The Abkhazia and South Ossetia conflicts are not just about Russia

For the majority of Georgians, the conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia are only about Russia. The only way out of this stalemate is to start paying attention to the Abkhazian and South Ossetian experience.

On 27 September, Tbilisi and Sokhumi marked the 24th anniversary of an event with two contradictory interpretations. Tbilisi marked the anniversary of the ‘fall of Sokhumi’ and the end of the war in Abkhazia, while Sokhumi celebrated the anniversary of the ‘liberation of Sukhum’ and its independence from Georgia.

For years, both sides of the conflict have demonstrated entirely different perceptions of the dramatic events of early 1990s. And even though on an official level, Georgia has always pointed to Russia’s role in the conflict, there has been a consensus in Georgian society that the reasons behind the bloody confrontation lay in the miscalculations of both Georgians and Abkhazians, radicalism, and an unwillingness to find common ground.

Over the last decade we have witnessed a nationwide shift away from this narrative, to instead stress the role of Russia in the conflict. Increasing numbers of Georgia’s civil society, political elites, and media have began presenting the Georgian–Abkhazian and Georgian–South Ossetian conflicts as political tools created by Moscow. A new concept of ‘Georgian lands without a people’ has gained prominence, according to which the disputed territories are waiting for their real owners to return. In this fantasy, it’s only the Russian Federation preventing the dream from coming true for more than 230,000 internally displaced persons in the country.

Russia’s ‘hidden hand’

Over the past few years, it has become a widespread trend in Georgia to openly analyse the Georgian–Abkhazian and Georgian–South Ossetian conflicts mainly through the prism of Georgian–Russian relations, completely forgetting the importance of inter-ethnic relations.

This shift started around the mid-2000s during former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s rule. The government attempted to distance itself from Moscow and to integrate the country into Western institutions. Georgia’s drive to join NATO especially put Tbilisi and the Kremlin on a road to a direct political, economic, and military confrontation.

Significant internal pressure in combination with external challenges radicalised local political elites at the time. This process was accelerated by the increasing role of Russia’s ‘hidden hand’ in Georgia’s domestic political affairs. Russia was frequently used as a scapegoat. The legacy of this tendency is still alive today, continuing to affect the perception of the conflicts.

Mutual misunderstandings and serious historical grievances as triggering factors for armed conflict were placed on the fringes of the public discourse, while Moscow’s intervention has come to the debate’s forefront. Downplaying the importance of inter-ethnic relations has resulted in the assumption that these are Georgian lands without a people, which are occupied by the Kremlin. According to this thinking, the removal of Russia from the geopolitical chessboard will by default lead to conflict’s resolution.

The concept echoes a phrase associated with the early Zionist movement — ‘a land without a people for a people without a land’ — calling for the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. In both cases, in Palestine and in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the lands have never been uninhabited. Just as an Arab population has lived in Palestine for over 1,000 years, in Abkhazia and South Ossetia there are non-Russian populations whose interests should also be taken into account.

A reality check

Georgian political elites are so obsessed with Russia and its ‘phantom menace’ that they forget or are turning a blind eye to many important aspects of the Georgian–Abkhazian and Georgian–South Ossetian confrontations.

Probably the most prominent manifestation is the radical Georgian nationalism that flourished at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s. The first president of Georgia, Zviad Gamsakhurdia and his followers were calling to ‘expel’ from the country various ethnic groups that have been considered as ‘unnecessary elements’.

At the time, there was already serious dissatisfaction among ethnic Abkhaz and Ossetians with their status and rights in as part of the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic. In Georgian archives, one can find open letters to the central committee of the Soviet Union from Sokhumi and Tskhinvali, calling for their autonomy, the population’s safety, ethnic minority rights, and their cultural identity all to be protected.

The same archival materials prove that there were instances of Georgian oppression of Abkhaz people during the Stalin–Beria period. Even though we may argue that the crimes took place under Soviet dictatorship, the majority of Abkhaz possess a strong historical memory and point out that both Stalin and Lavrenti Beria (the head of the Soviet secret police) were ethnic Georgians.

This history, together with other factors — such as Russian interests in the region — triggered conflicts that affected people on both sides. The Abkhazians and South Ossetians who fought against Georgian ‘aggressors’ haven’t suddenly disappeared amidst the Georgian–Russian confrontation. They live in the disputed regions and we may easily assume that these people have different stories to tell than the Georgian leadership.

Russia is a political, economic, and military guarantor of Abkhazia and South Ossetia’s independence and statehood. But these Georgian lands are not ‘without a people’. There are also a variety of other ethnic groups living in the disputed regions, and their ancestors and relatives took part in the ‘freedom fight’ against Tbilisi.

With or without the Kremlin, these people may have ideas about their future which differs from the Georgian one. These are informed by their history, and have not been artificially constructed by Moscow.

Going forward, it would be more rational for Georgia to rethink its mainstream narratives and pay attention to the complexity of the Georgian–Abkhazian and Georgian–South Ossetian conflicts. We need a narrative that goes beyond the Georgia–Russia framework.

The article was originally published by OC-Media.

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Russian–Georgian diplomatic relations — to be or not to be?

