Table of Contents

Abkhazia finds itself in a peculiar situation. It is a self-governing territory, a de facto state that is relatively stable and certainly not on the verge of collapse. However, it is internationally isolated with its main route to the world going through Russia.

Abkhazia today is very different from the war-ravaged place it was ten years ago. Government buildings, hotels and roads have been reconstructed. The capital, Sukhumi, has attractive shops, cafes, and pedestrian crossings. In many ways it looks like a functioning state. There is an economy of sorts, linked to the Russian banking system. Locals even use a special debit card named Apra, accepted only within Abkhazia, to do their shopping.

In many ways Abkhazia looks like a functioning state. Yet Georgia effectively holds the keys that would grant it access to the wider world.

The material improvement comes thanks to Russia, which recognized it as an independent state in 2008, stations around 4,000 troops there, covers about two-thirds of the government budget, and provides vital tourist revenue. Russia’s dominant presence is symbolized by a huge new embassy building in the middle of Sukhumi that is much larger than the presidential offices. Yet, the Abkhaz elite shows no desire to become part of Russia and pushes back against various Russian efforts to assume more control. Many Abkhaz still aspire, rather forlornly, to be part of Europe, although no one expresses a desire to be part of Georgia.

It is hard to see a route for Abkhazia back to rule by Georgia, for the foreseeable future at least. While recognized by most of the world as a de jure part of Georgia, Abkhazia has been effectively apart from it for more than twenty-five years, dating back to when both were inside the Soviet Union. Every passing year further divides Abkhaz and Georgians, most of whom do not even share a language.

Yet Tbilisi effectively holds the keys that would grant Abkhazia access to the wider world. Not only is its de jure claim backed by most of the world, but it makes the moral case that almost half of Abkhazia’s prewar population consisted of ethnic Georgians. According to the last Soviet census in 1989, there were 240,000 Georgians among a total population of 525,000 people, most of whom were violently displaced or fled at the end of the war in 1993. Currently around 50,000 Georgians remain in the Gali region of eastern Abkhazia—around one-fifth of the population of Abkhazia—but they are in many ways second-class citizens, who also travel back and forth to the western Georgian region of Samegrelo.1

Abkhazia has effectively earned Russia’s recognition in exchange for greater international isolation and de facto integration with Russia. Tbilisi has mostly eschewed the policies of full isolation it pursued after the war of 1992–1993, but in practice Georgia’s 2008 Law on Occupied Territories constrains international access to Abkhazia. The Abkhaz contribute to their own isolation by showing less flexibility on status issues than, for example, the Transdniestrians.

Even environmental and cultural cooperation suffers from status disputes. For example, Sukhumi’s aging sewage system and unmonitored ammunition dumps have not received international funding. In 2013, an Abkhaz children’s dance group failed to take part in an International Children’s Festival in Turkey because of a political dispute. Initially the troupe was announced as participating on behalf of the “Republic of Abkhazia.” When the Georgian government objected, the designation was changed to “Abkhazia Autonomous Republic-Georgia.” The Abkhaz side opposed this, and in the end the children did not perform at all.2

No one benefits from Abkhazia’s isolation—including, arguably, Russia, which pays a financial and diplomatic price for its position on the territory. There is a demonstrable need for better engagement with Abkhazia by both Georgia and other parts of the international community, a situation that would improve the lives of those in Abkhazia (including its Georgian minority) and keep open options for a future resolution to the conflict and all its associated legal claims. However, even that modest goal has proved hard to achieve.

Abkhazia map

Background

The Abkhaz are a distinct ethnic group, related to the Circassians of the North Caucasus. Their homeland, Abkhazia, occupies a much-coveted beautiful strip of the Black Sea coastline, with several resort-towns that were favorites of the Soviet elite. The port city of Sukhumi (Sukhum for the Abkhaz, Sokhumi in Georgian) was long a cosmopolitan center with a mixed Abkhaz, Georgian, Greek, Russian, and Turkish population.

In Soviet times, Abkhazia had the status of being first a “treaty republic” in association with Georgia and then an autonomous republic inside Georgia. In the 1930s, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and his Georgian henchman, Lavrenti Beria, decimated the Abkhaz elite with arrests and executions. A Georgian script was imposed on the Abkhaz language and tens of thousands of ethnic Georgians resettled in the republic, changing the demographic balance—by 1989, the Abkhaz comprised only 18 percent of the population. In the late Soviet period, however, they enjoyed certain privileges as the titular nation in their republic.

