After the brief but destructive war between Georgia and Russia in August 2008, the Georgian government proposed a Strategy on Occupied Territories and Action Plan for Engagement in the hopes of bridging the divide between Georgia and the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Carnegie hosted an event with the Georgian deputy prime minister and minister of reintegration, Eka Tkeshelashvili, who discussed the importance of the strategy in fostering reconciliation and the role of the international community in this process. Cory Welt of George Washington University commented on Tkeshelashvili’s remarks. Carnegie’s Thomas de Waal moderated.
The August 2008 war dramatically shifted the political landscape in the South Caucasus, resulting in Russia’s recognition of the sovereignty of both Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the deterioration of both regions’ relationship with Tbilisi, and a massive exodus of thousands of people. While the Georgian government understands that rapid reunification is unlikely, reconciliation with the divided communities remains one of the main priorities for the Georgian government, said Tkeshelashvili. However, the policy of reconciliation and Georgia’s official position on non-recognition and eventual de-occupation by Russia of the two regions are not mutually exclusive concepts. Engagement with the two regions only reinforces Georgia’s determination not to compromise its territorial integrity and sovereignty, Tkeshelashvili stated.
State Strategy on Occupied Territories
The strategy and action plan, spearheaded by the State Ministry for Reintegration and the interagency ministerial group, is a product of extensive consultation with local and international experts, members of the parliament, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and the affected communities, said Welt. The strategy—which is not a legally binding instrument—offers greater flexibility in implementation by suggesting mechanisms for reconciliation, rather than mandating them, stated Tkeshelashvili.
- Focus on Humanitarian Engagement: The Georgian strategy stresses the centrality of a humanitarian approach to the reconciliation policy and denounces the use of force—a promise re-emphasized by President Mikheil Saakashvili in his speech before the European parliament last November. This approach relies heavily on robust engagement with the regions, reducing isolation, and restoring people-to-people contacts for residents on both sides of the divide, remarked Tkeshelashvili.
- People-to-People Contacts: The reconciliation process is grounded in the conviction that the remaining residents of Abkhazia and South Ossetia represent an integral part of the Georgian society, and should be allowed to retain and enjoy their rights and privileges as Georgian citizens. As a result, the strategy devotes most of its resources to community-level projects in areas such as education and health services, said Tkeshelashvili.
Areas of Cooperation
Despite numerous obstacles, such as the presence of the Russian troops in the region and the general atmosphere of distrust, the state strategy aims to create a favorable framework for cooperation through a set of proactive policies in three areas:
- Economy and Business: One pillar of the strategy aims at promoting economic interaction between communities on both sides of the divide and improving socioeconomic conditions in the regions. It also facilitates the movement of goods across the dividing line through the rehabilitation and building of the infrastructure.
- Human Rights and Culture: The strategy develops and enhances mechanisms to safeguard the practice of basic human rights and liberties in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as well as promotes the preservation of local cultural heritage.
- Freedom of Movement and Information: Promotion and support of the freedom of movement and flow of information strengthens the ability of each side to understand the other, as well as fosters stronger people-to-people contacts in areas of common interest.
Tools to Promote Cooperation
According to Tkeshelashvili, the action plan outlines seven instruments aimed at advancing communication and cooperation between the communities.
- Liaison Mechanism: The action plan establishes a liaison mechanism between the communities in Georgia and its regions to promote greater communication between them. It is represented by two offices in Tbilisi and Sukhumi.
- Status-neutral Travel Document and Identification Card: Because local passports of the residents of Abkhazia and South Ossetia are not recognized by the international community, the Georgian government plans to issue a neutral travel document that enables residents to travel abroad. In addition, a status-neutral identification card makes residents eligible for a variety of social services and benefits in the rest of Georgia.
- Integrated Socio-Economic Zone: The creation of special economic zones adjacent to the dividing line is expected to promote development and joint socioeconomic activities between the regions.
- Cooperation Agency and Trust Fund: The cooperation agency provides assistance in implementing programs and joint activities between the divided communities, while the trust fund promotes the goals of the action plan.
- Joint Investment Fund and Financial Institution: The fund serves as the main engine for providing both sides with the start-up capital for joint business ventures, while the financial institution would facilitate financial transactions across the dividing line.
The strategy has been described by critics as a theoretical plan that is likely to stall in its implementation phase. It was also faulted for its potential to draw the regions closer to Moscow. In response to the former complaint, Tkeshelashvili noted that Georgia’s hard work and collaborative efforts with a number of NGOs and humanitarian organizations has already led to improvements in areas such as health services and education. She added that the strategy will also dispel the general mood of distrust and offer residents of Abkhazia and South Ossetia an additional option for their future besides turning toward Moscow.
Role of International Community
Tkeshelashvili urged the international community to shield residents of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from punishment by Russia for their engagement with Georgia, arguing that the reconciliation strategy must be implemented in close coordination with the United States and the international community to succeed. Welt concurred, suggesting that it takes four parties to tackle the conflict—Georgia, Russia, the local populations, and the international community. In addition, after citing a list of Russia’s violations of the 2008 ceasefire agreement, Tkeshelashvili called for the establishment of an international security arrangement to include monitoring and peacekeeping by international troops in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The role of the EU is especially critical, as it is the only actor with the resources, interest, and necessary understanding of the situation on the ground to ensure that the reconciliation process succeeds, concluded Welt.