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

Georgian Leader's Abkhaz Choices

New Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili begins a rethink of his country’s policy on Abkhazia.
By Gocha Khundadze

In his short inauguration speech by the grave of King David the Builder on January 25, Georgia’s new president, Mikheil Saakashvili, repeated the words “integrity,” “reconstruction,” and “unification” many times. At the beginning and the end of the ceremony, held in Tbilisi later the same day, he vowed to achieve all these things.


The Gelati monastery - last abode of David IV, the King of all Abkhaz, Kartvel and Kakh, who united Georgia in the late 11th and early 12th centuries - was deliberately chosen as a venue not only to underline Saakashvili’s desire to unite all citizens of Georgia but to reunify the country by bringing the dissident territories of Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Ajaria into the fold.


Of these, although Ajaria is the most immediate problem for the new leader, the issue of the other Black Sea region, Abkhazia, which seceded de facto from Georgia after a bloody war in 1992-3, is the most daunting.


“The Abkhaz conundrum cannot be resolved in a week,” he told the press soon after his resounding election victory on January 4. “Until Georgia enforces order, revives its economy and builds up strong armed forces, not even the UN can help us deal with Abkhazia.”


Although Saakashvili mentioned “strong armed forces” in the Georgian-Abkhaz context, he also seemed to be ruling out the use of force to resolve the issue.


“I will never reconcile myself to the break-up of Georgia, but military intervention would be the most nightmarish course of action imaginable,” he said. “Enough blood has been shed, and I declare that my intent is to settle the issue peacefully.”


Many have seen a hopeful sign for the stalled peace process in the recent resignation of Tamaz Nadareishvili, the leader of what Tbilisi calls the “Legitimate Government of Abkhazia in Exile”, and the man who has been the most prominent representative of the Georgian exile community from Abkhazia for the past decade.


Nadareishvili was forced out of his job after losing a vote of confidence in the Supreme Soviet of Abkhazia, the body of which he was the chairman.


He was the leading hawk on the Abkhaz issue, repeatedly calling for military intervention to reverse the defeat of 1993. More than 200,000 Georgians were forced to leave Akhazia as a result of the war.


In private conversations, Georgian state officials make no attempt to conceal that Nadareishvili was out of favour. He was repeatedly accused of having an authoritarian style and not listening to the views of his community. His “government in exile” was also widely criticised for corruption and inaction and the authorities followed up by arresting a number of high-ranking officials in the Nadareishvili administration on charges of embezzling public funds.


Manoeuvring is now going on to find a replacement for Nadareishvili, who will probably be much more moderate.


The peace process over Abkhazia, frozen for much of last year, has been effectively suspended while Georgia went through its political crisis. The two sides met for security talks in the Gali region earlier this month, but high-level negotiations are not set to resume until next month at the earliest, when a meeting is planned in Geneva.


The Abkhaz have so far been wary of Saakashvili, who has made many different statements about Abkhazia and has the reputation of being a populist nationalist.


Some believe he should use his huge popularity to talk compromise. “I would recommend that the new leaders of Georgia hurry to declare their commitment to political dialogue with the Abkhaz, their intention to promote economic relations between Tbilisi and Sukhumi, reopen mutual railway, marine, road, and air traffic, denounce Georgia’s economic sanctions previously imposed in Abkhazia, and start talking about restoring Georgian-Abkhaz relations rather than Georgia’s national integrity,” said Zurab Erkvania, deputy chief of the national intelligence agency of Georgia.


Erkvania was a member of the “government in exile” for four years but fell out with his boss, Nadareishvili. According to informed sources, who asked to withhold their names, they split in 1998 when Erkvania blamed Nadareishvili for triggering the disastrous events of March that year in the Gali region, when tens of thousands of Georgians fled the area.


Erkvania argues that the “government in exile” should be disbanded altogether and replaced by a small but more flexible coordinating body.


“This body, whose original mission was to deal with the social, economic, and cultural problems of refugees, gradually lost its functional content and was reduced to the state of a mere bureaucratic accessory serving one man,” Erkvania told IWPR.


Scenting change in the air, Georgian internally displaced persons or IDPs from Abkhazia have become more vocal in recent months, staging several protests and hunger strikes in Tbilisi and the provinces.


Last week, Eteri Astamirova, Georgia’s new minister for refugees, and herself a member of the “Supreme Soviet of Abkhazia” in exile, was briefly detained by a group of angry IDPs in the western town of Zugdidi, demanding payment of overdue benefits.


Many IDPs are also calling for new elections to decide who will be their leaders, in succession to the existing ones in the 38-member supreme soviet, who have been dubbed “the eternals” as they have held their jobs for 12 or 13 years.


“The revolution in Georgia was not directed personally against ex-president Shevardnadze, but rather against his system, of which the ‘Legitimate Government of Abkhazia in Exile’ was an integral part,” Malkhaz Pataraya, one of the leaders of the Joint Council of Refugee Community Groups and Political Associations.


Analysts believe that Saakashvili is likely to abolish the “government in exile” but not before Georgia’s parliamentary elections, scheduled for March 28.


Others say internal reshuffles must be a prelude to a bigger shift in policy.


“If all we want is to find a replacement [for Nadareishvili], it should be easy, but how is this going to advance the peace settlement process?” political commentator Armaz Akhvlediani, director of the School of Political Studies in Tbilisi, told IWPR.


Akhvlediani believes that a rethink in relations with Russia is a prerequisite for sorting out the Abkhazia issue. “Georgians must stop thinking that Russia is the cause of all evil,” he said. “We must get rid of this complex and make a clean start in our relationship with Russia while the option is there.”


Gocha Khundadze is assistant director of the Abkhaz TV & radio company based in Tbilisi.