Tornike Sharashenidze’s opinion on Georgia’s policy towards Abkhazia is significant and noteworthy, especially as it seems to have been shared by quite a large portion of the Georgian society. The author criticizes the Georgian policy for being excessively sentimental, appeasing and making unreasonable concessions and calls for a more pragmatic approach. But as an ordinary reader, I am left with an impression that the article too is not entirely free of emotions (something criticized by the author himself). The feelings of grudge, anger, and frustration are just the other side of the coin and need to be restrained in politics.
Let’s take a deeper look at the author’s main arguments.
Argument 1. Since the mid-1990s of the last century Georgia has been carrying out a policy of positive discrimination, or unilateral concessions, in relation to Abkhazia, which has yielded few positive results.
Unilateral concessions include agreeing to supply power to Abkhazia from the Georgian-controlled territory for free, free access to medical services for the Abkhaz in Georgian healthcare facilities, and offers of wide autonomy. Is it true? Only partially.
Let’s begin with the free-of-charge power supply to Abkhazia. As a matter of fact, neither Georgia nor Abkhazia are able to use the Enguri Hydroelectric Power Plant without coordinating and cooperating with each other, due to the geography and the technical parameters of this facility. In other words, the issue has nothing to do with altruistic motivation. It should be acknowledged, however, that Tbilisi seems capable to induce Abkhazia to agree to terms favorable to the Georgian side. But if it is a purely political decision, the population of Abkhazia at least must be informed about it.
The referral healthcare program, or free access to medical services in Georgian hospitals for residents of the occupied territories, i.e. Abkhazia and South Ossetia, is another point raised in the article. But the program started not in the 1990s but much later, just six or seven years ago. To be sure, free medical treatment has motivated nobody so far to recognize Georgia’s territorial integrity, a point highlighted by Mr. Sharashenidze. But there is a more important question – is it really in Georgia’s interest to incorporate the people who are willing to discard their “national projects” in return for free appendectomy? Such programs usually have two objectives: purely humanitarian and – let’s be frank – political. They can change attitudes and they really do, but, quite naturally, it is a very long, gradual and difficult process. Fundamental changes require much more than that – which I will outline below.
As to the Georgian government’s offer of wider autonomy for Abkhazia, it has been on the table for quite a long time. At some point, Shevardnadze and Ardzinba were quite close to a consensus, but an agreement never materialized due to various reasons. After winning the war Abkhazia had much higher ambitions than wide autonomy, while Georgia was not ready to accept a confederation-like federal state project.
Let’s put aside for a moment the thorny issue of Abkhazia’s political status and put forward a rhetorical, albeit fundamental, question – why should Abkhazia feel attracted to reunification, or at least rapprochement, with a country from which thousands have migrated to different parts of the world in search of a better life, where “compromise” is still just a mere word for the political elite rarely followed by any deeds, and where minorities remain underrepresented in government? What motivation can Abkhazia possibly have to reunite with, or at least turn towards, such a country?
Besides, the author seems to have overlooked the Georgian government’s other activities, which were implemented along with the above-mentioned concessions. I think it would be useful to recall some of them: Shevardnadze government’s attempt to fuel insurgency in Gali in May 1998 in an effort to tilt the status-quo in Georgia’s favor; Georgia-backed raid to the Kodori Gorge in 2001 by a Chechen warlord Ruslan Gelayev’s forces, which can be seen as yet another unsuccessful endeavor to break the stalemate by military means; the economic blockade of Abkhazia, in effect until the late1990s, which was imposed by CIS at Georgia’s request – something the Abkhaz people will hardly forget; the May 2004 escalation in the Tskhinvali Region, dubbed as a “humanitarian assault” – although these events took place in South Ossetia, it does not take too much guessing as to who would have been the “next recipient,” if the government’s operation had been successful – which surely set alarm bells ringing in Sukhumi; the Georgian operation in Kodori in 2006 with subsequent renaming of the region into Upper Abkhazia; and finally the Russian-Georgian war of 2008. Although this last has many dimensions, it is obvious that the Georgian perception of that war is by far different from how it is viewed in Sukhumi, which hardly has any incentive to put the issue into the context of “sentimental politics”.
