George Hewitt: The accelerated recognition of Georgia helped to instigate the ethno-political conflicts

PRAGUE, November 16, Caucasus Times, continuing the "Caucasian Chalk Circle" - a series of interviews with experts on the Caucasus, political scientists from the U.S., Europe and Asia, presents to you a conversation with George Hewitt.

George Hewitt is British and Professor of Caucasian Languages at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, and a Fellow of the British Academy. Since the mid 1970's, he has been studying the history, languages and cultures of the peoples of the Caucasus. He speaks Georgian and published a self-tutor for Abkhaz earlier this year. His Learner's Grammar of the Georgian language has been published in two editions in Britain (1996 and 2005).

In 2005, in Munich, Hewitt published a book entitled "Abkhaz Folk Tales" with grammatical introduction, translation, notes and vocabulary. In 2004, he published the book "Introduction to the Study of Languages of the Caucasus." Professor Hewitt is the author of many chapters for individual books and journals. Among them are works on comparative linguistics (e.g. Georgian and Mingrelian; Georgian and Abkhaz). He is also the author of numerous publications on topical issues in ethno-political scholarly journals and in "The Guardian On-line", as well as of many reviews.

This interview with George Hewitt was conducted by Sergey Markedonov, Visiting Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (Washington, USA), Candidate of Historical Sciences.

1. Caucasus Times: In some of your articles and commentaries you considered hasty international recognition of Georgia as a strategic mistake of the West. One of them you entitled as “Georgia-mistake of 1992”. Why do you think that events of 1992 played a provocative role in the ethno-political conflicts’ escalation?

George Hewitt: At the start of 1992, the democratically elected but increasingly megalomaniac president of Georgia, the Mingrelian Zviad Gamsakhurdia, was violently overthrown after fighting in the very centre of the Georgian capital. The US president, George Bush (senior) had offered Georgia recognition on the very day that the USSR disintegrated in December 1991. But, because of worries about its democratic credentials, Bush held back from establishing diplomatic relations (as he did with a handful of other former union-republics), and it is the establishing diplomatic relations which is the really significant step (not mere recognition). At the end of 1991, a war had been in progress in S. Ossetia for about a year, and, after the overthrow of Gamsakhurdia, a bitter (and poorly reported) civil war broke out in his home-region of Mingrelia. Anyone who had been following (especially in the vituperative Georgian-language media) the growing tensions between Abkhazia and central Georgia since 1989 could have seen that these tensions might all too easily descend into Georgia’s third regional war. The junta that had ousted Gamsakhurdia transformed itself into a triumviral Military Council, and, realising that it was unlikely to attract world-approval, took the brilliant decision to invite back to his home from retirement in Moscow Eduard Shevardnadze. Shevardnadze had been Party Boss in Georgia from 1972 but only achieved world-prominence in 1985 when Gorbachev brought him to Moscow and appointed him the USSR’s Foreign Minister. He replaced the long-serving, ice-cold Andrej Gromyko, and his Caucasian ‘bonhommie’ quickly won him many friends amongst the West’s community of diplomats and politicians. Being in post when the Berlin Wall came down and in the lead-up to the collapse of the Soviet Union also earned him a feeling that the West ‘owed him a debt of gratitude’, as one of the UK’s leading diplomats of the time once put it to me. Without Shevardnadze, Georgia’s fate in (and from) March 1992 would surely have been entirely different. But, undoubtedly without any great knowledge of, or care for, the internal complexities of Georgia, Shevardnadze’s Western friends seem to have concluded that with such a figure back in his former fiefdom, the country had its best chance to move towards a democracy, and so, in order to do ‘their’ man a favour, the EU states recognised Georgia and, and along with the USA, also established diplomatic relations virtually as soon as Shevardnade’s plane from Moscow touched down in Tbilisi. Membership of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank soon followed, and finally Georgia was admitted to the United Nations (UN). In other words, Georgia achieved everything that it could possible have wanted from the international community without a single condition being placed on the authorities in Tbilisi. After a surge in the war in S. Ossetia, it is true that, with President Boris Yeltsin’s help, Shevardnadze brought the war in S. Ossetia to an end with the Daghomys Agreement on 24 June. BUT Shevardnadze had absolutely no mandate from the Georgian people, as elections were only held in October 1992, and the war in Mingrelia was still in progress. The West should have laid down conditions, telling the Military Council: ‘Stop the wars in S. Ossetia and Mingrelia; shew us that you can settle your differences with the Abkhazians (and, indeed, the republic’s other ethnic minorities) peacefully; and get yourselves democratic legitimacy by conducting elections in the autumn. ONLY if you can satisfy us on all these points, will Georgia be recognised by the EU and be able to establish diplomatic relations with both the EU states and the USA; only then will you win admittance to the IMF, World Bank and the UN.’ None of these sensible steps were taken, and thus any chance to exercise restraint on Georgians’ excess in their treatment of their problem-minorities was thrown away by the precipitate action of March. Georgia was more or less given ‘carte blanche’ to do as it wished within its internationally recognised frontiers and secure in the knowledge that the countries who had awarded recognition would thereafter defend Tbilisi’s right to act as it saw fit in dealing with its ‘internal’ affairs and come out in defence of Georgia’s territorial integrity in the face of secessionist movements. A mere two weeks after Georgia’s entry into the UN, Shevardnadze sent his rag-bag fighters into Abkhazia, which resulted in the deaths of 4% of the Abkhazian population of the autonomous republics and, some calculate, over 10,000 deaths on the Georgian side. Would Shevardnadze have dared to take this step, if the international community had laid down the conditions I listed above? I think not. That is why I say that the West’s unthinking folly must bear much of the responsibility for the bloodshed. And to those who argue that, if the West had not lent that early support to its blue-eyed boy, things would have been a good deal worse, I say: ‘Tell that to the Abkhazians!’