The dispute in its modern form dates to 1989, when Soviet Georgia began to demand more independence from Moscow while the Abkhaz in turn wanted more autonomy from Tbilisi and to preserve the Soviet Union. War broke out in August 1992 when Georgian defense minister Tengiz Kitovani led a violent assault on Sukhumi on a flimsy pretext. The conflict ended in October 1993, when the Abkhaz, backed by elements of the Russian security forces and North Caucasian volunteers, won a military victory. Moscow brokered a ceasefire agreement in 1994 that established a Russian-led peacekeeping force and a small UN monitoring mission.

No one benefits from Abkhazia’s isolation— including, arguably, Russia, which pays a financial and diplomatic price for its position on the territory.

The traumas of the conflict have not disappeared. As much as 5 percent of the ethnic Abkhaz population was killed or wounded in the conflict. A large majority of the ethnic Georgian population fled or was displaced. The war devastated Abkhazia, and its situation worsened in 1996 under a Commonwealth of Independent States sanctions regime, supported by Russia, with some caveats.

The two sides came close to a peace deal in 1997–1998, mediated by Russian foreign minister Yevgeny Primakov. The Georgian side rejected the plan. Sergei Shamba, who served as Abkhazia’s de facto foreign minister, says the Abkhaz side agreed to a status deal that fell short of independence. However, he asserts, the Georgians “were always late” in offering compromises to the Abkhaz side.3 In the wake of these events, the Abkhaz held a referendum followed by a declaration of independence in October 1999. No one, including Russia, recognized the vote as legitimate.

Looking back at the 1990s, one former Georgian official laments, “it should have been possible to solve a lot when the traces [of the conflict] were still warm.” Yet both sides lacked institutional capacity while, as one expert asserts, “the West was absent intellectually.” Russia filled the gap.4 The Abkhaz negotiating team was small and strongly dependent on one individual, war-time leader and president Vladislav Ardzinba.5 Georgia was more sophisticated, having, in Eduard Shevardnadze, an experienced statesman as its leader. However, Shevardnadze’s Georgia was deeply divided politically and still struggling to accommodate around 200,000 people displaced by the conflict.

Abkhaz border Sukhumi, Abkhazia. Street in the city center leading to the parliament building, burned at the end of the war in 1993 and still not restored.

(Photo courtesy of the author.)

Many economic and infrastructural connections remained open for a while, but Tbilisi defaulted to a policy of isolation. The Georgian government kept the railway line closed—as it has to this day, disrupting a major transport route between Russia and the South Caucasus. It also declared Abkhazia’s seaport and airport closed. One former Georgian official says of the time, “with one hand you are inviting the Abkhaz side, with the other you cultivate isolation.” The dominant view, he said, was “squeeze the Abkhaz till they capitulate and crawl back to Georgia.” Abkhazia was indeed in a miserable state. Crime was rife, the country lacked a basic economy, and smuggling was widespread. If their Soviet passports expired, people had no valid travel documents. Yet, the Abkhaz did not push to return to rule by Georgia.

In 2002, Russian President Vladimir Putin took advantage of this uncertain situation. As the Soviet passports were about to lose their validity on July 1, the Russian government gave the Abkhaz permission to receive Russian passports in the city of Sochi, and an estimated 150,000 took the opportunity. Abkhazia had taken the first step toward de facto integration with Russia—angrily opposed by Georgia.

The early and mid-2000s saw a more dynamic environment. An active dialogue process brought experts and nongovernmental activists from the two sides together. The two wartime leaders in Tbilisi and Sukhumi, Shevardnadze and Ardzinba, both left the scene. Ardzinba’s successor, Sergei Bagapsh, displayed a more conciliatory attitude and a willingness to stand up to Moscow. Georgia’s new leader, Mikheil Saakashvili, approached issues with dynamism but swung between conciliation and aggression toward the breakaway regions.

In 2006, relations with Russia deteriorated and the Georgian-Abkhaz negotiating process broke down. Both Georgia and Russia began building up their militaries. Saakashvili and Putin stoked fires that resulted in war in August 2008. The main theater of the Five-Day War was South Ossetia, not Abkhazia. However, the spotlight moved to the Abkhaz by the end of August, when Russia declared it was recognizing both Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states.

