Prof. George Hewitt

Abkhazia: two years of independence

Open Democracy 13 August 2010 

The small Black Sea republic of Abkhazia, already free of Georgia’s control since the war of 1992-93, emerged more secure from the Georgia-Russia war of August 2008. But if the “dreadful” years of its modern history have ended, the young state is now living through “difficult” times. George Hewitt, in Sukhum, reports and reflects.

The events of August 2008 changed the course of history in the Transcaucasus. Two weeks after a ceasefire in the “five-day war” of 8-12 August, President Dmitry Medvedev of Russia declared his country’s recognition of both South Ossetia and Abkhazia - de factofree of Georgia’s rule since the end of the wars of 1991-92 and 1992-93 respectively - as independent states. The approaching second anniversary of this announcement, made on 26 August 2008 at 3 pm (Moscow time), is an opportunity to assess Abkhazia’scondition and prospects.

The war had been launched late on 7 August with the hugely misguided decision by President Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia to order a missile-attack on Tskhinval (Tskhinvali), the South Ossetian capital. His calculation, mistaken on either count, was that South Ossetia was too insignificant a region for Russia to bother defending (despite deaths among its peacekeeping troops there) or that - if indeed Russia did respond militarily - United States and/or other western forces would rally to his aid. 

As a result of the war Tbilisi lost areas that had remained under its notional control since the conclusion of the wars of the early 1990s: the upper Kodor [Kodori] valley (or “upper Abkhazia”, as the Georgians restyled it) and those areas of South Ossetia primarily populated by ethnic Georgians. It then witnessed de factostatus turn de jure in the eyes of Russia (and the, to date, three other states - Nicaragua, Venezuela and tiny Nauru - that have followed Russia’s lead).

The Georgian authorities’ intentions towards Abkhazia and South Ossetia before the war of August 2008 were reflected in Mikheil Saakashvili’s renaming at the end of January that year of Georgia’s “ministry for reconciliation” as the “ministry for reintegration”. This infuriated the inhabitants of both and reinforced their determination to have nothing to do with the regime in Tbilisi. The very title of the incumbent minister Temur Iakobashvili’s “state strategy to reintegrate the occupied territories” (adopted by the government in March 2010) guaranteed that his plan would be of no interest whatsoever to the populations of these republics, who vigorously reject such a description of their constitutional status (see Neal Ascherson, see “After the war: recognising reality in Abkhazia and Georgia”, 15 August 2008). 

A painful birth

The explosion of joy on the streets of Abkhazia’s capital Sukhum (Sukhumi) on 26 August 2008 was a privilege to experience at first hand. For the new state’s citizens it was a time of optimism - perhaps over-optimism. At that very moment, Abkhazia’s ex-president Vladislav Ardzinba (who held the office 1994-2004, and died on 4 March 2010) made a wise observation: "The dreadful times are past; the difficult times now begin." The comment resonates, for it is fair to say that the local situation is probably not as rosy on the second anniversary of the five-day war as many hoped at the time it would be.

There have been impressive ceremonial displays of statehood, such as the visit of Dmitry Medvedev to Sukhum on 8 August 2010 for a meeting with Ardzinba’s successor as Abkhazia’s president, Sergei Bagapsh (a year after that of Russia's prime minister Vladimir Putin); and the joint visit of Bagapsh and his South Ossetian counterpart Eduard Kokoity to Nicaragua and Venezuela in July. The International Court of Justice’s opinion on Kosovo’s declaration of independence in 2008, delivered on 22 July 2010, has also raised hopes that the consequences for the young Transcaucasian states will be beneficial (see Engjellushe Morina, "Kosovo, law and politics", 27 July 2010).    

There is no longer any fear of Georgian military aggression, of the kind that arose in summer 2006 when Mikheil Saakashvili suddenly introduced troops into the Kodor valley. This internal security is in principle favourable to tourism, which remains the best prospect for the Abkhazian economy. But after what approached a bumper-season in 2009 following the war, 2010 seems not to be continuing the trend. There is much talk that the relative freedom of Russians to travel to areas with lower prices and better service is responsible. 

An renovation of railway links and of the airport at Babushera (near Dranda) would be of enormous benefit (Babushera is still the largest airport in the entire Caucasus - even after the new extension to the runway just across the Russian border at Adler, near Sochi, in anticipation of the winter Olympics of 2014). A reopened airport, even if planes can only fly to and from Russia - until such a time as other international routes can be established - would enable tourists to fly direct to the heart of Abkhazia. 

The work of upgrading the railway and the airport is - following contractual agreements - being undertaken by Russia, which also has taken a lease on them. Abkhazia itself simply does not have the wherewithal to carry out these essential renovations on its own. Yet the decision to grant such permission has been queried, and there is some dissatisfaction in Abkhazia too over the various inter-state agreements signed with the Kremlin, including a military accord (with South Ossetia too) allowing Russian troops to be stationed and - most controversially - to control the frontiers with Georgia. Many Abkhazians feel that they should be securing their own borders; they also ask why it is felt necessary to give these troops the right to buy (potentially extremely valuable) property in the republic. 

