Georgia's Open Wound

A reluctance to admit past mistakes and seal a dignified peace with the Abkhaz is a dangerous symptom of Georgian malaise.
By Paata Zakareishvili in Tbilisi (CRS No. 15, 21-Jan-00)

Abkhazia remains a raw nerve in Georgian political circles. After six trouble-dogged years, the peace process has reached a deadlock: this year a Georgian delegation returned from talks in New York with nothing to show for their efforts. A meeting between Georgian ministers and Abkhazian leaders in Moscow was equally inconclusive. On January 31, the future of Russian peacekeeping forces on the Georgia-Abkhazia border will be reviewed. There is little doubt that their mandate--and that of the United Nations (UN) observers--will be extended.

Latent conflicts only surfaced after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but the Russian Federation has continued to intervene in all territorial disputes, blaming all participants and refusing to discuss their individual duties and responsibilities.

The relationship between Georgia and Abkhazia has been tense for decades, with Georgia failing to recognize their bid for self-identification and Abkhazians determined to unite with Russia. On August 14, 1992, under the pretext of guarding railway connections, Georgia's State Council (still unrecognized legally) sent troops into the region, which were confronted by the ethnic Abkhazians (only about 17 per cent of the population). By October 1993 the Abkhazian separatists, who enjoyed Russian military support, had forced Georgian troops out of their territory.

Casualties on both sides are estimated at 8,000 while 270,000 refugees flooded out of the region and tens of thousands more were left homeless by the conflict. The UN Security Council sent observers into the region before the end of military operations, increasing the number after the hostilities ceased. On August 22, 1994, the Council of Commonwealth of Independent States leaders ruled that peacekeeping troops should enter the conflict zone.

Few attempts have been made to reevaluate the origins and consequences of armed conflict in Abkhazia. Although the crisis was triggered by the Georgian government's attempt to protect vital railway tracks, few politicians are prepared to admit their mistakes. The majority still prefers to take refuge in popular mythology and refuses to take responsibility for the conflict.

Today, Georgian propaganda continues its smear campaign against Abkhazia in a bid to widen the gulf between the two nations. Both in Abkhazia and Georgia, only a small minority actually support the ongoing peace talks. In Abkhazia, extremists are devoting considerable efforts to renewing hostilities in the region.

Moves to settle the conflict were the first steps towards founding a new Georgian state. Many blame the government's initial failure on the activities of Abkhazian separatists but in fact this early experiment in democracy was undermined by old-fashioned state-craft and an entrenched Soviet mentality.

For the Georgian state to continue its natural growth, it is essential to admit the mistakes made in Abkhazia. The regime failed to take advantage of the opportunity granted to it by the international community and failed to find a common language with its own people. As a result, thousands of people lost their lives and hundreds of thousands more were left homeless. The infrastructure of a once prosperous region was left in ruins.

This reluctance to admit past mistakes and seal a dignified peace with the Abkhazian people is a dangerous symptom of Georgian malaise. Breaking with the past is essential to future development. History is full of similar examples: Germany rising from the ashes of the Second World War; America's emphasis on civic responsibilities in the aftermath of Vietnam. Georgia, however, refuses to draw the obvious conclusions from its defeat in Abkhazia. Instead, it prefers to wallow in injured pride and wait for someone else to solve its problems. From the very outset, it rejected any positive peace initiatives, relying on international organisations and other mediator countries.

The defeat itself was only part due to military incompetence: the war was lost as soon as the Georgian government decided to punish its own population for so-called disobedience. Abkhazia's bid for ethnic recognition and social security arouses little sympathy in Tbilisi - certainly no efforts have been made to assess the origins of the conflict and reach an acceptable compromise. Georgia's home and foreign policies continue to hark back to age-old concepts of displaced minorities and territorial integrity. On occasion, they smack of genocide. The war of words will serve to erode Abkhazia's determination in the long term but meanwhile the chances of compromise become increasingly remote.

The separatist movement in Abkhazia was not born of itself. The bid for independence was triggered by Georgian xenophobia and intolerance. Either through reluctance or incompetence, the government in Tbilisi proved itself incapable of driving a wedge between the separatist leaders and the population at large. It then proceeded to adopt short-sighted and even criminal policies towards the Abkhazian people, forging a new solidarity among the breakaway factions.

It was unsurprising that the Abkhazians should choose to flock to separatist banners when the Georgians continued to remind them of their "guest status" in the newly formed republic. The separatists, on the other hand, promised a secure and dignified future in their historical homeland. The Georgian government refused to differentiate between the people and the separatist leaders.

If Georgia is committed to reasserting its jurisdiction in Abkhazia, it must find a way of bridging the gulf between the two peoples and avoid increasing the tension. The politicians in Tbilisi are adamant that responsibilities should be divided between the warring factions. Entrenched thinking refuses to contemplate reform or compromise of any kind. Unfortunately, Abkhazia is unlikely to make any concessions until the separatists are convinced the Georgian position is showing signs of radical change. So far, Tbilisi seems unwilling to take the initiative.

Paata Zakareishvili is a member of Georgia's Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights, Petitions and Development of Civil Society.