Opinion

Conflict settlement 20 years after the war in Abkhazia

by | Aug 8, 2012
by Dieter Boden, former Special Representative of the UN Secretary General in Georgia

1. Lessons to be learnt

On 14 August it is 20 years that Georgian troops under the command of Tengis Kitovani, then Minister of Defence and head of the National Guard crossed the Inguri river to march up to Sukhumi, in those days capital of the Autonomous Republic of Abkhazia. There is still some unclarity concerning the precise circumstances under which this invasion took place: did Kitovani act under Shevardnadze’s instruction, a version which Shevardnadze has categorically rejected? Which was the part played by Russia ? Anyway, the result of Kitovani’s irresponsible action is well known: it ignited a war between Abkhaz and Georgians which ended more than one year later in a cease-fire leaving an estimated number of 8000 killed, some 220 000 Georgians as IDP’s and much of Abkhazia in rubble.

Ever since we are faced with the aftermath of this war which took the shape of a „frozen“, or „protracted“ conflict. Increasingly, the international community has become involved in efforts to help manage and resolve this conflict. Deplorably, these efforts remained largely fruitless up to now. Today the Caucasus – not only its South with three newly established states, but also its North which is territory of the Russian Federation – counts among the hot spots of the globe, notorious for their unrest and instability. It is a situation which is of particular concern to Europe as an immediate neighbour.

The 20th anniversary of Kitovani’s march to Sukhumi gives rise to a couple of intriguing questions which basically address one key issue: why is it that 20 years were not enough to solve the conflict? Here are some tentative answers:

1. While the conflict started on an intra-state level it has soon grown into something which affects the great power game in a strategically crucial area of world politics. This certainly applies for Russia which after ruling Georgia for more than 200 years still tends to look at it as a natural sphere of interest. And there are other players which have stakes in the South Caucasus: neighbours like Turkey and Iran, but also the US. It is their diverging interests in the region which have more than once complicated the conflict settlement process. But no solution is conceivable without their involvement and cooperation.

2. A second reason for failure is certainly the half-heartedness with which international mediators and facilitators, first of all the UN and the OSCE, but also the EU, have proceeded in their conflict settlement efforts. Here it is lack of political clout, but also the lack of a consistent and sustained policy of peace-building which have played a role. It is symptomatic that none of these international actors have been able to prevent the resurgence of military hostilities in August 2008. However, it would be unjust to assess the performance of international mediators only in the light of the 2008 war disaster. After all, they were successful in preventing the re-ignition of conflicts in Georgia for 15 years despite many crisis situations, and in working out solution concepts which may be of avail in future.

3. There has never been any doubt that the main effort for conflict settlement has to come from Georgia itself and that international efforts can only be complimentary. Unfortunately, this principle has not been observed at all times. What was missing at crucial moments of the negotiating process was a lack of readiness for compromise and also an inability to fully recognize reconciliation and confidence-building as priority challenges in the peace work. As for the key issue concerning the future status of the secessionist territory both sides showed preference for maximalist concepts, the Abkhaz insisting on full independence and the Georgians on an almost unconditional return of the Abkhaz into their state.

 

2.Will independence really bring a solution?

After recalling these lessons of the past let me now try to look ahead: which are currently the perspectives for a resolution of the conflict?

It cannot be ignored that meanwhile the peace process is in dire straights. The Russian/Georgian war of August 2008 has aggravated the situation. Since then official relations between Tbilisi and Moscow remain severed. Russia plus four other states have recognized Abkhazia as an independent state which means that Russia finally has decided to take sides giving up any semblance of playing a role as a facilitator in the conflict. It was at Russian insistence that conflict settlement mandates for the UN and the OSCE have been terminated. Today the „Geneva Talks“ established after the August war are left as the only negotiating forum where the two conflict sides with mediators can convene. But after almost three years of activity the balance sheet of this forum looks extremely meager.

Still, there is no alternative but to continue the conflict resolution effort and to try to give it more vigour. The situation is volatile as ever and could once again get out of control as it happened in August 2008. What is needed is a valid, durable agreement between both conflict sides which is guaranteed by international powers whose interests have weight in the region. This is not to advocate that a recognition of one-sided Russian security interests, or the old prism of a containment of Russian power familiar from the days of the Cold War should again come in as guiding principles. Main reference point should be the long-term stability of the Caucasus and the viability and prosperity of its states.

What is badly needed in this context is some innovative thinking. This ought to include the so-called status issue, i.e. the issue dealing with Abkhazia’s future constitutional status regarding Georgia. It has ever been the hardest nut to crack in the peace process and seems more insurmountable than ever. After proclamation of their independence and recognition following the August 2008 war the Abkhaz have declared this issue as closed, and they bluntly refuse any further discussion of it. But can this matter really be closed by unilateral action? What needs still to be clarified is conflicting views among the sides on two basic principles, one being the territorial integrity of Georgia and the other the self-determination of its ethnic components. The Abkhaz hold that these principles are mutually exclusive arguing that in their case only independence will offer a fair chance of survival. This is their conclusion from a long experience of co-existence with the Georgians which, they argue, has exposed them time and again to aggression and the risk of annihilation.