Abkhazia’s overall position would greatly benefit from western investment and influence (see Neal Ascherson, “Abkhazia and the Caucasus: the west’s choice”, 6 August 2010). This is true across the board, but especially in the war-ravaged (by the conflict of 1992-93) and still largely neglected regions of Ochamchira and Tqwarchal.

Several western observers of the Caucasus - such as the European Union’s special representative Peter Semneby, and the analyst Thomas de Waal (of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace) - advocate a European policy towards Abkhazia of “engagement without recognition”; the idea has more recently been presented by Lincoln Mitchell and Alexander Cooley to policy-makers in the United States. The implicit hope that this policy will ultimately achieve a rapprochement with Georgia might best be served by pressing for outright recognition. It remains the case that the policies pursued by the “international community” since 1992-93 have resulted in exactly the opposite - namely, ever more estrangement from Tbilisi and ever closer ties to Moscow - of what was envisaged and intended.

A troubling moment

Abkhazia and South Ossetia, within the limitations of their respective positions, have to make the most of what is on offer. Their unbending determination to avoid being reunited with Georgia is fuelled by the conviction that the country has lost whatever moral claim it might once have had to control these territories. But there is a question over whether everyone in the two states appreciates that there is both value and intrinsic self-interest in openness to a plurality of influences.

Across the entire former Soviet space, NGOs have tended to be viewed with suspicion (and even, on occasion, actual hostility); Abkhazia and South Ossetia are no exception. The groups that receive funding from abroad to support relevant projects have found themselves defamed for allegedly working against the interests of their own societies. A most regrettable illustration of this occurred in Abkhazia in the early summer of 2010.

The story concerns a documentary film (Absence of Will) made by a Georgian director, Mamuka Kuparadze, and financed by the London-based Conciliation Resources and Germany’s Heinrich Böll Foundation. The film tracked an investigation undertaken in 2008 by two 20-year-old Georgians into the causes of the 1992-93 war in Abkhazia, and presented their hopes for the future (the August war took place while it was being made). The documentary incurred the personal wrath of Temur Iakobashvili for its unfavourable portrayal of Georgian actions in those days of rampant nationalism. Many Georgian viewers share this negative assessment, but others see it as a welcome step forward, especially insofar as Georgians are (in an all-too-rare occurrence) seen questioning the actions of their own government.

The film has been screened internationally, including (on consecutive days in late 2009) at Portcullis House and the British-Georgian Society in London. In June 2010, the film was broadcast on the Abkhazian government’s official TV channel, followed by a live discussion; Abkhazia’s prime minister Sergei Shamba approved Mamuka Kuparadze’s entry to the country to attend the event. 

An extraordinary reaction ensued - bordering indeed on the hysterical. The views expressed included the suggestions that: the film was a cunning Georgian plan psychologically to undermine Abkhazian independence; those responsible for bringing the film and its director to Abkhazia (viz. Sergei Shamba and the local NGO-workers, who are in partnership with Conciliation Resources) should be sent to Georgia with a one-way ticket; all NGOs operating in Abkhazia should be summarily banned.

It is not clear how many of those who commented in this way actually watched the film. But the tenor of the response reflects a troublingly widespread (if not universal) mentality. What it fails to register is precisely what Abkhazia needs to progress: the crucial contribution of local NGOs in the building of civil societybased on true democratic principles; the vital role of those NGO-workers who travel abroad to attend conferences and meet decision-makers in spreading and deepening western awareness of Abkhazia, its problems and aspirations - for without their tireless dedication, Abkhazia and its people would be even less well-known than they are at present; and, in the most general terms, the advantage to Abkhazia of welcoming and gaining from western influence, expertise and investment.

A decade’s challenge

If plurality of external influence is one desideratum for the creation of a healthy society in Abkhazia, another is how to construct a viable democratic society ready to meet the challenges of the 21st century. This must be inclusive of all the ethnic groups residing in the country: most prominently Abkhazians, Armenians, Russians, and Mingrelians. This last community is mostly based in the Gal (Gali) district in eastern Abkhazia; since the war of 1992-93, they are regarded by many in Abkhazia with suspicion, and as a result their integration has not been viewed as a priority. 

Many thousands of Kartvelians (viz., Mingrelians, Georgians, and Svans) who had lived in Abkhazia fled from northwestern Abkhazia in autumn 1992 (after the fall of the northern town of Gagra) or from Sukhum and southeastern areas in September 1993 (at the close of the war), and have lived since as refugees in Georgia. If their chances of return in any significant numbers are slim, even the start of such a process is conceivable only after Tbilisi’s recognition of Abkhazia’s independence. In the meantime, Nicola Duckworth of Amnesty is but one of the NGO voices who are saying that Georgia should do (and have been doing) morethan merely meet the basic needs of those displaced by war.

Two years after the five-day war and the beginnings of recognition of independent statehood, the “difficult” phase predicted by Vladislav Ardzinba in August 2008 continues. After the “dreadful” and “difficult” periods of the last two decades, a combination of “democracy” and “development” may best describe the challenge for the next.

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