2. Caucasus Times: Your country UK played the decisive role in the Georgian independence recognition. What motivation was the dominant that time? And how has the British policy to Georgia (as well as the South Caucasus) transformed since 1991 till recent days?

G.H.: Some time in March 1992, I received some information to the effect that the UK was likely to be recognising Georgia but would NOT establish diplomatic relations – this was the first time that I personally realised that there was a difference between the two. Within a couple of weeks or so, it was announced that the UK was both recognising Georgia and establishing diplomatic relations! The USA did so at the same time (and so one can assume some sort of collusion) and, as the UK was about to assume the rolling 6-month presidency of the EU (then, I believe, still known as the European Economic Community), the other European states quickly followed suit and did the same. The only explanation I can think of is this: a general election was due to take place in Gt. Britain at the start of April, and, according to all the polls, the ruling Conservative government of Prime Minister John Major was due to lose. I believe that John Major and his Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, possibly on the advice of Shevardnadze’s friends in the higher échalons of the British diplomatic community, decided that THEY should be the ones to do their ‘friend’ the favour of recognising Georgia and granting diplomatic relations – otherwise, why the hurry? The irony is that, when the election-results became known, the Conservatives were returned to power. But, by then, the damage with reference to Georgia had been done. Though all three British governments since then (under Major, Tony Blair/Gordon Brown, and now David Campbell) have ritualistically mouthed the same opinion, namely that the Her Majesty’s Goverment supports the territorial integrity of Georgia, the UK has been ready to allow ordinary Abkhazians and Abkhazian representatives to acquire visas to visit the country and has even been ready to have meetings with such visitors at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. In this, UK policy has differed from the disgraceful policy recently pursued by the regime of President George W. Bush of not granting visas to allow government-members the opportunity to present Abkhazia’s case at the UN. And, equally, UK policy differs from that being put into practice by some of the continental European states whereby Abkhazians travelling on Russian (as opposed to Georgian) passports are refused visas. Germany has been particularly zealous in pursuing this shameful policy, even when the applicant has tried to travel to Germany for life-saving medical treatment.

3. Caucasus Times: In the 1970s you started your Caucasus studies investigating the Georgian language as well as culture and History. It’s not a top secret you were considered in Georgia as a “rising star” of the British academia. Then practically the same people who previously had admired you began criticizing your views as pro-Russian and pro-Abkhaz. Once you told me for our personal conversation the attentive learning of the Georgian sources (mass media publications as well as historical writings) had forced you to re-evaluate many stereotypes and myths. What practical (as well scholarly) lessons did you learn from your Georgian studies?

