In this testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs, Crisis Group expert Olesya Vartanyan analyses the conflict dynamics in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the breakaway territories from Georgia recognised as independent by Russia, and explains how Washington can promote stability there.
Originally published in U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs
Originally published in EUREN Brief
Originally published in World Politics Review
Talks between Georgia, Russia and de facto South Ossetian officials resumed following incident at line of separation in South Ossetian conflict zone, while de facto authorities in Abkhazia initiated steps to address COVID-19 fallout. In Abkhazia, after de facto govt 14 July declared region free of COVID-19, de facto officials early July travelled to Russia to discuss reopening of border to Russian tourists in attempt to address increasing financial pressure and budget shortfall; however, 25 new coronavirus cases confirmed during month. For second time since border closure in Feb due to coronavirus outbreak, de facto Abkhaz govt 13-17 July allowed over 2,000 residents to return to Abkhazia from Georgia-controlled territory, including ethnic Abkhaz and Georgians. Govt 11 July reported Russian border guards inflicted bullet-injury on Georgian citizen at line of separation in South Ossetian conflict zone; U.S. 17 July condemned incident during Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe Permanent Council session. Representatives from Georgia and Russia and de facto officials from South Ossetia 30 July held first meeting of Incident Prevention and Response Mechanism (forum to discuss situation on line of separation) since Aug 2019 to discuss “issues pertaining to stabilisation and normalisation on the ground” and impact of closed boundary crossings; parties agreed to plan subsequent meeting scheduled for Sept. U.S. House Appropriations Committee 9 July approved bill to provide $132mn aid to Georgia, but for first time made aid conditional on govt implementation of new electoral reform, support for independence of judiciary, free media access to information and govt measures to limit “informal rule of oligarchs”.
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.
Unresolved conflicts and breakaway territories divide five out of six of the European Union’s Eastern Partnership countries, most of them directly backed by the Russian Federation. But a policy of isolating the people living in these conflict regions narrows the road to peace.
Originally published in Today's Zaman