Dominique Caillat

Abkhazia: Lessons from Israel?

Having spent many years researching and writing about Jewish history and the Middle-East conflict[1], I am struck by parallels between Israel and Abkhazia. Could these similarities provide useful insights with respect to the South Caucasus?

Hang on: what parallels?!, you may rightly ask. What does the hyper mediatic Israeli-Palestinian disaster, with its ability to stir the emotions of citizens around the world and influence the policies of major powers, have to do with little Abkhazia, which no one outside the former Soviet territories and possibly West Germany can place on a map, assuming one has heard about it at all? How can one possibly compare Israel, with its mighty army and thriving economy, to weak Apsny, which struggles on all fronts with problems mostly inherited from years of communism, war and isolation?

Well, for one thing, the Abkhazians and the Israelis both strongly identify with a history that goes back to Antiquity and even mythical times; and they are both traumatized by a past marked by persecutions and deportations; both feel threatened in their existence and see life as a constant fight for survival; both have won wars against the odds, which have produced – as a result of outright expulsion, spontaneous flight from feared violence or refusal to let exiles return – a significant refugee problem (some have called it ethnic cleansing) of international concern; both will never let the refugees return en masse to their previous homes, for emotional but also demographic reasons; both have to deal with large ethnic minorities in their midst and are themselves ethnic minorities within a larger regional perspective; both depend on the support and goodwill of a superpower; both have large diasporas; finally, Israel has won international recognition but permanently fears losing legitimacy in the eyes of the world, while Abkhazia has not yet succeeded in its struggle for recognition[2].

So yes, my question is: what lessons, if any, can be drawn from the Mideast?

First, as in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, any negotiations with Georgia should centre as soon as possible on borders. As long as both entities do not agree on frontiers, there will be no significant progress in their relationship, just an existential fear that the enemy is still planning to strike back. Only an agreed border will provide a stable ground for cooperation and, why not – even though it is anathema today to the Abkhazians – the gradual build-up of a larger confederation of two or more States. In other words, first separate, then build bridges. Today the greatest obstacle to the acceptance of borders is, of course, the Georgian government, which has not yet accepted the loss of its former territory. A first step towards agreed borders would be a treaty of non-aggression.  

Second, there is no safety in a hostile environment. If the Abkhazians wish to live in security, they will have to overcome war traumatisms and negotiate a peace treaty with Georgia, in which compromises will have to be made so that each party may safeguard its honour rather than stand there as a total, humiliated loser. For Abkhazians, one area of compromise could be the treatment of the Georgian refugees. A number of exiles have already been allowed to return to the Gal province, but perhaps Abkhazia could open its doors slightly more, easing up certain conditions of return, particularly with respect to citizenship (see below). For all those, and they are the majority, who will not be allowed or will not wish to return, compensation will have to be paid, as envisaged in every earnest peace negotiation in the Mideast. On a more psychological level, both parties will have to recognize, one day, that violence was not perpetrated by one camp alone. Without diminishing Georgia’s responsibility for starting the war and engaging in well publicized acts of violence and vandalism, Abkhazians will have to look into their own actions. Both sides should apologize for possible crimes or at least express regret for the loss suffered by the opponent. In the Mideast too, apologies are deemed a necessary requisite to eventual peace.

Third, Israel is a striking example of a nation that has been systematically acting against its own best interests, obeying ideological principles and bending to internal political pressures, to the point of becoming a favoured target of harsh criticism in almost every international forum. Abkhazia too (like Georgia) often seems keen on self-destructive policies. Examples? Here are a few, at random, since this essay only attempts to start a debate, not to solve it:

- International organisations: Sukhum’s policy is to deny accreditation to any institution that is principally based in Tbilisi and is directed from there. I understand the problem and the position adopted by the Abkhazian authorities. But Abkhazia wants and needs to end its diplomatic isolation, it needs to secure for its citizens the right to travel anywhere they wish, it needs the assistance and funds that could flow from abroad, it needs to retain some autonomy from Russia and therefore diversify its international contacts, and it would only benefit from cooperation with international workers, promoting mutual understanding and goodwill. This calls for clever diplomacy, which could find a formula allowing the internationals to do their work without Abkhazia formally recognizing their Georgian status. That’s what diplomats do: devise formulas that enemies can live with, so that useful work may be accomplished.