Discussions over whether or not Georgia should restore diplomatic relations with Russia emerge time and time again. However, arguments on both sides of the divide are naïve, misleading, and ultimately pointless.

Plenty of topics have the potential to ignite Georgian society and provoke heated debates; but none like the Russian issue can divide it so clearly into ‘pro-Western’ and ‘pro-Russian’ sides, into ‘patriots’ and ‘traitors’. Last spring, a controversial deal with Gazprom once again raised questions over the current government’s policy toward its northern neighbour. Local political groups and activists clashed over the possibility of restoring Georgian-Russian diplomatic relations.

Georgia has not had official diplomatic relations with Russia since in August 2008, Russia initiated a military campaign to ‘coerce Georgia to peace’. They then recognised the separatist regions of Tskhinvali and Abkhazia as independent states. In response, Mikhail Saakashvili, president of Georgia from 2004 to 2013, unilaterally broke-off diplomatic relations with Moscow. After a decisive victory in parliamentary and presidential elections in 2012 and 2013, the newly elected coalition government of Georgian Dream promised to improve Georgian-Russian relations. The restoration of direct official inter-state communication is seen by Russia as a logical step toward reconciliation; meanwhile many in Georgia have serious doubts and fears about the consequences.

Russia wants to clean up its image

Some experts argue that Russia’s attempts to normalise relations with Georgia is a direct result of its military conflict in Ukraine. They argue that Moscow is trying to find common ground with Tbilisi to avoid alarming other post-Soviet nations with their foreign policy of undermining the sovereignty and territorial integrity of neighbouring states. While this theory is certainly plausible, Russia needs a friendly Georgia on its doorstep regardless; it has political and geopolitical value.

There is now no doubt that Saakashvili’s aspiration to rapidly integrate the country into NATO has failed. The Kremlin not only managed to indefinitely postpone Georgia’s NATO aspirations, but took full control over Georgia’s separatist regions, establishing new military bases and  strengthening their grip. Despite these advantages, and Tbilisi’s deepened vulnerability, Putin’s regime is losing the war for hearts and minds. Russia realises that the current situation precludes any scenario where Georgian society re-unites with their Orthodox Christian brother-nation.

The (overblown) threat of Russian infiltration

In the absence of diplomatic relations, Russia’s activities on the ground are very restricted. We can assume that restoring official links would create more opportunities for Russia to work more closely with Russian sympathisers within Georgian who do not see themselves as part of the Western world, and do not share the view that being Georgian means being European. However, even if they had these opportunities, it is doubtful that Russia would be able to compete with Western influence and somehow re-direct Georgian society toward the North. The Kremlin simply does not have the financial resources, knowledge, or even the will.

Georgian society is divided on the issue. Former members of Saakashvili’s government are the strongest opponents of restoring formal ties. For them there is no purpose in any direct dialogue with Russia (even under the current Abashidze–Karasin format) unless they withdraw recognition of separatist regions as independent states. They argue that Georgia must maintain its tough stance against Moscow to prevent the country from falling under the influence of the Kremlin again. Moreover, they consider the current government’s policy to be collaboration with an occupant country contributing to its increasing influence in Georgian regions.

Russia will not reverse its policy

On the other side, we have a group of people who believe that direct dialogue between the two states is essential. For them, Tbilisi should restore diplomatic relations to start negotiations with Russia, and to persuade Putin’s government to return Tskhinvali and Abkhazia regions in exchange for some concessions — Georgia’s political and military neutrality.

Both cases rely on some misleading assumptions. Opponents of diplomatic relations are politically motivated, and their fears are more self-imposed than real. For years Saakashvili’s government used Russia as a political tool to deflect attention from domestic challenges and to rally Georgian society around his regime. This exaggerated narrative of a looming Russian threat have become an inherent part of the political outlook of so-called pro-liberal forces in the country.

It is also naïve to believe that Georgia can simply negotiate terms of sovereignty and territorial integrity with Russia. The Kremlin will not and cannot change its current policy.  To reconsider the decision it took after the August 2008 War would damage Russia’s prestige as a consistent political player and throw into doubt the correctness of Putin’s foreign policy.

Why do anything at all?

Restoration of Russian-Georgian diplomatic relations is not a grand question of ‘to be or not to be’ as it is represented by some, including in the Georgian media. It is an issue of necessity; whether Georgia needs it at all? From a practical point of view: barely is the answer. It would be fallacious to assume that putting a Russian flag over building and calling it ‘the Embassy of the Russian Federation’ would contribute in any meaningful way to inter-state economic turnover, or increase trade deals and cultural exchange programs. And it will definitely not solve topics crucial for Georgia, such as its territorial integrity, sovereignty, and security challenges. But it may legitimise Russia’s approach and further strengthen the political image of the current government in the Kremlin on both domestic and international fronts.

It would be far more politically prudent to simply leave things as they are. If Russia is seriously intent on improving relations with its South Caucasus neighbour it must make the first real step in reconciliation; a step we have yet to see any sign of. Russia considers itself the ‘big brother’ in this relationship, hence, it needs to play accordingly.

The article was originally published by OC-Media.

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