Abkhazia, Russia, and Europe

The Abkhaz elite harbors ambivalence toward Russia. In a relationship that has parallels with both Transdniestria and northern Cyprus, the patron state is both welcomed and resented. Local leaders both praise the “big brother” in Moscow and try to demonstrate, more subtly, a critical distance. There is a fear that Abkhazia will succumb to what some call “Ossetianization,” reflecting the de facto absorption of South Ossetia into Russia.

In 2014, the Abkhaz were disappointed that Russia did not open up the territory for the Winter Olympics in nearby Sochi. Later that year, Moscow proposed new “integration treaties” for both Abkhazia and South Ossetia, formalizing its role in running the security forces and giving it full control of their borders. South Ossetia accepted its treaty, but Abkhazia resisted the first draft of the treaty. A second version, re-titled “Union Relations and Strategic Partnership,” left many competences with Abkhazia’s de facto authorities, on paper at least.

One important point was removed that Moscow had wanted in the treaty: a provision for Russians to have a fast track to acquire Abkhaz citizenship, which would give them the right to acquire property in Abkhazia—which noncitizens are currently denied. The fear in Abkhazia is that if Russians are allowed to buy property, then the country’s prime real estate will quickly be snapped up and Russia will become the legal owner of Abkhazia. A leaked cache of emails by and to Vladislav Surkov, the Kremlin’s chief strategist on Abkhazia and author of the 2014 treaty, reveals that the property issue was a key concern in Moscow. It also shows that Moscow was frustrated it could not control the Abkhaz elite and had speculated about how to buy or win their favors.6

Many in the Abkhaz elite have nurtured rather unrealistic hopes of opening up to Europe, independently of Georgia. This was public policy for a brief period in the mid-2000s. In an interview in March 2006, Sergei Bagapsh said, “We have one aspiration—to be in Europe. We want to live in a European house. And we want openness and dialogue from the EU.” Bagapsh promoted a plan entitled “Key to the Future.” Although it reads rather incoherently, it expressed an ambition that has since been largely forgotten—for Abkhazia to seek independence within an European context.7

Many in the Abkhaz elite have nurtured rather unrealistic hopes of opening up to Europe, independently of Georgia.

At the time, the EU sought to engage more actively in Abkhazia. There were many EU-funded projects, and European ambassadors based in Tbilisi visited the republic regularly. Plans were hatched to open an EU information center in Sukhumi. Yet the war of 2008 abruptly ended Abkhazia’s European moment and firmly made the Inguri River a geopolitical boundary. Many Georgian-Abkhaz dialogue projects and forums for discussion were curtailed or halted. UNOMIG, the UN observer mission in Abkhazia, shut down over disagreements between Georgia and Russia on its status and name. The Abkhaz and Russians did not allow the new EU postwar monitoring mission to enter Abkhaz territory. Georgia changed its terminology, declaring Abkhazia and South Ossetia to be “occupied territories,” thereby affording the Abkhaz less agency in the negotiations.

At the same time, the EU and United States affirmed much stronger support for Tbilisi and gave it a multi-billion-dollar assistance program to cope with the aftermath of the 2008 conflict. They also embarked on a strong and mostly successful campaign to resist Russia’s efforts to secure further recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.8 Notably, Russia’s closest ally, Belarussian leader Alexander Lukashenko, declined to recognize the two territories after he was lobbied by Brussels.9 As of 2018, the only other states to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia were Russian allies with no stake in the region (Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Syria) and a tiny Pacific island state notorious for putting its acts of recognition up to the highest bidder (Nauru).10

The EU Special Representative for the South Caucasus Peter Semneby pressed ahead with defining a policy he had devised before the conflict but in a much less auspicious environment. After protracted negotiations in Brussels and EU capitals, this culminated in the endorsement in December 2009 by the Political and Security Committee (PSC) of the Council of the European Union of the Non-Recognition and Engagement Policy (NREP) toward Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

The twin pillars of the policy were designed simultaneously to reassure Georgia of the EU’s support for its territorial integrity while promoting enhanced engagement with Abkhazia. (Although the policy also mentions South Ossetia, the de facto authorities there rejected European involvement there after the 2008 war.) “One pillar is not thinkable without the other,” Semneby explained in 2011. He made the case that the EU had its own intrinsic interest in engagement, as “the unresolved conflicts in Georgia remain a serious security threat to the EU.”11

The document outlining the policy on Abkhazia and South Ossetia presented to the PSC was never published. That allowed for different approaches and interpretations among EU member states and institutions while keeping the EU unified in its Georgia policies under a general formulation. However, it also deprived the policy of visibility at the same time the Georgian government advocated a different strategy. The policy suffers from this lack of visibility to this day: as there is no public document to refer to and institutional memory has not always been preserved, the NREP is sometimes forgotten in policy discussions. Some Georgian officials in particular speak as though it is historical rather than—as is the case—the framework that still guides EU actions in Abkhazia.

