Georgia, a former Soviet republic that suffered its own Russian invasion in 2008 and Moscow’s destabilising support for its breakaway regions, is treading carefully on the war in Ukraine, fearing that if it upsets the Kremlin, it may be left to face the consequences alone.
Debate over potential military operation in breakaway territories prompted pushback, Belarusian president travelled to Abkhazia to strengthen cooperation, and authorities curtailed political freedoms.
Opposition raised idea of “military operation” in breakaway territories, ruling party rejected it. Russian losses in Ukraine during Sept (see Ukraine) raised tensions between ruling Georgian Dream party and several opposition leaders after latter mid Sept said country should capitalise on Russia’s weakened position and launch military operation in Abkhazia and South Ossetia breakaway territories. Ruling party Chairman Irakli Kobakhidze 7 Sept had rejected idea of opening “second front” against Russia (Russia recognises breakaways as independent states and is responsible for providing military support and security to both entities) but floated idea of referendum on issue. In response, Abkhazia’s de facto FM Inal Ardzinba 15 Sept organised public discussion with local representatives to voice concerns about “forces aimed at diverting Russia’s military and economic resources away from Donbas”; also drew attention to Georgia’s military exercises with NATO, saying likelihood of Georgia initiating military operation in Abkhazia was “quite high”, pointing to Kobakhidze’s referendum suggestion; Kobakhidze same day denied plans for war were being considered.
Belarusian President Lukashenko visited Abkhazia for first time since taking office. In first visit to breakaway territory as president, Lukashenko 28 Sept met with Abkhazia’s de facto leader Aslan Bzhania and other senior officials in Bichvinta town to discuss bilateral cooperation and international security. Lukashenko said “we must strengthen relations with friends” otherwise “we will not be allowed to live in peace”, but stopped short of explicitly promising recognition.
Authorities passed laws restricting freedoms, compromising prospects for EU candidacy status. Amendments to first law, adopted 6 Sept, strengthen security service’s ability to use covert surveillance measures on civilians; President Salome Zourabichvili had vetoed bill in June and 1 Sept reiterated that it was “not in line with securing human rights”. Amendments to second law, adopted 9 Sept, modified selection rules for public defender, reducing opposition’s influence over candidate’s selection. Amendments, which followed EU’s June decision to condition candidate status on fulfilling “outstanding priorities” regarding political polarisation, judicial system, human rights and anti-corruption, appeared to challenge prospects for candidacy status.
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.
As elections draw near, increased tension at the line of separation with South Ossetia has helped put the future of normalisation with Russia in doubt. But whoever wins at the polls should not abandon dialogue, but rather build on it to frankly discuss these problems.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.