But is it really so that Abkhazia can survive only as an independent state, that independence, like manna from heaven, will be the sole guarantor of their peace and happiness, in a word, can self-determination only be had through secession and independence? History shows that more often than not secession has resulted in renewed instability because already existing problems were not solved but only transferred to another political level.Look at the Balkans where the break-up of Yougoslavia into a number of independent states can hardly be interpreted as a striking success story. Moreover: what does „independence“ of a state nowadays mean in real terms? In substance, it tends to create a multitude of new dependencies. In the Abkhaz case it would most probably end up in a very high degree of dependence from Russia which, as the still dominating power in the region,is the sole guarantor of Abkhazia’s security and currently contributes more than one half to the Abkhaz state budget.

Let us also be aware in this context that independence is basically a concept of the 19th century national state.Meanwhile we have come to learn a lot about its shortcomings and insonsistencies. Among them figures a notorious inability to deal with minority issues. However, both Georgia and Abkhazia will continue to have strong ethnic minorities inside their borders, in the Abkhaz case these minorities, despite the expulsion of some 220 000 Georgians during the 19992/3 war, will make up almost one half of the population.

Under such circumstances it seems worth considering once again and in all seriousness one option which has already been discussed in the 1990ies and the beginning 2000 years: the option of having Abkhaz and Georgians join under the roof of one state. After careful scrutiny the Abkhaz may discover that this is a better way of safeguarding their identity than to live „independent“ under the supervision of a powerful neighbour. However, it must be clear that any such state cannot be of the centralist type as laid down in the current Georgian constitution. In the past Georgian governments have repeatedly come out with the proposal to give to the Abkhaz autonomy rights broader than anything which history has known so far. It is up to the Georgians to spell this out in greater detail and to make it look not a tactical move, but a really attractive and convincing offer – attractive also in the sense that Georgia continues its path to build a truly democratic state. There are those who will object that never before in history has the Caucasus known a model of a functioning political autonomy for ethnic minorities. What a chance for Georgia to undertake a pioneering effort in this area!

Discussing the status issue at this point in time when there are virtually no contacts between Abkhaz and Georgians may seem heretic to some, unreal to others. But this is necessary to realize the dimension of the tasks ahead.

Solutions may lie in a future difficult to determine today. After the 2008 August war Georgia needs to come to terms with a situation in which the secession of Abkhazia and also of South Ossetia may continue for long. But it is equally obvious that a unilateral proclamation of independence, as practised by Abkhazia, can hardly be considered to be the end of the story.

 

3. Some priority tasks of our day to revive a peace process

This finally brings me to some urgent tasks of our day. Neighbours like the Georgians and the Abkhaz must not be allowed to live in a permanent state of confrontation. This would constitute a threat which would extend not only to the Caucasus as a whole, but far beyond its regional context. Therefore, the first priority must now be to restore a peace process which is worth its name. One of its basic elements, indispensable as ever, is certainly securing cease-fire lines by efficient mechanisms of crisis prevention. But something more meaningful has to be added to the agenda which is: re-establishment of people-to-people contacts across artificially constructed border lines (as a German I may feel particularly concerned in this regard), and re-establishment also of regional ties in areas such as transport, business, social life and culture.

In clear terms: what is needed at this point is a program of reconciliation and confidence-building in practical fields including building down militant rhetoric which, unfortunately, is still prevalent. This may turn out to be a very time-consuming process considering the damage which has been caused by two wars in the last 20 years and by traumatized people on both sides deeply

shaped by this experience. Meanwhile a new generation is growing up which has not been in direct contact with each other. It will face difficulties to communicate given the fact that increasingly young Georgians are unable to speak Russian and, conversely, the Abkhaz ignore the Georgian language.

Gestures of reconciliation may be a first step to overcome the deadlock.They should include a mutual readiness to speak about own mistakes .Why not, for example, articulate words of regret to each other on the occasion of the forthcoming anniversary of the outbreak of the war, with the Georgians taking the lead? This could be followed by some practical actions; on the Georgian side: why not offer cooperation on helping to restore losses which the Abkhaz National Archives have suffered on 22 October 1992 when these were burnt by Georgian troops? And the Abkhaz to answer, for example, by gestures concerning re-burial of those Georgians who died in the 1992/93 war on Abkhaz soil? First attempts to solve this issue were undertaken under UN aegis in the 1990ies, but they remained futile.

The Georgian government seems to have recognized this challenge by advancing, in January 2010, a strategy program of measures geared to confidence-building and reconciliation. However, its record in practice does not look stunning at the moment. A review of the program in light of practical experience would seem appropriate. Why not try to involve the Abkhaz side in such a program review, possibly in the framework of the Geneva Talks?

I continue to think that in such an effort to restore a full-fledged peace process international actors like the UN, OSCE and EU could still have a useful role to play considering also some of their experience from the past. Their mandates should therefore be renewed. More than ever, the European Union should remain committed to the settlement of a conflict which is taking place at its doorstep. Last but not least, civil society organisations should be invited to support and enhance initiatives to the maximum of their capacity.

 

Dieter Boden, Ambassador (ret); former Special Representative of the UN Secretary General in Georgia (1999-2002)
 


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