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Abkhazia: The Long Road to Reconciliation
Abkhazia: The Long Road to Reconciliation
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Video: Russia and Turkey in the Black Sea and the South Caucasus
Video: Russia and Turkey in the Black Sea and the South Caucasus
Report 224 / Europe & Central Asia

Abkhazia: The Long Road to Reconciliation

More than two decades after the Soviet Union’s collapse, the three-sided conflict involving breakaway Abkhazia, Georgia and Russia is far from a solution so all should concentrate on achievable goals, including intensified dialogue on basic security-related and humanitarian issues.

Executive Summary

Georgia’s peaceful change of government in 2012 stoked optimism about reducing the open hostility with Russia and Abkhazia since the 2008 war. Though swift agreement on larger questions – like Abkhazia’s status or the return of Georgian internally displaced persons (IDPs) – is highly unlikely, the three sets of authorities at least share a common interest to cooperate in incremental confidence-building measures. For the immediate future, therefore, it would be beneficial for all sides to concentrate on achievable goals, including an intensified dialogue on basic security-related and humanitarian issues.

Russia wields effective control over Abkhazia because of its huge financial support and large military presence, so any major progress on resolving the twenty-year conflict thus requires a similar breakthrough between Tbilisi and Moscow, who have no diplomatic relations. Since becoming the head of Georgia’s government in October 2012, Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili has made improved ties with Moscow a priority. Progress toward the partial lifting – for wines and mineral waters – of Russia’s seven-year embargo on Georgian produce is a first concrete outcome of his efforts. But the new government increasingly emphasises that without a change in Moscow’s positions, Russia remains “a threat” and Georgia’s military must be kept on alert.

Some clear areas of discord exist between the Abkhaz and Russians as well. Russia would like more opportunities for its citizens to buy property and invest in the development of tourist infrastructure but has faced legal obstacles and public discontent. Relations between the Orthodox Church in Moscow and Sukhumi, the capital of Abkhazia, are strained. Disputes over territory and a new road to the North Caucasus demonstrate the Abkhaz leadership’s unwillingness to hand over all authority. With Russian funding for a massive socio-economic program apparently held up, Abkhazia’s 2013 budget may be only half what it was in 2012.

Nevertheless, officially at least, the Abkhaz have so far reacted coolly to Georgian overtures, including for resumption of direct talks, even though the new government in Tbilisi includes several ministers with track records of constructive ties with them. In the last few months, Georgia’s new government ended support for armed groups operating in Abkhazia’s Gali district and started to modify legislation and practice related to its “law on occupied territories”, which placed largely symbolic limits on the free movement of goods and people in and out of Abkhazia. Unlike the previous government, it has focused more on offering ways to engage with the Abkhaz, rather than largely rhetorical declarations of its official sovereignty over the entity.

Despite the seeming intractability of political questions, taking up any chance to enhance security in the region would be positive for all sides. In recent months, there has been a marked decrease in violence in the Gali district, but the area, with Russian troops guarding the administrative boundary line (ABL) dividing Georgian and Abkhaz-held territory, still inspires much distrust and sense of insecurity. The local population has limits on its free movement and other basic rights. Moscow has also made claims about alleged radical Islamist activities in the entity and about plots to launch attacks against the Sochi “[Winter] Olympic Zone” just 4km from Abkhazia. Abkhaz leaders themselves speak of threats posed by the possible growth of Islamist radicalism.

A beneficial step would be the immediate resumption of the Gali Incident Prevention and Response Mechanism (IPRM) meetings and joint fact-finding missions that the Abkhaz are boycotting. Efforts should focus on a joint statement on the non-use of force, as proposed by the co-chairs of the Geneva International Discussions: the UN, Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and EU. Concentrating on broader security threats, like stability in Gali and perceived terrorism risks, Georgia could also show good-will by suspending its annual efforts to secure resolutions at the UN General Assembly on the right of Georgian IDPs to return to their homes. Abkhaz officials, who have protested the resolutions, could reciprocate by committing to start a real dialogue with the Georgians on IDP issues, including the return of their properties in Abkhazia and/or compensation.

Georgian officials have shown a willingness to be more flexible on humanitarian issues, such as removing legal or bureaucratic hurdles for residents of Abkhazia to obtain visas, especially to study abroad. The Abkhaz could respond by lifting barriers to mother tongue education for ethnic Georgians still living in the entity and increasing their presence in local administrative structures. All sides would benefit by seeking creative ways to facilitate trade and travel across the ABL for family visits, and trade, health or education purposes.

The international community, particularly the EU, should remain engaged in Abkhazia, seeking ways to increase the entity’s access and exposure to information and expertise. The Abkhaz have over the past several months become more critical of the work of the EU, Western states and international NGOs, suspending some activities. Sukhumi claims that this work is insignificant compared to Russian support and is disorganised, piecemeal and too focused on post-war emergency needs even though the situation has largely stabilised. Yet, it would not help Abkhazia’s cause to restrict its access to the outside world to its road to Russia.

Russia’s lack of implementation of the EU-brokered 2008 ceasefire agreement and the fate of Georgian IDPs prevented from returning to Abkhazia remain core issues of fundamental importance. However, this report concentrates on recent developments, and offers ways to establish some common ground that would benefit all sides. A subsequent separate report will deal with South Ossetia, which due to its much smaller size, idiosyncratic conflict history and extreme physical isolation deserves separate analysis.

Tbilisi/Sukhumi/Moscow/Istanbul/Brussels, 10 April 2013