The only public document spelling out the NREP was an analytical paper by Sabine Fischer of the EU Institute for Security Studies of 2010 that had the blessing of Semneby and his team. Fischer’s paper sets out ambitious goals to achieve the “de-isolation and transformation” of Abkhazia and South Ossetia through this policy instrument and declares that “if adapted to other conflict situations it could become a model for the EU’s conflict resolution policy in the neighborhood.”12

There are many recommendations:

  • actively engaging with civil society organizations;
  • completing the plans to open an EU information office in Abkhazia;
  • creating opportunities for travel with a “smart policy on granting visas to inhabitants of Abkhazia and South Ossetia”;
  • fostering “economic interaction across conflict lines” through projects including support for the reconstruction of the railway line connecting Abkhazia and western Georgia;
  • offering the Abkhaz higher education scholarships in EU countries, on the principle that “in a society as small as Abkhazia, 80 or 100 scholarships could make a significant difference”; and
  • finally, holding a policy debate on “how to involve the two entities in the EU approximation process.”

Almost a decade on, it is striking how little of this has been achieved. The EU has lost most of the leverage it had in Abkhazia. Its special representatives—who also act as co-chairs in the Geneva International Discussions, the only remaining international forum on the conflict—continue to visit the region. However, the number of European officials actively dealing with the region has dwindled. Very few of the projects envisaged in Fischer’s paper have come to pass. Between 2008 and 2016, the EU spent about $40 million on Abkhazia, supporting local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and dialogue projects, improving healthcare and education, repairing water facilities, and rebuilding houses in the Gali district. Though not insignificant, this is a smaller sum than that allocated for Abkhazia before 2008. It is also dwarfed by Russian financial assistance. Moscow’s spending on pensions alone was more than ten times the EU’s aid program.13

The EU’s aid to Abkhazia has been dwarfed by Russian financial assistance. Moscow’s spending on pensions alone was more than ten times the EU’s aid program in 2008–2016.

Perhaps the most successful EU-funded project in recent years has tackled the painful issue of missing persons buried in unmarked graves from the 1992–1993 conflict. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has worked to exhume bodies from both sides for reburial.14 In May 2016, the ICRC reported that between 2013 and 2015, its forensic experts had recovered 162 sets of human remains, and that they had so far identified half of these and handed them over to the families of the deceased. This process healed many lingering psychological wounds from the conflict. Notably, although the project was funded by the EU, it was perceived as a Red Cross project in Abkhazia. The EU also funds much of the work of the most active international agency in Abkhazia, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Lacking EU officials on the ground and publicity for work that it funds, the EU has lost the chance to raise its profile in Abkhazia.

It is probably no coincidence that the EU has lowered its profile in Abkhazia as its bilateral relationship with Georgia, the success story of the Eastern Partnership, has burgeoned. For an enlarged EU delegation in Tbilisi and a string of EU institutions dealing with Georgia, the key priority is furthering Georgia’s Euro-integration and implementation of the Association Agreement. Greater outreach to Abkhazia—an unpopular topic with many Georgians—has fallen down the list of talking points. In the absence of political progress at the Geneva talks, the most visible side of EU policy on the conflict has become expressions of solidarity for Tbilisi. Almost all EU policy statements on Abkhazia are now declarations affirming support for Georgia’s territorial integrity or statements condemning elections held in Abkhazia.

In a speech to the European Parliament in 2018, EU High Representative Federica Mogherini did not make the argument that the EU had an intrinsic interest in the areas of conflict. Rather, she said, “All our actions within the two regions are fully coordinated – and I would like to underline this because it is a very important point – and approved by the Government of Georgia, and fully in line with the Georgian engagement policy.”15

The speech was warmly welcomed in Georgia, but in a newspaper article former minister Paata Zakareishvili called the reaction “dangerous.” He wrote, “This statement is pleasant to hear but means nothing in substance. . . . A state of mind is forming in which the most meaningful thing is not what shapes reconciliation with Abkhaz and Ossetians takes but for example how many votes we receive at the UN in support of a resolution on Abkhazia and South Ossetia.” Zakareishvili’s concern was that the EU had lost interest in the conflict and was substituting rhetorical statements for real efforts to promote a resolution on the ground.16

The View From Tbilisi

The EU’s reduced engagement in Abkhazia owes much to concerns in Tbilisi. At the end of 2008 the Georgian parliament passed the Law on Occupied Territories, which prohibited any economic activity in Abkhazia or South Ossetia by any entity not authorized by the Georgian government, imposed penalties on anyone who visited the two territories via Russia, and put conditions on international access to the two regions.

