Ghia Nodia

Georgian - Abkhaz Conflict

The conflict in or for Abkhazia is a hostage of conflicting orthodoxies, hypocrisies, and taboos. One cannot be “objective” about them, but one can try to be sober and realistic.

There are at least four conflicts here. First, it is an internal Abkhazian conflict. The ethnic Abkhaz community considers Abkhazia to be the land of the Abkhaz, but ethnic Georgians who lived there thought it to be their land as well. Both sides used historical arguments in order to justify the primacy (or, in the Georgian case, at least equality) of their claims. Other ethnic groups (Armenians, Russians, etc) could not assert historical primacy, but they were legitimate residents of the place as well. This conflict was partly resolved by expelling the Georgians after the war in 1993, but the Georgian state claims they have the right to return, and the international community agrees. There is also a lingering conflict over the status of the Georgians living in the Gali district in Abkhazia. In addition, Armenian and Russian communities continue to be important players. All these together make long-term Abkhazian-ness of Abkhazia (in the ethno-national sense) problematic.

The second one is between the Georgian state and the ethnic Abkhazian community as represented by de facto authorities in Sukhumi. It is a strictly ethno-political conflict about the status of the territory: Georgia deems Abkhazia to be part of Georgia, Sukhumi authorities insist this is an independent country. Sukhumi and Russia consider this conflict resolved, Georgia and the international community – not.

The third conflict is between Georgia and Russia over Abkhazia. Russia denies Georgia its right to be genuinely sovereign and choose its direction: genuinely independent Georgia undermines Russia’s project to be a regional hegemon in the former Soviet space. Abkhazia (as well as South Ossetia) just happened to be the theatres for this conflict: it became fully clear in August 2008 and afterwards, though Russia played an important (if not a decisive) role in the wars of the early 1990s as well. This conflict is still under way: in 2008, Russia failed to change the course of Georgia, but apparently still hopes to have its way. Now Abkhazia and South Ossetia are military bridgeheads for Russia to keep pressure against Georgia.

The fourth conflict is between Russia and the West that exists at least in the minds of the Russian political elite. The former imagines itself to be slighted and squeezed out of its legitimate sphere by the West, with Georgia being the latter’s Trojan Horse in its backyard: something Cuba was for the US during the Cold War. NATO expansion – specifically, the project of Georgia joining NATO – is the most annoying expression of this “squeezing” of Russia’s power. As the Russian leadership publicly admits, for it the rationale of the 2008 war was to stop NATO expansion. It claims to be successful in that. However, NATO membership for Georgia was not taken away from the agenda, although the war probably contributed to postponing it. Status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia continues to be the point of disagreement between Russia and the West: at this point, they play it down agreeing to disagree, but the issue is still a spoiler. In his second presidency, Vladimir Putin’s rhetoric has become even more anti-western. So, this issue is not resolved either.

This makes Abkhazia the ground of four unresolved conflicts. Which of them is more important? It depends, for whom. Over hundred thousand IDPs from Abkhazia who still live in dismal even if somewhat improved conditions have not given up the hope of going back: for them, the first conflict is still the most important one. The international conflict resolution community is focused on the second aspect and is annoyed by the insistence of the Georgian government to shift focus elsewhere. The Georgian government feels existential threat from Russia and is naturally concentrated on it. It reluctantly recognizes that it also has a conflict with the Abkhaz community but the latter is fully submerged under the much more pressing problem of the Russian occupation. The Russian leadership is centered on negotiating its status vis-á-vis Washington and Brussels: Abkhazia and even Georgia are secondary to that. In future, Russia may start looking to Abkhazia more through the prism of its own North Caucasian troubles. For Europe and US, the priority is to avoid new headaches but not to give ground either.

What can one do about all this? I am skeptical about any sizeable progress. 2008 war lead to a deeper refreezing of all the conflicts: it appears that the major actors involved are still not ready to really deal with them. Something very important should happen in order to move us away from this dead point.

Ghia Nodia
Professor of politics and director of the International School for Caucasus Studies at Ilia State University, and chairman, the Caucasus Institute of Peace, Democracy and Development (CIPDD) in Tbilisi. GEORGIA


The Stalin-Beria Terror in Abkhazia, 1936-1953