While Ukraine smolders and Syria burns, older conflicts still linger.
The conflict over Abkhazia marked a gloomy twenty-fifth anniversary this summer. The core issue in the dispute—the status of the republic of Abkhazia—is as deeply unresolved as ever. Next year marks another anniversary, ten years since the Georgia-Russia war of 2008, after which Russia recognized Abkhazia as independent and made it yet more intractable.
The best that can be said is that this is no longer a violent conflict and the temperature of the rhetoric is much lower than in the 1990s. No one is threatening to destroy each other. But nor is it “frozen,” as many commentators misleadingly assert. Attention is still very much needed here. Each side is working on building up a reality that it urges the other to accept if and when it will “come to its senses.” Tbilisi’s idea is a new Georgia that is closer to Europe and so attractive that the Abkhaz will inevitably want to join it. The Abkhaz counter-offer is a republic that now functions like an independent state and that Tbilisi will eventually choose to recognize as such.
Earlier this month, in support of the Georgian project, I saw the giant new hospital being built near the village of Rukhi. It is located just a couple of kilometers from the bridge across the River Inguri that divides western Georgia from Abkhazia. The tiny village also has a smart new shopping mall. A five-star hotel is being planned for the coastal village of Ganmukhuri. Projects like these are “opportunities for the other side,” Georgian foreign minister, Mikheil Janelidze, told an audience on October 24 at Chatham House in London.
The minister was sincere in his belief that the Tbilisi government is offering a great deal to its errant citizens—provided they are prepared to accept that it comes with Georgian government branding. Around one thousand Abkhaz have made use of Georgian health facilities in the last year, free of charge. This is the main success of a Georgian government policy of using “soft power” to try to win back the Abkhaz. But it works because the process is discreet. Few people I spoke to in the region believed that the numbers will greatly increase when this hospital opens: it is too conspicuous, the message it is sending is too blatant. Most of the 250,000 or so inhabitants of Abkhazia will find other ways of obtaining healthcare.
What does the Abkhaz government say to these Georgian overtures? Abkhazia’s de facto foreign minister, Daur Kove, told me politely but firmly, “Georgians don’t understand one simple thing. We don’t need them. We have survived 25 years without them.”
A quarter of a century after the war, the capital of Abkhazia—the city the Abkhaz generally call “Sukhum” and the Georgians prefer to be called “Sukhumi”—finally looks like a normal town in the Caucasus, with bustling shops and traffic jams. Most traces of the war of 1992-1993 have finally gone. This is chiefly thanks to Russian funding, which covers around 60 percent of the budget. The Abkhaz have found ways to circumvent some of the ill effects of international non-recognition. For example, they have instituted a debit payment card named Apra that is accepted throughout Abkhazia, but not beyond it.
Abkhaz politics, however, is highly fractious and society remains divided by the events of 2014, which saw former leader Alexander Ankvab forced out of office and the holding of new election that brought Raul Khajimba to power. Former de facto foreign minister Sergei Shamba summed up the situation by saying that Russian recognition had given the Abkhaz the luxury to fight one another. “After the war [of 2008], the main external issue was resolved and our internal fights intensified because the external threat had receded.”
This environment has hit the 30,000 or so Georgians who live in Gali region the hardest. In a dispute that started with the Abkhaz complaining of discrimination from Tbilisi, this community now faces the greatest restriction of its rights.
Their precarious situation, as well as the general human rights situation in Abkhazia is set out in authoritative detail in a recent report by Thomas Hammarberg and Magdalena Grono, originally commissioned by the EU. Ever since the conflict ended in 1993, Georgians in Gali have lived in insecurity, ruled over by Abkhazia but connected to kin and family on the other side of the River Inguri in western Georgia. In the last few months, the Abkhaz side has closed most of the checkpoints on the Inguri, saying they are a “security problem.” By the end of the year only one, leading to the town of Zugdidi, will be functioning.
Likewise, the teaching in Georgian in Gali schools is being reduced and replaced with Russian, a language that most of the children speak poorly. Many Gali parents are now sending their children to be schooled during the week in the Georgian town of Zugdidi on the other side of the river.
Meanwhile, with the executive branch weak in Abkhazia, the influence of Russia increases—and the Russian Federation has just opened a huge new embassy to underline that it is the indispensable partner for Abkhazia. The space for foreigners and NGOs has narrowed and there are fears of a “foreign agents” law restricting their activities, as in Russia.
Abkhazia’s international isolation is an old story. It is driven by many factors. Caution in Tbilisi about international engagement that it does not control. The stubborn pride of many Abkhazian officials, who only insist that they need the impossible—international recognition—and nothing else. Reluctance on the part of Russia to see serious international engagement there. And also what we might call “Abkhazia fatigue” in Europe after 2008.
But nothing good will come from perpetuating the isolation. The European Union cannot match Moscow in its funding for Abkhazia. The EU has spent around 50 million euros there since 2008, while Russia has invested more than ten times that. Bolder engagement is certainly required—especially with those groups who feel the pain of isolation and could do with some European know-how, such as impoverished farmers and university students.
Carnegie Europe is grateful to the Government Offices of Sweden and the Robert Bosch Stiftung for their financial support of this publication.
Photo credit: Thomas de Waal
Correction: A clarification has been made to note that the capital of Abkhazia is generally called “Sukhum” by the Abkhaz, and is preferred to be called “Sukhumi” by the Georgians.