- Europe: Recently, Abkhazia has made harsh statements about Europe and European representatives, constantly suspecting them of bowing to Georgian pressures. True, Europe has seemed over-attentive to Georgian propaganda and made few conciliatory gestures towards Sukhum. But Europe is not anti-Abkhazian. It simply finds itself in a quandary. First of all, even though it recognized Kosovo under special circumstances, it still passionately holds on to the principle of national integrity, as opposed to the right of self-determination. Present-day Europe is post-colonial and its driving mood is towards integration, not fragmentation. Second, Europe is wary and suspicious of Abkhazia’s sponsor and protector, the authoritarian and corrupt Russian leader Putin, a president who learned his life philosophy at the KGB. Abkhazia’s embrace of Russia, while understandable – Russia’s recognition and funding have arguably saved the Abkhazians from long-term insecurity and poverty –, is not such a good reference. Third, Georgia is in control of the important BTC pipeline: it is a partner that Europe will only be willing to antagonize if provided with overwhelming arguments. So what can be done to encourage the EU to change its position towards Abkhazia? Some ideas – and I am sure Abkhazian experts will come up with many more:

  • Passports: Abkhazia has strongly criticized the issuance of so-called “neutral” passports and refused to recognize them. Prima facie: logical. But could one look at it another way? How does the issuance of neutral passports by Georgia differ from the issuance of Russian passports by Russia (which Abkhazians have gladly accepted)? Why insist on everyone having exclusively a Russian and /or an Abkhazian passport? Isn’t a “neutral” (second or third) passport an elegant solution to an unnerving dilemma? And coming back to the Georgian refugees: I agree that they have to show a basic allegiance to Abkhazia. But why can’t they have a double nationality? (In my own family, almost everyone has at least two passports). Let me quote the great George Steiner: Borders are made to be crossed. Passports should be collected like stamps. Trees have roots, homo sapiens – what a proud word! – has legs. He can, he must go on a pilgrimage throughout the human world. There is a single phrase written in his visa: nihil humanum alienum mihi, nothing human is foreign to me[3].

  • Suchum(i): Stop being obsessed with the correct spelling of Abkhazian names. Yes, the “I” letter at the end of words is Georgian. But only the Caucasians and possibly the Russians really know this. Germans still call Gdansk “Danzig”, Wrocław “Breslau” and Kaliningrad “Königsberg”, without creating diplomatic incidents[4]. What does it matter, how the others name you? Is an extra-letter worth returning incoming mail to the sender? Abkhazians may very well express their irritation, but why refuse to even read the messages?[5] Everything in the world is Darwinian: it’s about constant exchange and adaptation, not the frantic accumulation and invention of new, unshakable taboos. Abkhazia is lost to Georgia, and no amount of i-letters will change that.

  • Invite the Europeans to Abkhazia. Let them see for themselves. It’s such a beautiful, seductive country. Think mediation, not aggression or self-protection. Think of neutrality, not of an army. Model yourself, not on traumatized Israel but on peaceful Switzerland, the country that has built its wealth and security upon the respect of all minorities, which are over-represented in all political instances by word of law. Think of the open Black Sea more than the dense Caucasian forests. Open up like an oyster and show your pearl!

  • Work closely with Russia, which seems to be your fate, but make sure you will not be choked in this mighty friend’s embrace, or used by it as a pawn to further its own selfish geopolitical interests. Diversify.

  • Make sure that the existential need to protect your culture does not end up in the mere revival of ancient rites and patriarchal customs. The universe is Darwinian and so is Abkhazia: traditions are essential, but societies need to evolve. Emancipation is not a dirty capitalist word but a fundamental aspect of our humanity. A society is as free and evolved as its women are. Don’t regress, like parts of Israel (and Palestine) are doing.

A final word about Israel, a country which started in 1948 as a miracle but then let its traumas dictate its policies. Now it is sadly in danger of becoming a pariah on the international stage. What a shame, what a loss, a dream turning into a nightmare. Still, many Israelis work at turning the wheel. Invite Israeli academics, peace activists, writers, and let them tell you their nation’s story. Why not organize a workshop or a conference about the pitfalls of excessive nationalism, militarism, introversion and fear, and in order to find new ideas and incentives for the development of an increasingly modern, democratic and emancipated Abkhazia?

[1] La Paix ou la mort – Dans les coulisses du drame israélo-palestinien, Labor et Fides 2007 ; État de piège, théâtre, Christophe Chomant Éditeur, Rouen 2010 ; Kidnapping, théâtre, Christophe Chomant éditeur, Rouen 2010 ; Proche-Orient: Quel espoir? Journal de Genève, Geneva 2007; Leb wohl, Schmetterling – Theresienstadt, theatre, 1998-2000 international tour.

[2] I will not dwell on the Palestinian tragedy, which falls outside the scope of this essay.

[3] George Steiner’s acceptance speech on receiving the Ludwig-Börne-Prize in the Paulskirche, Frankfurt, May 25, 2003.

[4] And think of Cisjordan, which has at least four politically loaded names that define the name-giver more than the land: Judea and Samaria, West Bank, Palestine, Occupied Territories.

[5] Vyacheslav Chirikba: "We simply will not read these letters"

Dominique Caillat
Writer. (Fiction, non-fiction, plays, journalism – Focus: WWI and II, Third Reich, Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Darwin and evolution, Abkhazia, biotechnology and ethics, environment) GERMANY


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