SUKHUM / AQW'A ― In an online event, Sergey Shamba, Secretary of the Security Council of the Republic of Abkhazia, and Vakhtang Kolbaia, deputy of the Supreme Council of the so-called Abkhaz Autonomous Republic in exile, engaged in a direct, unprecedented 20-minute online dialogue. This rare engagement sparked widespread reactions in both Tbilisi and Sukhum, with both Georgian and Abkhazian sides actively commenting on the development.
The conversation critically addressed the origins of the longstanding armed conflict and potential pathways to its resolution. Sergey Shamba emphasised the indispensable role of dialogue, stating:
"I have spoken on this topic many times, and many in the Abkhaz society do not like my position, but I have always believed that if there is a problem, it must first be talked about. There are no peoples, whether neighbours, close, or even relatives, who have not fought each other at some point. All of Europe is an example of this. I have always supported people's diplomacy, and when I was the Minister of Foreign Affairs, our representatives often met with Georgian opponents. This was an opportunity to understand each other's positions. There is a conflict between our peoples, caused by many historical circumstances, especially the war, and to overcome this conflict, we need to talk and seek ways of mutual understanding and further coexistence.”
Vakhtang Kolbaia expressed his astonishment at the readiness of an official from Sukhum for dialogue, considering the potential backlash within parts of the Abkhaz society.
“We haven’t seen each other for 30 years, and frankly, I was surprised, knowing that he would attract the anger of many representatives of the Abkhaz society, although he has repeatedly publicly expressed similar thoughts. I don’t want to delve into conspiracy theories, that he was tasked with conducting a dialogue with me, I don’t think he coordinated it with anyone, but it was felt that he knew and was ready for the conversation in advance,” he said.
Mamuka Mdinaradze, leader of the Georgian Dream faction, highlighted the significance of dialogue, reconciliation, and mutual forgiveness as the sole path to peace and development in the region.
“If there can be any message, it’s that our only way is dialogue, reconciliation, mutual forgiveness with our Abkhaz, Ossetian brothers and sisters. The path our country is taking is the path of development and peace. This is a signal for them too, so we should talk to them directly, we should reconcile with them,” Mdinaradze stressed.
However, the timing and nature of the dialogue prompted scepticism among some observers. Independent deputy Teona Akubardia raised concerns about the sudden openness of the Georgian Dream to dialogue, pondering whether it signified a strategic shift or was a manoeuvre for gauging public opinion.
“I am not against dialogue, I remember when Bzhania came to power, he offered a direct dialogue, but the Georgian Dream maintained silence in response, and suddenly we see that an online dialogue is taking place. Accordingly, I have questions. I don’t know if the previous concept of de-occupation has remained, the strategy has not been updated. Does this mean that the Georgian Dream is changing its approach? The publication of the dialogue took place at a very strange time, when there were rumours about the opening of bridges and through transit through Ingur. A dialogue around economic issues is a harmless thing, but when we see that politics is being formed somewhere behind the scenes of the parliament, government members are not in the loop, this is a problem,” she stated.
“The preservation of our state as independent, democratic, and sovereign is non-negotiable. In all other matters that we discuss internally, we must find a path to compromise.”
― Sergey Shamba
+ Several Observations Related to the Perception of the Georgian-Abkhazian Conflict, by Liana Kvarchelia
Insights from Abkhazia: Countering Views
Temur Gulia, chairman of the veteran public organisation “Aruaa,” firmly opposed any negotiations with the representatives of the so-called government of Abkhazia in exile. He highlighted the Georgian law on occupied territories as an impediment and called for accountability for historical grievances.
“I am absolutely convinced that the Republic of Abkhazia cannot communicate with the representatives of the so-called government of Abkhazia in exile in any format. The law in Georgia on 'occupied territories' is a bright example of this. I do not see conditions for dialogue with a country that has carried out the genocide of the Abkhaz people twice only in the twentieth century. Georgia must answer for all crimes, including paying reparations," Gulia articulated.
On 4 May 2006, Abkhazian President Sergey Bagapsh presented a conflict resolution plan to Parliament, approved on 7 May and named 'The Key to the Future'. It aimed for a settlement within regional economic cooperation among Black Sea states. Foreign Minister Sergey Shamba discussed it in Tbilisi at the Coordinating Council's first meeting since 2001. The plan received cautious welcome from Georgian officials. However, Georgian President Saakashvili, instead of acknowledging the visit from Abkhazia, visited a military base near Abkhazia. The message from Saakashvili was again unambiguous.
Aslan Bartsits, leader of the Forum of National Unity of Abkhazia, also shared his perspective on the dialogue. He believes that neither side, Abkhazia nor Georgia, is prepared to support the idea of joint contacts.
“After watching this material, I felt sad. In my opinion, Shamba is stuck in the early 1990s, because the situation that was developing on the eve of the war, and those attempts to avoid military conflict while maintaining the interests of one’s country and people, were very relevant. Today, the situation has changed not only in Abkhazia but in the world as a whole. Therefore, the question arises: ‘What is all this for? Why are these conversations and negotiations necessary?’ I believe that in Abkhazia there are no significant forces interested in establishing relations with Georgia, except for those attempts that Aslan Bzhania made at the beginning of his activities. Just as there are no significant forces in Georgia that understand what happened and would give a proper assessment of all this. And they would come to the conclusion that talking to Abkhazia from a position of ‘senior-junior’ after a bloody war makes no sense, because the national memory and the pain that exist in society today are immense,” Bartsits said.
He further commented on the challenges of establishing meaningful contacts, considering the divergent perspectives in both societies.
“All these joint programs, trips, attempts to solve the issue of preserving the Abkhaz language through Georgia, it all looks like a game in one goal. Today, behind Georgia are forces that do not see a free Apsny and do not believe that we have the right to our statehood, so the proposals coming from Georgia cause concern in Abkhaz society. The Abkhaz state is developing in its own way today, time has passed, whole generations have grown up. The same is true in Georgia, whole generations have grown up, they have their own history books, their general perception of us is distorted. They still believe there, in Georgia, that Abkhazia is Georgia, that we are an occupied country, etc. Seeking contacts on such premises, I think, will be of no use,” he observed.
Bartsits emphasised the prerequisites for successful diplomacy between Georgia and Abkhazia.
“For contacts with Georgia to be successful, Georgia must stop considering Abkhazia as an occupied territory, admit guilt for its aggression and stop terrorising Abkhazia,” he explained. “If we are talking today about the Georgian state, its ideology, its people being against the Abkhaz statehood and its people, why put the cart before the horse? There is a certain scheme, under which the work of people's diplomacy, official diplomacy will be successful between Georgia and Abkhazia only if Georgia takes a number of steps: remove the concept of 'occupied territories' from its legislation, admit its guilt and, ultimately, stop terrorising us at all levels, starting from children's trips and cultural exchange, reconsider its legislation and recognize the Republic of Abkhazia as an equal partner in negotiations. And further, when these stages are passed, one can talk about the economy, cultural exchange, and trade. Without going through this path, everything else will not make sense, because it will be a game in one goal.”
This diverse and complex tapestry of views underscores the intricate and sensitive nature of the Abkhazian-Georgian relationship. The dialogue, while a significant step, reveals the deep-seated historical, political, and societal challenges that must be addressed for a sustainable and peaceful resolution.