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Georgia: Making Cohabitation Work
Georgia: Making Cohabitation Work
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Report 202 / Europe & Central Asia

Abkhazia: Deepening Dependence

The historically coveted region of Abkhazia has become even more dependent on Moscow since Russia’s controversial recognition a year and a half ago.

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Executive Summary

The historically coveted region of Abkhazia has become even more dependent on Moscow since Russia’s controversial recognition a year and a half ago. Russia is financing half the region’s budget, and against vigorous Georgian protests, it is spending $465 million to refurbish existing and build new military installations in the picturesque Black Sea coastal area. Virtually the entire population holds Russian citizenship, and almost all trade is with the northern neighbour. It will take constructive, creative thinking on the part of Georgian, Russian, Abkhazian and international actors alike to restore even a modicum of confidence between the parties to the conflict. Given Abkhazia’s unrealistic insistence that Georgia recognise it as independent and the equally unrealistic prospect that Sukhumi will acknowledge Georgia’s sovereignty, the two parties should focus on creating economic and humanitarian links without status preconditions in order to benefit both, build stability and give momentum to a long reconciliation process.

Abkhazian officials concede that the entity’s “independence” is in effect limited by the asymmetrical nature of its relationship with Russia but do not see their deepening dependence on Moscow as a threat. “Independence is a means to an end, and not an end in itself”, a high-ranking official told Crisis Group. “We have the amount of independence that meets our security and economic needs”.

In return for recognition and aid, Russia obtained highly prized military-strategic assets in Abkhazia, damaged Georgia’s drive to join NATO, demonstrated its anger at Western nations for their recognition of Kosovo and underlined its antipathy towards the government of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. Perhaps most notably, Moscow has shown that in certain circumstances it can flex its muscles unilaterally without suffering significant political costs. Relations with the U.S., NATO and the European Union (EU) are essentially back to normal, even though Moscow has failed to implement important elements of the ceasefire agreements concluded at the end of its August 2008 war with Georgia by President Medvedev and French President Sarkozy, the latter acting as the EU Presidency.

Abkhazia’s international status is far from settled. With only three countries other than Russia considering it independent from Georgia and no chance of any EU member-state or other major international recognition in the near term, the conflict is unresolved and could again destabilise the southern Caucasus. As many as 212,000 ethnic Georgians remain forcibly displaced, and whereas some ethnic Georgians have in the past been able to return to the Gali district, Abkhazian officials most recently stated that no returns to other parts of the entity will be authorised. Questions also linger as to how solid a long-term asymmetrical relationship between Russia and Abkhazia might be. Some, especially ethnic Abkhaz, who number less than 100,000 in the entity, are wary of becoming overly reliant on Moscow economically, politically, and culturally, or essentially being assimilated.

The chances for meaningful progress between Tbilisi and Sukhumi were slim even before the 2008 war and have been further eroded. Tbilisi sees the conflict as a matter of Moscow occupying and annexing its territory, while the Abkhazian authorities see Russia as a guarantor of security. Diplomatic relations between Moscow and Tbilisi have been cut. The bitterness between the two governments is deeply personalised and emotional. Beyond occasional discussions in Geneva called for by the ceasefire agreements, there is no real process or forum for Russia, Georgia and representatives from Abkhazia and South Ossetia to find solutions to even day-to-day issues.

The Georgian authorities should show their constructiveness by not trying to isolate Abkhazia, even though Moscow’s flouting of the ceasefire agreements makes this a bitter pill to swallow. It remains uncertain, given their military and economic dependence on Moscow, how much room for independent manoeuvre the de facto authorities in Sukhumi have to deal with Georgia. The long-awaited “State Strategy on the Occupied Territories: Engagement through Cooperation” unveiled by Tbilisi in January 2010 partly reflects new thinking. Though the initial reaction from Abkhazia has been dismissive, the plan contains some concepts that, if followed through, could start the two sides on a more promising course.

This report gives a snapshot of the state of affairs in Abkhazia today, particularly the extent of Russian involvement. Future reporting will deal more extensively with opportunities for finding common ground, as well as present more detailed analysis of refugee and IDP and other issues.

Sukhumi/Tbilisi/Istanbul/Brussels, 26 February 2010

Briefing 69 / Europe & Central Asia

Georgia: Making Cohabitation Work

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.

I. Overview

Georgia’s peaceful change of government after the October 2012 parliamentary elections was an encouraging and rare example of a democratic post-Soviet power transfer. President Mikheil Saakashvili and the new Prime Minister, Bidzina Ivanishvili, each received well-deserved praise – Saakashvili for quickly accepting the defeat of his United National Movement (UNM), and Ivanishvili, who led his Georgian Dream (GD) coalition to victory after a bitter campaign, for saying he was ready to work with his arch-rival during a delicate year-long “cohabitation”. The new government now needs to use the ten months before the 2013 presidential elections to prioritise reforms that strengthen the independence and accountability of state institutions.