G.H.: My studies in Georgia enabled me to become an expert on the Georgian language, which was my main goal in going to Tbilisi, courtesy of the British Council, in 1975-6 and again in 1979-80. I eventually became the holder of the only academic post in the UK university-system for Caucasian languages, though how long this post will survive, given the parlous state of the UK economy at the moment is anyone’s guess! That, I suppose, is the scholarly outcome. Of course, my knowledge of Georgian, coupled with my interest in Georgia’s interethnic problems (particularly as they impinged on the Abkhazians – my wife is Abkhazian), enabled me to read with increasing alarm what leading members of the Georgian intelligentsia were writing about the republic’s minorities from late in 1988, as Moscow’s controls on publications began to be relaxed. Though I was still supportive of the Georgians’ desire to free themselves from Moscow’s control, I could see the dangers that such nationalist sentiments threatened to create. At that time, there were very few Westerners who knew Georgian, and, amongst those who did, I was probably the only one reading the relevant articles. And so, after achieving a national reputation across Georgia as a result of a live-TV appearance in early 1987 at the time of the 100th-birthday celebrations of the great philologist Ak’ak’i Shanidze, I decided to risk that reputation by trying to avert the looming disaster in Abkhazia in the summer of 1989. My ‘Open Letter to the Georgians’ was only published AFTER the first fatal clashes in Sukhum in July 1989, and the vitriol with which the Letter was received both by Georgians unknown and known to me revealed something unwholesome about the Georgian character and immediately forced me to change the perceptions that I had had at that time for 14 years. Since then I have made it my aim to present the Abkhazian case to the outside-world, and the abuse has continued. Of course, one can draw an important conclusion from this – when one party to an argument has to resort to insults and personal invective, it means that that party has no rational, valid argument to present. And this is the necessary conclusion to draw when it comes to the Georgians’ conflict with the Abkhazians.

4. Caucasus Times: In 2008 the British government supported Tbilisi and blamed Russia for aggression against Georgia. But what could you tell about the British expert community, mass media and public opinion? What discussions were held those times? And what positions were sounded? For example you are known as a persistent opponent of Tbilisi approaches. Did you have any problems in your position realization and defense?

G.H.: At one time, from the early to the late 1990s, I used to be invited to day-conferences at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office when the Caucasus was being discussed or to their Eastern Section’s annual reception, but I have not been there for many years. I am not consulted on Caucasian questions and certainly was not privy to what was debated back in August 2008. Had I been invited to any discussions, I could not have attended, as my family and I were in Abkhazia, where we shared the apprehensions of the Abkhazians at the start of August along with the elation of Russian recognition on 26 August. As for so-called ‘experts’ in the UK or the mass-media, are there any experts inside or outside the media? The broadcasting of shots of destruction in Tskhinval caused by Georgian shelling when viewers were being told that they were seeing pictures of destruction in Gori caused by Russian bombing does not say much for the competence of the broadcasters concerned (including the BBC) who allowed themselves to be taken in by Saak’ashvili’s publicity-machine, which worked overtime in the hands of the same PR form which works for Senator John McCain in America. Maybe things are slowly changing, particularly as more journalists take an interest, visit both Tbilisi and Abkhazia and thus come to realise for themselves that so little of what they are told on the Georgian side of the border bears any resemblance to what they find on the ground once inside Abkhazia, but there is sadly still no widespread or deep knowledge of the region among the ‘commentariat’ or the wider public. One notable exception is the writer Neal Ascherson, who, from the start of his interest in the region, has been immune to Georgian blandishments and has done much to publicise the Abkhazian cause. The UK government’s anti-Russian position probably stems partly from ignorance on the part of the politicians concerned of the situation in Abkhazia and S. Ossetia, partly from general anti-Russian sentiments going back to Cold War days, and partly from an obstinate refusal to question the wisdom of having recognised Georgia within its Soviet frontiers in March 1992 – politicians in general are always reluctant to admit mistakes. Ever since my first intervention in the Georgian-Abkhazian dispute back in 1989, the authorities in Tbilisi have been complaining about me, initially to the British Ambassador in Moscow in 1989 and periodically to the various Directors of the university where I work to demand my dismissal, but in the UK (and Western academia in general) we have the concept of academic freedom, something that Georgians evidently fail to understand, and so I am totally free to express the opinions about Georgian policies in Abkhazia which I have been expressing for the past 21 years and which I shall continue to express until a resolution is achieved, hopefully once the UK and other Western governments abandon the failed and futile policy of giving blanket-support to SOVIET Georgia’s territorial integrity – Soviet Georgia no longer exists, and that era’s territorial integrity will not be restored either. Russia has recognised this fact; Georgia should do the same and move on before any other parts of their state break away!

5. Caucasus Times: Abkhazia and South Ossetia became independent from Georgia. Now the Georgian question is so marginal in the agenda of both entities. But what challenges for them will you foresee in the mid-term and long-term prospective (both domestic and external)? Will it be role of Russia or may be problems of political sustainability?

