Benedikt Harzl

The need for real conflict transformation in the Abkhazian-Georgian dimension

The Republic of Abkhazia – sometimes often referred to as „de facto“ or „partially recognized“ - has existed for almost twenty years. Even though it remains, and will most likely continue to remain unrecognized by most of the so-called „International Community“ for the foreseeable future, it has silently but steadily begun to fulfil traditional state functions, it has started to appear – albeit on a very modest level – on the international arena and enjoys fully-fledged legitimacy among its citizens.

Nevertheless, it would be a huge misjudgement to claim that, through its recognition by the Russian Federation in 2008, the conflict story has finally come to an end and that all hurdles for sovereign statehood were thereby surmounted. Much to the contrary, Abkhazia has still very limited access to international bodies (even its participation in the Geneva talks does not happen on institutional eye level with Georgia, but only in the format of so-called informal discussion groups) as well as donor or aid agencies, investments originating from other countries than Russia leave a lot to be desired, Abkhazians suffer to some degree even from physical isolation since their Schengen visa applications are regularly refused, and not unimportantly, Abkhazia is confronted with the hardly flattering image of being a region occupied by the Russian Federation. Indeed, Georgia has been very successful in portraying Abkhazia and its multi-ethnic population as nothing else but an abulic and manipulated object in the geopolitical adventures of the Kremlin. Tbilisi has equally succeeded in politicizing both the roots of the conflict and its outcomes. Yet, even if it is clear to any neutral observer that the Georgian claim of Russian „occupation“ of Abkhazia is objectively and legally incorrect, even if it is also clear that official Georgian state strategies for engagement with Abkhazia are designed primarily for international audiences since they fail to deliver any serious results on the ground, one has to conclude that since 2008 the conflict transformad from a Georgian-Abkhazian conflict into an international confrontation, with Russia and Georgia at loggerheads. And this development is potentially depriving Abkhazia of its own room for maneuvre and indeed, the concern of growing Russian influence in Abkhazia is even shared by many Abkhaz as well.

Therefore, and apart from the fact that it is only Abkhazia and Georgia which will have to find a solution alone, the International Community – and most importantly – the European Union would be well advised to help to re-transform the logic and the discourse of this confrontation back into a Abkhazian-Georgian dimension. Much has already been said, written and published in this context about possible policies of „engagement without recognition“ towards Abkhazia which require innovative approaches, some level imaginary power and most importantly realistic assessments based on pragmatic attitudes. However, to carry out these ideas, Europe has to understand that it can not provide assistance in conflict resolution if its actions always need to be either approved or directly requested by Tbilisi. A policy of engagement without recognition has to be an independent approach without any interventions by third parties – the case of EU-Northern Cyprus engagement could provide some valuable lessons. This approach will of course not bring the conflict to an end – but it can serve as an invaluable complementary instrument for transforming a conflict, of which both Abkhazians and Georgians are suffering until today, and can hence provide incentives for future negotiation mechanisms. And indeed, this is not only for the sake of inter-regional stability in the South Caucasus, it is important in terms of the credibility of the EU as strong international actor.

Benedikt Harzl
Researcher at the Russian East European Eurasian Studies Centre (REEES), University of Graz, AUSTRIA

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