That said, I would like to emphasize that no Georgian government in the post-independent period has demonstrated a coherent and consistent conflict resolution policy, whether consistently militaristic, consistently peaceful or consistently inclined towards concessions. Georgia’s approach – I cannot but agree with Tornike here – has always been overly emotional, with sentiments swinging widely from first declaring the Abkhaz people “aliens” who migrated to Georgia from the North Caucasus just a few hundred years ago and calling the very same Abkhaz residents “brothers” and “sisters” on the next day.
Argument 2. Another major theme of the article is the prospect of Abkhaz-Georgian reconciliation. The author argues that the Abkhaz society must be more interested in finding common ground with the Georgians because Georgia can survive without Abkhazia, while the latter will hardly make it without us. Consequently, it is Abkhazia, not Georgia, which should make the first steps towards reconciliation.
Indeed, the Abkhaz “national project” has been increasingly beset by numerous problems, particularly in more recent times. Corruption has become endemic, economic growth seems to have stalled, prospects of integrating ethnic Armenian and Georgian communities into Abkhazia’s political life remain as vague as ever, just as the prospects of international recognition, as the number of countries willing to recognize Abkhazia’s independence has fallen, rather than increased. Finally, and most importantly, Russia’s military, economic and political dominance in Abkhazia has been steadily growing and this trend seems unlikely to abate in the near future. Paradoxically, Abkhazia’s sovereignty has been gradually weakening ever since it was recognized by Moscow.
Unlike Abkhazia, Georgia has managed to gradually recover – although it was a long, painful and bumpy path – from the chaos of the tumultuous 1990s, passed through Saakashvili’s modernization era, changed government in a democratic manner, through elections, and essentially, as well as institutionally (by means of the association agreement with EU), is steadily getting closer to being a truly European democracy.
In other words, Georgia’s development model looks much more viable than that of Abkhazia, at least at the present stage. Although it is a view that I and Tornike certainly share, we, nevertheless, draw different conclusions. It was exactly our strong sense of European identity, pro-European way of national thinking, and our success on the path of democratization set the stage for bolder and more daring policy initiatives on Abkhazia. We should spare no effort for goodwill gestures to help the Abkhaz people feel the difference between the European and Eurasian development models, like we do. I think this is the only way for Georgia to mend fences with Abkhazia and win the Abkhaz people’s hearts and minds.
Otherwise, what motivation can an ordinary Abkhaz, egocentric, unwilling to assume responsibility for Abkhazia, and anything but a well-wisher for Georgia, possibly have?
Georgia’s policy towards Abkhazia should be neither “lovey-dovey” nor resentful (though between this two the former is surely a better choice). It should be based on Georgia’s own or other countries’ experience and guided by a pragmatic and rational analysis. International experience (e.g. Cyprus) shows that the central government’s proper and efficient development policy can become a powerful incentive for a separatist region, even occupied by a foreign power, to consider restoring broken ties.
In the context of our region and the problem of Abkhazia, such changes can be inspired by the following developments: a) Georgia continues on a path of successful democratic and socio-economic reforms; b) minorities get adequate representation in both central and local-level government (something the Abkhaz and Ossetian people will certainly take note of). And finally, Georgia’s GDP should be at least double that of Russia (Georgia’s main rival in Abkhazia), while the Georgian government’s investments to Abkhazia should not be less than public spending in other similarly-sized Georgian regions.
Ensuring Georgia’s successful development and giving Abkhazia an opportunity to benefit from the Georgian progress is the only formula to bring the prospect of rebuilding a common Abkhaz-Georgian state from an emotional to a political level.