Russia’s efforts to destabilize, annex and invade Ukraine over the last several months have, appropriately, been seen as the major development in the Eurasian region and have consumed a great deal of attention from policy makers, the media and, to a lesser extent, the public in the west. In that context, it is easy to understand how the ousting of the de facto president of Abkhazia followed a few months later by an election in which a hard-liner was elected to that office has gone relatively unnoticed in Washington, Brussels and other western capitals.
For Georgia, however, recent events in Abkhazia cannot be overlooked. They are, at the very least a reminder of the persistent, vexing and seemingly unresolvable issue of the breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. This issue has been central to the Georgian project of nation and state building almost since the country regained its independence more than two decades ago. Despite changes in governments in Tbilisi, armed conflict with Russia, statements of supports and the occasional plan from the west, Abkhazia and South Ossetia remain firmly out of Tbilisi’s sovereignty, defined by psuedo-independence and Russian annexation.
It is now six years since Russia and Georgia fought a brief war that resulted in Russia declaring independence for the two territories, and in an increased Russian presence in the Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Today, that war is mostly remembered, and often mis-remembered by kibitzers seeking easy precedents and comparisons, as the exact blueprint Russia used in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. This comparison only goes so far as significantly, by 2008 Abkhazia was much less integrated into Georgia then Crimea was into Ukraine in 2014. Nonetheless, during the six years since the war, Russia has gradually, but clearly, strengthened its grip over both Abkhazia and South Ossetia while two Georgian governments, as well as Georgia’s western friends, have proven unable to limit or reverse Russian influence in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. This has led to Georgia’s hope for reasserting control over the territories becoming increasingly distant.
This was true before Russia annexed Crimea beginning a period of overt aggression from Moscow towards Ukraine. Those events have dramatically increased tensions between Russia and the west and made it considerably less likely that there will be any meaningful discussions, proposals or innovative policies aimed at changing what has become the new status quo in Abkahzia and South Ossetia. It is very possible that Russia’s move into the Crimea shut a window with regards to Abkhazia that was, even by early 2014, barely open.
Georgia squandered several years following the war by talking tough and isolating Abkhazia and South Ossetia, rather than seeking or even allowing any meaningful engagement on political or civic levels between Tbilisi and the breakaway territories. Unfortunately, this was facilitated by Georgia’s western allies who, taking their cue from Tbilisi, had virtually no contact with anybody in the territories for most of the recent past and encouraged the Georgian policy of StratPat that amounted to doing very little and hoping for the best. The west was right in its unwillingness to recognize the Russian backed de facto authorities in Sukhumi and Tskinkhvali, but by extending the appropriate non-recognition policy into one of isolation, did not help Georgia or themselves.
The large number of IDPs in Georgia from both the conflicts in the 1990s and the more recent war in 2008 remain a reminder to all Georgians of the importance of Abkhazia and South Ossetia to the country’s aspirations and sense of what is right. These IDPs also represent a concrete policy challenge to the Georgian government as they need to be either integrated into the broader Georgian society or somehow able to return home.
The first few months of the Georgian Dream (GD) government represented the best recent hope for progress to be made with regards to resolving the Abkhazia and South Ossetia issues, but that opportunity appears to have come and gone without significant progress. This is partially attributable to the inability of the new Georgian government to propose sufficiently new or groundbreaking approaches, but it is also a result of authorities in Abkhazia and South Ossetia who, along with their Russian patrons, increasingly see the conflict between Tbilisi and these regions as resolved, and not in Tbilisi’s favor. While Abkhazia and South Ossetia remain central to the Georgia’s national narrative and aspirations, the reverse is less true with every passing month. Georgia while still very focused on the future of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, is no longer central to the visions those polities have for themselves.
Russia’s actions in Ukraine, and perhaps more significantly, the western response to these actions, now frame the future of Georgia’s relations with Abkhazia and South Ossetia. As soon as Russia annexed Crimea, western powers began wringing their hands trying to figure out how to send all kinds of messages. They sought to reassure nervous Baltic and eastern European countries, appear tough towards Moscow, while simultaneously supporting and bolstering Kyiv. Lost in this was the clear message that the west sent to Moscow and Tbilisi regarding Abkhazia and South Ossetia-that these territories had more or less disappeared from the western consciousness. If, after all, the west is willing to accept Russia’s annexation of Crimea, it is hard to imagine western opposition to Russia’s annexation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia will be anything but rhetorical in nature.
Western timidity with regards to Ukraine provides evidence that the west will put almost no effort, other than supporting a policy of non-recognition, into helping Tbilisi reach its objectives with regards to Abkhazia and South Ossetia. This, of course, puts the Georgian government in a difficult situation as without active western assistance, rather than only rhetoric, Georgia will not be able to regain sovereignty over Abkhazia and South Ossetia. It is made worse because, despite pursuing policies on the breakaway territories, Europe and NATO that are almost identical to those of their predecessors, the Georgian Dream is still attacked by detractors, both Georgian and foreign, as being pro-Russian, or at the very least, insufficiently anti-Russian.
Thus, the Georgian government finds itself in a paradox. Increased Russian aggression in the region makes it imperative to accelerate efforts to win back Abkhazia and South Ossetia before achieving that goal becomes impossible, but accelerating these efforts will push reluctant de facto officials in Sukhumi and Tsinkhvali even further away from Tbilisi. Similarly, Tbilisi would benefit from pursuing a new and more flexible policy regarding the territories, but domestic politics constraints make that possibility unfeasible as well.
The only thing that could revive Georgian efforts to win back Abkhazia and South Ossetia would be a change of public opinion regarding Georgia within the territories themselves, but judging by the recent presidential election in Abkhazia, where anti-Georgian hardliner Raul Khadjimba was elected, this is not likely to happen in the foreseeable future.
This is a challenging problem for the government, and one on which the Georgian people have very strong opinions and expectations. Because even throwing rhetorical red meat to the Georgian voters, as the previous government frequently did, only makes any chance of resolving the problem more remote, the government is in an extremely tough bind-one for which there is no clear way out.
Thus, the situation regarding Tbilisi and the breakaway territories is in danger of evolving from an unsolvable problem to one that is becoming de facto resolved, but against the interests of Georgia. The only way Georgia can change this is not by doing, and saying, the same thing it has done and said for years, but by crafting new, innovative and risk-accepting policies. These policies should, in broad strokes, move away from isolation and towards building non-governmental links between people in the breakaway territories and the rest of Georgia as well as in building those ties type ties between people in the territories and the west-again at a non-governmental level, and in the context of a continued strong non-recognition policy from the west. There is, of course, no guarantee that any new policy would be effective. It may be that the territories are simply lost for Georgia, that thoughtful and innovative policies prove too difficult to implement, or that Russia makes it impossible for people in Abkhazia and South Ossetia to participate in these programs and policies.
That is precisely why these types of policies would involve risk, but the alternative is for Tbilisi to continue to pursue the same failed policies, be proud of having international law and almost all the countries in the world on their side, and slowly watch Abkhazia and South Ossetia move more definitively to becoming de facto part of an aggressive Russia that is in no way open to returning territory to anybody, particularly Georgia.
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