The launch of the EU’s Non-Recognition and Engagement Policy was largely overshadowed in 2010 by a new official Georgian policy document entitled “State Strategy on Occupied Territories: Engagement Through Cooperation.” Then minister for reintegration Temuri Yakobashvili promoted it as a “people-oriented policy” offering the Abkhaz and Ossetians healthcare, education, and people-to-people contacts. The language was more conciliatory than in previous policy documents. However, its conceptual framework was narrower than that of the NREP. It expressed the aim to “achieve the full de-occupation of Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region/South Ossetia, reverse the process of annexation of these territories by the Russian Federation, and peacefully reintegrate these territories and their populations into Georgia’s constitutional ambit.” The policy envisaged engagement as a process between Georgians on the one hand and the Abkhaz and Ossetians on the other, with internationals facilitating in a process of reconciliation.17

The EU’s reduced engagement in Abkhazia owes much to concerns in Tbilisi.

A key strand of the new Georgian strategy was a plan for the Abkhaz and South Ossetians to receive “neutral travel documents,” allowing them to travel abroad. They were neutral in design, without any Georgian state symbols, but the small print on them would make it clear that they were printed in Georgia and the applicant would need to physically receive them on Georgian-government-controlled territory. The plan was endorsed by the United States and the EU, Georgia’s main Western partners.

Abkhaz interlocutors concede that they would have warmly welcomed these neutral documents in the 1990s. However, after 2008, the Abkhaz deemed the offer unacceptable, a non-starter. “Accepting a Georgian document would be the end of your career in Abkhazia,” says one young Abkhaz. Even when the Georgian government pointed out in 2017, after concluding a visa facilitation agreement with the EU, that the Abkhaz would now be eligible for visa-free travel to the EU if they took Georgian passports, the reaction was the same.18

In 2012, Saakashvili and his United National Movement lost power in Georgia and were replaced by the Georgian Dream party led by Bidzina Ivanishvili. Veteran civil society activist Paata Zakareishvili, a man who commanded respect in both Abkhazia and South Ossetia, became the minister dealing with the two territories. Symbolically, he renamed his bureau the Ministry of Reconciliation and Civic Equality.

In his four years as minister, Zakareishvili held out hopes for greater dialogue and engagement. Together with then defense minister Irakli Alasania, Zakareishvili worked to end Georgian paramilitary activity in Abkhazia’s Gali district. He made it easier for the Abkhaz to travel to Georgia and access Georgian healthcare facilities, allowing them to present any identification document, including an Abkhaz passport. This remains the policy of the Georgian government. Zakareishvili’s overtures were mostly rebuffed in Abkhazia, where the idea that the “conflict was already resolved” had taken root and therefore even a cordial Georgian approach could be ignored.

A follow-up initiative, unveiled by then prime minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili and minister of reconciliation Ketevan Tsikhelashvili in 2018, entitled “A Step to a Better Future,” offered the Abkhaz and South Ossetians chances to trade with Georgia and some innovative ways of receiving Georgian healthcare, education, and other services.19 Primarily, Abkhaz and South Ossetians would be eligible, without obtaining an official Georgian ID, to register for a “personal number” giving them a right to these services. A number of service centers would be established in the village of Rukhi, near the boundary line with Abkhazia.

These initiatives offered services analogous to what Transdniestrians can access in Moldova. However, they were greeted coolly in Abkhazia. A deep philosophical difference remains. Tbilisi presents conflict resolution as a work of “reconciliation between divided communities” under a welcoming Georgian roof.20 Yet the Abkhaz (and South Ossetians) view this issue as closed a priori. In an official statement rejecting the 2018 Georgian plan, Abkhazia’s de facto foreign minister Daur Kove said “the only step in a better future is Georgia's recognition of the independence of the Republic of Abkhazia and the construction of a full-fledged interstate dialogue between our countries in order to [foster] stability and prosperity for future generations.”21

Next Steps

Abkhazia today is materially much better off and politically more closed than it was before the 2008 conflict. The patron state, Russia, has made Abkhazia more secure and stable, but at the price of greatly increased influence. The geopolitical context has pushed Abkhazia even deeper into the Russian sphere. The Abkhaz publicly supported the Russian intervention in Crimea. They drew the West’s opprobrium when Syria recognized their independence in 2018. Inside Abkhazia, Russian news agencies and television channels dominate the media space. NGOs have come under pressure for taking Western money. There has been speculation that parliament might introduce a Foreign Agents’ Law as in Russia.