G.H.: I think most observers agree that, despite historical parallelisms in terms of their treatment by Tbilisi, one has to distinguish between Abkhazia and S. Ossetia. Abkhazians wish to be a fully independent state, and their republic is much better placed to become an economically viable state, thanks to its size, position, climate and potential for tourism; because of its higher status (and an autonomous republic, as opposed to S. Ossetia’s former status as an autonomous region), there is a greater depth of experience and also more talent available on which the state can draw. S. Ossetia gives the impression of being more content to rely on Russia and Russian personnel (both military and political). There is more doubt about the true aspirations of the S. Ossetians – do they really want to be independent, or would they like to join (or be satisfied with joining) their northern cousins within a single Ossetian state (albeit split by the Caucasus mountains) within the Russian Federation? If they really do want full independence, they have to explain to the outside-world, which mostly remains sympathetic to Tbilisi and utterly opposed to what Russia has done in the region since 2008, how they can survive with such a small population in a land-locked state without any obvious means of building a successful economy. Abkhazia needs to make greater efforts at establishing a democratic civil society and to recognise its need for western expertise and investment. Many Abkhazians are (quite understandably) suspicious of the West, given the West’s support for Tbilisi (a policy which I have strongly criticised for over 2 decades), but the need is there nevertheless. At some stage, there has to be reconciliation with their Georgian neighbours, even though many Abkhazians do not want to hear this or think about it. Recognising the need for reconciliation does not mean that Abkhazia has to enter a unitary Georgian state, and, now that Russia is guaranteeing the security of the frontier with Georgia, Abkhazians should be more confident about their hard-gained independence and start to consider such questions as to how best to bring ALL the ethnic groups living in Abkhazia fully into the political process (including the Mingrelians of the Gal District). Georgians pursued the disastrous policy in the late 1980s of creating internal enemies by whipping up anti-minority sentiment, and the Georgian state subsequently fell apart after the S. Ossetian and Abkhazian wars; Abkhazia must not make the same mistake by making enemies of the Gal Mingrelians. In fact, as the Abkhazians do not regard Mingrelians as Georgians, and, as Mingrelians historically played the role of a buffer-community, keeping the Georgians apart from the Abkhazians, I would encourage the Abkhazians to do what they can to persuade the Mingrelians (whether in Abkhazia or over the border in Mingrelia itself) to recognise that their categorisation as ‘Georgians’ that happened circa 1930 is wrong and thus to see themselves as Mingrelians. If within Abkhazia Mingrelians are recognised as such and made to feel worthy citizens of Abkhazia as a result, then Mingrelia’s Mingrelians might take their cue and demand of Tbilisi that Georgia be federalised with proper rights for Mingrelia and its inhabitants. With Georgians (proper) removed from the border with Abkhazia, it might be easier for Abkhazians to accept reestablishment of good-neighbourly relations with Tbilisi. In fact, Tbilisi’s Western friends, if they are true friends, should be encouraging the Georgian government to federalise, as this is in the best interests of their country. They should also be doing all they can to persuade Tbilisi to take the (no doubt painful) step of recognising Abkhazia and S. Ossetia, which would then allow Western countries to follow suit. There can be no stable peace in this part of Transcaucasia, until recognition is achieved. After recognition, Western influence, expertise and investment will flow in. Whilst this would counterbalance Russian influence, which Moscow may not entirely like, Western recognition would indicate acceptance that Russia’s decision of 26 August 2008 was correct , something that Moscow would probably welcome, and MIGHT lead to Russo-occidental cooperation in the region, which would be beneficial for all concerned. Without such steps, the status quo will naturally continue.

6. Caucasus Times: Now in the West both observers and politicians criticize Russia for the lack of foresight? They think Moscow recognizing independence of the 2 former autonomous entities of Georgia would have new nationalism revival in the North Caucasus. What’s you opinion on this approach?

G.H.: This is a possibility, especially when Moscow’s policy towards the North Caucasus (particularly Chechenia) has hardly been what could be described as examplary. On the other hand, some reports at the end of 2008 indicated that the events of August 2008 had actually worked in the Kremlin’s favour, as Moscow was seen as acting in the interests of Caucasian peoples, though, of course, as Putin admitted on his visit to Abkhazia in 2009, Russia  had not been acting entirely altruistically at the time. If the Kremlin can somehow manage to work out a policy that allows North Caucasians to improve their lives while preserving their ethno-cultural identities within the Russian state, then the Kremlin need not suffer in the way you suggest, even if Tbilisi is likely to try to stir up problems north of the mountains – recall the cynical Jamestown-sponsored conference in Tbilisi earlier in 2010 on Tsarist Russia’s role in the Great Caucasian War, which resulted in the majority of the Circassians (and Abkhazians) ending up as exiles in the Ottoman Empire. The task for Moscow will be huge, however, if it is to succeed.

Source: Caucasus Times




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