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After a Summer of Protests, Can Georgia’s Government Regain Its Lost Trust?
After a Summer of Protests, Can Georgia’s Government Regain Its Lost Trust?
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

After a Summer of Protests, Can Georgia’s Government Regain Its Lost Trust?

Originally published in World Politics Review

This summer’s protests in Georgia led to changes to the country’s electoral system. But the country’s new Prime Minister, Giorgi Gakharia, is a man protesters wanted ousted from the last government, in which he led the Interior Ministry. In this interview with World Politics Review, Europe & Central Asia Program Director Olga Oliker and Analyst for EU Eastern Neighbourhood Olesya Vartanyan consider what Gakharia’s tenure will bring, and how the parliamentary elections next year might play out in this atmosphere.

Earlier this month, Georgia’s Parliament approved a new government led by Giorgi Gakharia, a controversial former interior minister who was nominated by the ruling Georgian Dream party despite his role in a violent crackdown on anti-government protests that rocked the capital, Tbilisi, this summer. Gakharia will now try to restore public confidence in the government ahead of parliamentary elections that are expected to be held early next year. Meanwhile, the main opposition party, the United National Movement, or UNM, also has work to do if it hopes to retake power. In an email interview with WPR, Olga Oliker and Olesya Vartanyan of the International Crisis Group discuss the challenges facing both the ruling party and the opposition in Georgia.

What kind of message does the approval of Giorgi Gakharia as prime minister send to the opposition?

It’s something of a “put up and shut up” message from Georgian Dream, not just to the opposition in Parliament but also to protesters. During the mass demonstrations that took place last summer, protesters demanded changes to the electoral system to allow for more proportional representation, which the government agreed to. Protesters also subsequently demanded that Gakharia step down as interior minister, a role from which he had ordered the violent dispersal of the protests. But instead of being ousted, he was promoted to prime minister, in a vote boycotted by opposition parties. That’s a pretty clear message.

Gakharia’s appointment is also a message to the opposition and to the country as a whole that Georgian Dream is planning to win the parliamentary elections that are expected early next year. The party’s popularity has been declining for some time; in the 2018 presidential election, Georgian Dream’s preferred candidate, Salome Zourabichvili, only won after being forced into a runoff, a far cry from the landslide victories of years past. Gakharia is close to Georgian Dream’s founder and chairman, Bidzina Ivanishvili, as are the new defense minister, Irakli Gharibashvili, and the interior minister, Vakhtang Gomelauri. With these personnel moves, the ruling party is ensuring that the government is united going into the campaign.

The next election will be an important test for Georgian Dream. The recently passed electoral reforms eliminated the required minimum threshold for parties to enter Parliament, which means there will be a greater diversity of parties. The majority party will therefore need to work harder to secure majorities for its laws. But a unified party will not be enough for Georgian Dream to secure a win; it will also need a policy agenda that rebuilds its popularity. Whether its leaders have a real plan for that is unclear.

What policy issues is Gakharia likely to focus on as prime minister? What are the most pressing challenges he faces in implementing his agenda?

Gakharia and his team have two goals that don’t fully align with one another. First is to win in the upcoming parliamentary elections, which means we can expect the government to focus on social programs to help the most vulnerable. But voters are frustrated that Georgian Dream has failed to spur the economic development and growth they expected during the party’s seven years in power. Finally making good on that promise would require a different sort of reform agenda: one that could attract foreign investment but might also involve public sector spending cuts, which could prove less popular in the short term.

Implementing reforms in the midst of an election campaign would be difficult, but Gakharia may be up to the task. He forcefully pushed through reforms during his time as interior minister, including the creation of a human rights department, the professionalization of regional law enforcement investigators, and increased transparency for crime statistics.

He will still have to deal with the fact that protesters and the opposition blame him for the violent crackdown on protests, which caused several injuries and resulted in the prosecutions of some demonstrators. More protests are likely, and would test the government’s ability to respond appropriately.

The other question for Gakharia is how to deal with simmering disputes in the Russian-backed breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Tensions have risen again this year over a police observation station that Georgia placed along its administrative boundary with South Ossetia. The latter responded by closing border crossings and a war of words erupted between leaders on both sides, tempered only by Russian and European efforts to mediate. Gakharia and his team will need to prevent the dispute from escalating, while at the same time standing up to Moscow and repairing economic ties with Russia. Balancing those priorities will be a tall order.

Given Georgian Dream’s declining popularity, how well-positioned is the United National Movement to prevail in the upcoming elections?

The UNM has loyal supporters, especially in the western regions of the country. It hasn’t been able to garner enough support to win previous elections, but its fortunes could turn next year, depending on the strength of opposition to the Georgian Dream-led government.

But the UNM has its own problems. It remains unofficially helmed by the divisive Mikheil Saakashvili, who served as president of Georgia from 2004 until 2013. His supporters remember him fondly for the sweeping democratic reforms he implemented during the 2000s, but his detractors blame him for the many domestic challenges facing Georgia in the aftermath of the five-day war with Russia in 2008.

He has also been away from Georgia for more than five years, and during that time he has fallen out of touch with the country he once led, while gaining considerable international notoriety. In 2015, he switched his citizenship to Ukraine in order to serve as governor of the Odessa region under then-President Petro Poroshenko, but the two subsequently had a falling-out and Saakashvili was deported last year. His Ukrainian citizenship has now been restored by President Volodymyr Zelensky, but a Georgian court convicted him in absentia of charges related to abuse of power last year, so he cannot return to his country of birth. A UNM victory next year would likely result in that conviction being reversed, but Saakashvili’s personal travails do not help the party’s chances.

The UNM has a good chance at maintaining its position as the dominant opposition force, but in order to win, it will need to cooperate with other parties. In some ways, this could be easier with the new electoral system, as there will be more parties to align with after the elections. But those parties’ members and leadership will balk at diktats from Saakashvili, so the UNM will need to find a way to become more independent of his influence.

Contributors

Program Director, Europe and Central Asia
OlyaOliker
Senior Analyst, South Caucasus
olesya_vart