Ethnic identity politics still looms large. Modern-day Abkhazia is multiethnic in daily life but is an ethnocracy in its politics. In a parliament with thirty-five deputies, thirty-one have ethnic Abkhaz surnames and three are Armenians. The representative for the Gali district, Kakha Pertaya, is part Georgian, but otherwise no Georgians or Russians hold office. The government and presidential office are also almost entirely staffed by ethnic Abkhaz. This is a result of the Abkhaz being the titular nation of their republic in Soviet times and of a war fought on an ethnic basis.

Russia has made Abkhazia more secure and stable, but at the price of greatly increased influence. The geopolitical context has only pushed Abkhazia deeper into the Russian sphere.

In practice this means that—in contrast to the situations in Transdniestria and northern Cyprus—there is still a strong social stigma associated with procuring Georgian services or civil documents, even if an individual might be tempted to do so. The ethnic Georgians in Gali also face many difficulties, in educating their children in Georgian and crossing the Inguri River into the neighboring Samegrelo region. In 2017, the Abkhaz and Russians made crossing harder when they closed several checkpoints along the river, leaving only one route open.

In a series of meetings in October 2017, Abkhaz decisionmakers said EU engagement would still be welcome—but only if no conditions about ties with Georgia were attached.22 Abkhaz officials still push international recognition as a solution to their problems in a manner rarely seen in either Transdniestria or northern Cyprus. Thus, even the head of Abkhazia’s chamber of commerce, former prime minister Gennady Gagulia, said that he was “ready to trade with Georgia” but not prepared to make any political concessions to do so. He claimed that there was healthy trade with Turkey, Russia, and to Europe via Russia. Asked about the visit by an emissary from Brussels to discuss extension of Georgia’s Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) with the EU, Gagulia said, “I told him that if Georgia recognizes us there won’t be a problem.”23

In a conversation in which he spoke respectfully of the EU and international contacts, Daur Kove also pushed back strongly against Tbilisi’s Western-supported efforts to offer Georgian services to the Abkhaz. He said, “Georgians don’t understand one simple thing. We don’t need them. We have survived twenty-five years without them.”

These statements should not be taken entirely at face value. Yet by publicly taking this tough line on status, the Abkhaz risk self-isolation, in other words a closed border and full reliance on Russia.24 Combined with weak international commitment to the region, this has already had negative results. For example, the “brown marmorated stink bug” ravaged hazelnut crops in both Abkhazia and western Georgia in 2017, doing huge damage to the main livelihood of farmers in both regions. By one estimate, more than 80 percent of the crop in Abkhazia was destroyed.25 However, according to officials working to tackle the problem, the ongoing status dispute meant experts were unable to share expertise, Georgian experts were unable to travel to Abkhazia, and there was insufficient coordination between the two sides.

Can anyone change this negative dynamic? Several groups in Abkhazia—students, businessmen, journalists—would almost certainly support different policies, but currently keep quiet. The Armenian community in Abkhazia is another constituency whose views are hard to discern but would benefit from more engagement. According to Abkhazia’s 2011 census, they numbered around 42,000 people (out of a total population of 240,000), and are very active in business.26 The actual number may be higher, but they are almost unrepresented in political life.

Target Higher Education

Three avenues for renewed engagement are worth exploring. One is higher education. Vladimir Delba, vice rector of the Abkhaz State University (AGU), asserted in an interview that his university had many international contacts but worked chiefly with the Russian Federation, which had been helping the school with a major renovation program. He insisted that the “only correct decision” was the international recognition of Abkhazia, which would in turn internationalize the AGU. However, some students and teachers expressed a hope for international outreach beyond Russia. Linking the university to Georgia’s educational system looks politically impossible. But it should be possible, with Georgian consent, to build bilateral ties between the university and some European universities. One such scheme already operated with the AGU and the Free University in Brussels.

