU economic cooperation, Georgia's importance on the world stage was diminished.  Furthermore, Georgia was no longer considered to be a top policy priority for the Obama administration.  

The image of Georgia as a beacon of democracy also faded from view. Instead, President Mikheil Saakashvilli had to deal with the damage to Georgia's international reputation for its attack on South Ossetia. The prospects of NATO and EU membership for Georgia seem less likely, given this. Today, moreover, there is no willingness in the West to sever relations with Russia over Georgia.  

Equally, new realities meant that Russia did not receive full support for its decision to recognise Abkhazia and South Ossetia from its partners in both the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States) and the CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organisation). The most striking example of Russia's soft power deficit was the fact that even Belarus, usually considered to be its closest ally, refused to back Moscow.   

Georgia has quite successfully sold the image of a 'Russian occupation' of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, claiming that their governments are completely dependent on Russia and illegitimate. This has further weakened the case for international recognition. 

Georgian society, in many respects, has succeeded in replacing its old Soviet identity with a Western/European one, and contrasting Georgia's new identity with that of Russia's. Today, Georgia positions itself as the only post-Soviet state (except, perhaps, for the Baltic countries) that is in no way dependent upon Russia.  

Georgian state ideology is fuelled by anti-Russian sentiment. Georgia portrays Russia as the main enemy of its statehood, and this will soon drown out arguments for the normalisation of relations. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine the rise of a Georgian political elite defining itself as sympathetic to Moscow. Support for pro-Russian opposition forces in Georgia is low, and even these forces are not prepared to make any concessions on the question of Abkhazia and South Ossetia's possible independence.  

The unresolved issue of Abkhazia and South Ossetia will continue to spoil Georgian–Russian relations for the foreseeable future. Moscow clearly cannot meet Georgian demands for Russia to revoke its recognition of the two.  At the same time, Georgia will not voluntarily let go of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, even if this meant the transformation of relations between Moscow and Tbilisi.  

In these circumstances, we can assume that the current inertia in Georgian–Russian relations will continue, especially given that both countries' current governments are likely to stay in power in the medium term. (In Russia, this would mean the continuation of the Putin–Medvedev team. At the next elections in Georgia Mikheil Saakashvili will no longer be able to run for president, but he is likely to retain power by becoming prime minister.)   

Two years since the August war, the regional security regime looks ambiguous. On the one hand, Russia has created a strong barrier against any Georgian aggression towards Abkhazia, by agreeing on a joint military base with Sukhum and concluding a security agreement on joint efforts to protect the state border. At the same time, a new multilateral security mechanism has not been established and institutionalised.  It seems, therefore, that the geopolitical fractures in the South Caucasus have not yet solidified.   

Irakli Khintba is a lecturer in political science at the Abkhazian State University, and a fellow at the Centre for Humanitarian Programmes (Sukhum).

Source: The International Institute for Strategic Studies

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