Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Georgia Struggles to Find Viable Paths to Peace

Government roadmap envisages direct route to restoring sovereignty over Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but experts say more innovative approaches are needed.
By Giorgi Tskhvitava
  • Mamuka Kuparadze, a Georgian film-maker who often works with his counterparts in Abkhazia. (Photo: Mirian Koridze)
    Mamuka Kuparadze, a Georgian film-maker who often works with his counterparts in Abkhazia. (Photo: Mirian Koridze)

While all Georgian politicians underline how keen they are to bring an end to the long-running conflicts with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, experts say none of them has come up with a workable plan.

Georgia lost control of the two regions in separatist wars in the early 1990s, and restoring sovereignty has been a policy goal ever since. The conflicts displaced some 300,000 people whose chances of a swift return home have dimmed over they years.

Negotiations over possible solutions have come to nothing, and the brief Georgian-Russian conflict in South Ossetia in August 2008 made the chances of an amicable settlement there and in Abkhazia look even remoter, as Moscow formally recognised both territories as independent states.

Current official thinking in Tbilisi is set out in a “state strategy on the occupied territories”. It offers the South Ossetians and Abkhazians economic, cultural and infrastructure investment in return for accepting Georgia rule. The strategy reiterates Georgia’s firm stand on sovereignty over all territory within its internationally-recognised borders.

Shota Malashkhia, chairman of the Georgian parliamentary committee for restoring territorial integrity, insists the first step must be a Russian troop withdrawal from both South Ossetia and Abkhazia, to be achieved through international pressure on Moscow. “Only after that is achieved will the strategy become feasible,” he added.

Abkhazia and South Ossetia maintain that Tbilisi must recognise their independence before they will enter talks, which will be on equal terms.

Since neither side is prepared to compromise on the essentials, analysts in Tbilisi believe their government’s current strategy is unattainable.

“I think the state strategy is a document just for the sake of a document,” said Mamuka Kuparadze, head of Studio Re and a documentary film-maker who often works with colleagues in Abkhazia.

Kuparadze suspects the document is merely an excuse for the Georgian government to exert more control over NGOs that work in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which is hardly a good way of building bridges.

Kuparadze was critical not just of the government, but also of the wider political debate in Georgia.

“Many political parties lack a real vision of how to resolve these conflicts, and are also short on information about what’s happening in those territories and what the Abkhazia and Ossetian public wants,” he said. “Nor do they have instruments that could influence things.

“The situation has changed, and returning to exactly where we were before isn’t an option. This country has to adapt to the new realities.”

Despite such expressions of scepticism, which are commonly heard from Georgians who work with people in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the government’s strategy enjoys support even among some opposition parties.

Nikoloz Laliashvili of the opposition Christian Democrats said his party viewed the strategy as a “good assessment”.

Laliashvili sees seeking a thaw in relations with Moscow as a key part of moving towards a settlement, but adds that his party is powerless to move that idea forward. “A responsible opposition party cannot bypass the authorities and independently embark on negotiations with the Russians,” he explained.

The Labour Party is also pressing for a resolution of the disputes with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, although as one of its leaders, Ioseb Shatberashbvili, pointed out, it has its own vision of how that might happen. The party’s plan envisages Georgia adopting a neutral foreign policy, getting rid of current president Mikheil Saakashvili, introducing democratic mechanisms, and resolving its territorial disputes through negotiations.

In Shatberashbvili’s view, “Once democracy and an independent judiciary have been established [in Georgia], the Abkhazians and Ossetians will be prepared to reintegrate.”

Experts say such statements suggest that many politicians either do not understand the nature of the two disputes, or that they prefer rhetoric to real action since the latter could lose them votes.

“If an opposition party had a different vision, it could come out with it and thereby improve its ratings, but almost no one is doing this,” Giorgi Khutsishvili, director of the International Centre for Conflicts and Negotiations, said.

Irakli Alasania, now head of the Free Democratic party but at one time head of the Abkhazian government-in-exile based in Georgia, is one of the few politicians who has put forward an alternative plan.

Alasania argues that the most productive way forward is to build trust and foster economic and cultural links with South Ossetia and Abkhazia, while postponing discussion of the contentious issues of their final status until a later time.

“Changing the business, trade and economic backdrop so that there are numerous contacts and connections between people on either side, and so that people on both sides can make money together and think jointly about how to improve things – therein lie the preconditions for restoring trust and beginning a dialogue on the political issues,” he said.

Other experts agree with him.

Kuparadze believes that before moving to a discussion on political solutions, Georgians and Abkhazians could work together on projects of mutual interest.

“Above all, these should be economic,” he said. “I don’t think the Abkhazians would currently join in a Georgian project directly, since they don’t trust us, but it could be a project of a region-wide nature,” he said.

Khutsishvili agrees that discussing final political aspirations is pointless at the present time.

“I think we need a temporary moratorium on discussions of status, since Georgia has one position and the Abkhazians and Ossetians have another, and they aren’t getting any closer,” he said. “We need to start talking about common interests, cooperating and restoring trust. The question of status can be discussed afterwards.”

Khutsishvili acknowledged that this might prove unpopular with the hundreds of thousands of people displaced from Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and who are now part of the Georgian electorate.

“It may be that this is a sensitive issue, and that there’s a reluctance to lose out politically. But in my view, that’s the wrong approach,” he said.

Giorgi Tskhvitava is head of the Association of Military Reporters in Georgia.

More IWPR's Global Voices