Work on International Mobility

Secondly, the Abkhaz are also interested in improving their international mobility. Currently, residents of Abkhazia continue to travel abroad—or are refused a visa—on the basis of their Russian passports. Whether visas are issued or not remains at the discretion of different EU governments, which take different views on the matter. The problem has worsened over the last two years. There are reports of young Abkhaz being unable to travel anywhere abroad beyond Russia, as they have not received Russian passports. This is because Russia argues that Abkhazia is recognized by Russia and therefore Abkhaz passports should be sufficient. No alternative scheme acceptable to all sides has yet been found. But there is a shared interest here to find a new solution—from Georgians who do not want to see the Abkhaz taking only Russian documents and from Abkhaz who want to travel abroad.

Improve Trade Ties

A third area for engagement comes in trade. At the moment, Abkhazia’s economic activity is limited to a few sectors, chiefly tourism and the cultivation of hazelnuts and tangerines, almost all of which go to Russia. There is a little sea trade with Turkey, though it has been declared illicit by Georgia. Economic links with Georgia are tenuous. There is one major shared economic project, Inguri-GES, the hydro-electric power-station on the Inguri River, funded by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.27

Abkhaz border Sukhumi, Abkhazia. Street in the city center leading to the parliament building, burned at the end of the war in 1993 and still not restored.

(Photo courtesy of the author.)

There is potential for more trade from Abkhazia across the Inguri into Georgia and on to Europe. A recent International Crisis Group paper describes how a worsening economic environment, cuts in Russian funding, and a depreciated ruble mean that Abkhaz businessmen are looking to build ties with the West to import European goods and export products such as hazelnuts that can reportedly fetch almost five times the price in the West that they do in Russia.28

EU officials visited Abkhazia for informal talks about extending the Georgian DCFTA into the region, mirroring developments in Transdniestria. However, unlike Abkhaz businesses, Transdniestrian businesses are prepared to accept Moldovan customs, certificates of origin, and customs regulations. Determining who is in charge of customs controls on the Abkhazia-Russia border would be an especially big challenge. This does not mean that a deal on trade using creative status-neutral mechanisms cannot be achieved, just that it requires a high level of political will, including from Russia, which is in short supply.

More creativity is certainly required to overcome this unsatisfactory situation.

More creativity is certainly required to overcome this unsatisfactory situation. Tbilisi has fashioned more progressive ideas toward Abkhazia in recent years than at any time since the conflict ended in 1993, but it unfortunately has many fewer tools at its disposal. Years of isolation have cut Tbilisi’s connections and reduced leverage. This in turn leaves only a narrow window for internationals to interact with Abkhazia. The best that can be said in 2018 is that that window has not yet fully closed.

Notes

1 For a detailed report on the Gali district and human rights in Abkhazia more generally see Thomas Hammarberg and Magdalena Grono, “Human Rights in Abkhazia Today,” Palme Institute, July 2017, https://www.palmecenter.se/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/Human-Rights-in-Abkhazia-Today-report-by-Thomas-Hammarberg-and-Magdalena-Grono.pdf.

2 Rifat Başaran, “Abkhazian Children Are Victims of the 23rd April,” Abkhaz World, April 16, 2013, http://abkhazworld.com/aw/diaspora/133-abkhazian-children-are-victims-of-the-23rd-april.

3 Interview with author, Abkhazia, October 2017.

4 Interview with author, Tbilisi, July 2017.

5 Igor Smirnov and Rauf Denktaş occupied analogous positions as dominant leaders in Transdniestria and northern Cyprus.  

6 David Batashvili, “‘Surkov Leaks’: Glimpse Into Russia’s Management of Georgia’s Occupied Regions,” Clarion Brief, October 2016.

7 Nicu Popescu, “Europe’s Unrecognised Neighbours: The EU in Abkhazia and South Ossetia,” Center for European Policy Studies, March 15, 2007, 18, https://www.ceps.eu/publications/europes-unrecognised-neighbours-eu-abkhazia-and-south-ossetia.

8 “President Dmitry Medvedev Made a Statement on Recognizing the Independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia,” President of Russia’s official website, August 26, 2008, http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/1223.

9 Press conference by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, October 17, 2014. Transcript in Russian available at http://president.gov.by/ru/news_ru/view/press-konferentsija-prezidenta-respubliki-belarus-aglukashenko-zhurnalistam-rossijskix-regionalnyx-sredstv-10025/.

10 Luke Harding, “Tiny Nauru Struts World Stage By Recognising Breakaway Republics,” Guardian, December 14, 2009, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2009/dec/14/nauro-recognises-abkhazia-south-ossetia.

