Curbs on ethnic Georgians’ movement to and from breakaway Abkhazia are fuelling internal disputes and tensions with Tbilisi. South Ossetia’s recently calmed crisis shows the risks of ignoring the problem. Abkhazia’s election – though widely considered illegitimate – is a good moment for a course correction.
Tensions rose between Georgia and its breakaway region of South Ossetia as Georgia responded to Russia and de facto South Ossetia’s construction of border fence by building two police stations near Georgian villages close to separation line. Govt 14 Aug said Russian and de facto South Ossetian border guards were again building fence on line between South Ossetia and Georgia-controlled territory, this time in Gugutiantkari village; Russian and de facto border guards have been trying to erect barriers along separation line since 2011. UN, Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, U.S., EU, Poland, Lithuania and several other govts condemned fence construction. Georgia 24 and 25 Aug started erecting two police stations near other villages close to separation line. De facto South Ossetia claimed one near village of Chorchana was in territory it controlled, and 28 Aug deployed armoured vehicles to patrol area; Georgia denied building was in South Ossetia. Officials from Georgia, Russia and de facto South Ossetia govt 29 Aug in Ergneti failed to discuss issue at meeting of Incident Prevention and Response Mechanism (IPRM), structure aimed at defusing tensions in conflict zone. De facto South Ossetia official 29 Aug demanded Georgia dismantle police building near Chorchana, and said that, if it did not, local authorities would “take all … legal measures to ensure the security” of territory they control. Officials from Georgian interior and foreign ministries and EU Monitoring Mission observers 30 Aug were present in area. De facto officials 30 Aug erected flags on hills near police station and agreed to renew discussions in IPRM format. In Abkhazia’s 25 Aug presidential elections, no candidate won over 50% of votes, threshold required to avoid run-off; two candidates with most votes, incumbent Raul Khajimba, who won 24.83%, and Alkhaz Kvitsiniya, head of Amtsakhara opposition party, who won 22.91%, to compete in second round scheduled for 8 Sept. In lead-up to polls, Khajimba met Russian President Putin 6 Aug.
Informal trade is increasing between Georgia and the breakaway territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and between Abkhazia and countries outside the region. Trade alone cannot transform the parties’ core political differences. But talks among them on mutually beneficial commerce could open lines of communication long cemented shut.
Whether the smooth transfer of power Georgia achieved after October’s bitter election sets a standard for democracy in its region depends on whether the new government can strengthen the independence and accountability of state institutions in what remains a fragile, even potentially explosive political climate.
On the third anniversary of their war over South Ossetia, talks between Georgia and Russia are needed to create positive momentum in a still unstable environment.
Georgia has maintained political and economic stability despite the shock of the 2008 war with Russia, but the government needs to use the two years before the next elections to create public trust in democratic institutions by engaging in meaningful dialogue with the opposition over further reforms.
The historically coveted region of Abkhazia has become even more dependent on Moscow since Russia’s controversial recognition a year and a half ago.
Ten months after the “August war” between Georgia and Russia, violent incidents and the lack of an effective security regime in and around the conflict zones of South Ossetia and Abkhazia create a dangerous atmosphere in which extensive fighting could again erupt.
The Georgian government has been in crisis for quite a long time. Mr. Ivanishvili’s comeback and popular protests are just symptoms of this process.
Over the last three years, we have been seeing a serious decline in the situation in the districts [of South Ossetia] mainly populated by ethnic Georgians.
There was a social media campaign two years ago [in Abkhazia] encouraging people to boycott the funerals of anyone who died after seeking medical care in Tbilisi.
Renewed fighting in eastern Ukraine is quickly turning into a litmus test of Russia’s intentions in backing Ukrainian separatist rebels, and the real willingness of the West, in particular the United States, to support Kyiv. Fears over Washington’s wavering may also cause positions to harden in the protracted conflicts in Europe’s East, most immediately in Georgia.
Originally published in Today's Zaman
Originally published in Bloomberg
Georgia is in the midst of transitioning from a presidential to a mixed parliamantary system, in which much power will lie with the office of the Prime Minister. Elections later this year will determine whether current President Mikheil Saakashvili's party, United National Movement, will retain control of government. Medea Turashvili, Caucasus analyst for the International Crisis Group, discusses what implications this might have on Georgia's domestic and foreign policy.