Saakashvili, who is term-limited from standing again, is due to remain in office until October 2013, when presidential elections will be held and a new constitution will come into force. During this period, he should continue to honour his pledge to refrain from exercising the extensive powers still legally available to him under the old constitution, lest that lead, as it almost inevitably would, to a confrontation with unpredictable consequences. Given Georgia’s chronic, often violent disorder especially during its first decade of independence in the 1990s, any destabilisation of this still delicate situation could entail serious risks.

The new Ivanishvili government has an opportunity to win broader trust by demonstrating that it is concentrating on critical governance issues, not political score-settling. This is a key to managing the extremely high expectations among those who voted for Georgian Dream. Many of his supporters – whether due to campaign promises, or as a consequence of his immense personal wealth – anticipate an unrealistically quick improvement in living standards. It is vital that the reform agenda be communicated regularly to the public, for instance through cabinet meetings whose deliberations are reported in all media outlets. Regular, publicised meetings between the president and prime minister, however distasteful both may consider them, would boost stability.

Tensions have been growing between the new and old government due to the arrest of former and current officials with ties to the UNM on charges ranging from abuse of office to torture. While past abuses should be investigated, it is vital that arrests not be perceived as selective, victors’ justice, and so detract from the need to build support for institutional reform. Investigations should prioritise severe crimes; a criminal cases review commission and amnesties and compensation should be considered, so as to ensure that the still fragile judiciary is not stretched to the breaking point addressing complaints related to the past government’s behaviour. President Saakashvili’s legacy and that of his UNM party would also suffer if he and his closest allies were to attempt to portray every examination into possible misdoings as politically motivated.

The immediate priority of the new government should be to build trust in the judiciary, the penal service and the powerful interior ministry. The courts, as well as prosecutors, must be given real independence from political pressures. Without viable recourse to a legal system enjoying broad public acceptance, other state institutions will not be able to develop properly, and politicisation will continue to affect the entire governing system. Business and investor confidence, vital to economic stability and growth, requires an unbiased legal system that provides protection and guarantees against harassment from the authorities. Encouragingly, the Ivanishvili team has already prepared far-reaching legislation aimed at de-politicising the judiciary, including the High Council of Justice.

Georgia has an ethnically mixed population. Some 15 per cent are minorities, including 12 per cent who are ethnic Azeris or Armenians, so the Ivanishvili government also needs to take bold steps to make clear that inter-ethnic or inter-confessional confrontations or xenophobic manifestations – largely dormant in recent years – will not be tolerated and will be prosecuted under statutes outlawing hate crimes.

During the campaign, many Georgian Dream officials had promised to quickly improve relations with Russia, but the new government has already indicated it will not significantly change its Euro-Atlanticist foreign policy focus. It flatly rules out a full resumption of diplomatic ties with Russia while Moscow maintains “embassies” and a large military presence in breakaway South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Rather than attempt to tackle these difficult issues first, the new government is pragmatically seeking common ground in less controversial spheres. This includes boosting the Georgian economy through the full resumption of normal trade relations. The appointment of a special representative and offer to engage in unconditional dialogue with Russia was a positive initial step.

If Georgia’s leaders succeed in overcoming the challenges of the next ten months with vigilance and patience, the country will be able to serve proudly as a true development model for the region. Compromise, considerable restraint and hands-on diplomacy are necessary to prevent squandering of fragile democratic gains or, worse yet, re-ignition of the often violent instability that marked the first decade of independence. More specifically, it will be important to:

  • abide by the spirit of the new constitution that officially comes into force only in October 2013, including by holding well-publicised meetings between the president and prime minister. If amendments to the new constitution are necessary, they should start with those recommended by the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission to strengthen the parliament’s oversight powers;
  • ensure that the judiciary and the prosecution services are immune from political interference by reforming the High Council of Justice (HCOJ) and the chief prosecutor’s office;
  • focus, while investigating former officials, on their involvement in severe crimes, and consider setting up an independent criminal cases review commission and an amnesty and compensation program to help address the thousands of complaints being received.
  • de-politicise the internal affairs ministry (MIA) by legislating maximum civilian oversight and transparency and accepting capacity building and monitoring by local and international expert groups; and
  • focus on non-political areas where progress in outreach to Russia is attainable in the short term, for example, by both countries, as a first step and even while diplomatic relations remain frozen, opening trade liaison missions in Moscow and Tbilisi respectively.

The EU, U.S. and international organisations should help to mitigate tensions during the cohabitation period by:

  • maintaining constant diplomatic engagement.

Tbilisi/Istanbul/Brussels, 18 December 2012