11 Semneby, “Statement by the EUSR for the South Caucasus.”

12 Sabine Fischer, “The EU’s Non-recognition and Engagement Policy Towards Abkhazia and South Ossetia,” European Union Institute for Security Studies, December 1–2, 2010, https://www.iss.europa.eu/sites/default/files/EUISSFiles/NREP_report.pdf.

13 Information supplied by the EU delegation in Tbilisi. There is no single public source on EU funding in Abkhazia. See “Projects in Georgia,” Delegation of the European Union to Georgia, accessed November 14, 2018, https://eeas.europa.eu/delegations/georgia/area/projects_en; and “COBERM: A Joint EU-UNDP Initiative,” accessed November 14, 2018, http://www.coberm.net/index.php?m=53#.

14 “Georgia / Abkhazia: Remains Returned to Families Provide Relief and Dignity,” International Committee of the Red Cross, May 27, 2016, https://www.icrc.org/en/document/georgia-missing-abkhazia-remains-identified.

15 Federica Mogherini, “Speech by High Representative/Vice-President Federica Mogherini at the European Parliament Plenary Session on the Conflict in Georgia,” European Union External Action, June 12, 2018, https://eeas.europa.eu/headquarters/headquarters-homepage/46383/speech-high-representativevice-president-federica-mogherini-european-parliament-plenary_en.

16 Paata Zakareishvili, “В поисках водораздела Тбилиси необходимо изменить политику в отношении Абхазии и Южной Осетии” [In search of a watershed. Tbilisi needs to change its policy toward Abkhazia and South Ossetia], Nezavisimaya Gazeta, July 25, 2018. http://www.ng.ru/ideas/2018-07-25/5_7274_ideas2.html

17 “State Strategy on Occupied Territories: Engagement Through Cooperation,” Government of Georgia, January 2010, http://gov.ge/files/225_31228_851158_15.07.20-StateStrategyonOccupiedTerritories-EngagementThroughCooperation(Final).pdf.

18 “Sokhumi, Tskhinvali Reject Tbilisi’s EU Visa Liberalization Offer,” Civil Georgia, February 3, 2017, https://old.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=29834.

19 “‘A Step to a Better Future’ Peace Initiative, Facilitation of Trade Across Dividing Lines,” Office of the State Minister of Georgia for Reconciliation and Civic Equality, 2018, http://smr.gov.ge/Uploads/Concept_EN_0eaaac2e.pdf.

20 “Ketevan Tsikhelashvili: ‘We Are Making Open and Determined Peace Statement,” Democracy and Freedom Watch, April 4, 2018, http://dfwatch.net/ketevan-tsikhelashvili-making-open-determined-peace-statement-50197.

21 “The Commentary of Daur Kove on the New Peace Initiative of the Georgian Government ‘A Step to a Better Future’,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Abkhazia, April 5, 2018, http://mfaapsny.org/en/allnews/news/statements_speeches/kommentariy-daura-kove-o-novoy-mirnoy-initsiative-pravitelstva-gruzii-shag-k-luchshemu-budushchemu-/?sphrase_id=1521%20.

22 Interview with author, October 2017.

23 Gagulia was made prime minister of Abkhazia in April 2018. He died in a car accident in September 2018.

24 “The De-isolation of Abkhazia,” International Alert, April 2011, http://abkhazworld.com/aw/Pdf/1107Abkhazia.pdf.

25 “Stink Bug Devastates Hazelnut Crops in Samegrelo and Abkhazia,” OC Media, September 20, 2017, http://oc-media.org/stink-bug-devastates-hazelnut-crops-in-samegrelo-abkhazia/.

26 Abkhaz census data available at http://www.ethno-kavkaz.narod.ru/rnabkhazia.html.

27 Georgian expert Valeri Basaria cautions that this efficient but enforced cooperation has no wider significance and that to suppose it can be an example for other joint projects is a “case of wishful thinking.” “Regulating Trans-ingur/I Economic Relations: Views From Two Banks,” International Alert, July 2011, https://www.international-alert.org/sites/default/files/Caucasus_TransInguri_EconRelationsViews_EN_2012_0.pdf.

28 “Abkhazia and South Ossetia: Time to Talk Trade,” International Crisis Group, May 24, 2018, https://www.crisisgroup.org/europe-central-asia/caucasus/georgia/249-abkhazia-and-south-ossetia-time-talk-trade.