Reaching out to the Abkhazians and Ossetians through the EU

Mille viae ducunt hominem per saecula Vilnius[1]

A public opinion poll carried out in Georgia in September 2013 showed that popular support of the governmental policy of EU integration is steadily high, amounting to 81%[2]. In a speech at the UN General Assembly that month, President Mikhail Saakashvili once again stressed Georgia's European course and underlined the incongruity of Georgia's choice with that of Russia, whose course lies in quite the opposite direction. Around same time, the Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili once again confirmed the invariance of the course of his government, stating that "We strongly believe that for strengthening of security of the state and democratic development of Georgia there is no alternative to European and Euro-Atlantic integration," and, furthermore, "Our government will spare no effort to see this choice of Georgia brought to life, to retain the positive impulse of the EU and NATO integration process"[3].

We can also recall the Parliament's 7 March Resolution on the Main Directions of Georgian Foreign Policy, whichwas thoroughly supported both by the majority (Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream coalition) and minority (Saakashvili's United National Movement) and which named Georgian integration with Euro-Atlantic structures as a priority. Given this, the fact that the latest edition of the National Security Concept of Georgia (December 2011), which also assigns priority to EU and NATO integration, and the fact that none of the main presidential candidates in the 2013 elections ever doubted European integration in principle, we may reasonably conclude that the given course represents the subject of a wide - perhaps unprecedentedly so - social and political consensus in Georgia.

In July, Georgia completed negotiations over the text of the Association Agreement with EU, and its initialing is expected at the Vilnius Summit of the Eastern Partnership on 28-29 November. As to how much time might pass prior to its signing, opinions differ. Optimistic estimates put it in spring of 2014 and more pragmatic in fall of that year with DCFTA[4] part of the Agreement entering into force from 2015.

In the run-up to the Vilnius Summit, Moscow launched an overt and growing campaign of pressure on Armenia, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine in an effort to deter them from their European integration course and redirect them towards the Customs Union and Eurasian Economic Community – EurAsEC (and, later on, the Eurasian Union). It forced Armenia to change its original intention to initial the Association Agreement with the EU alongside Georgia and Moldova and finally managed to prevent Ukraine from signing the Association Agreement. The EU adopted a Resolution condemning actions of the Kremlin[5] and later German Chancellor Angela Merkel made an unusually harshly-worded statement to the same effect[6].The prestige of the EU itself is indeed at stake: two countries of the Eastern Partnership - Belarus and Azerbaijan - have not been considered candidates for Association Agreements, and now Armenia has joined their ranks (though it is expected that certain solution will be found for Armenia's sake so as not to cut off all prospects of approximation with the EU), Ukraine appears to have lost momentum for an indefinite period of time and if the European aspirations of Georgia and Moldova are not formally and practically secured in Vilnius and later on, it will be a total triumph for the anti-Western policies of Putin[7].

Indeed, Russian policy itself might be viewed as the main obstacle hindering spread of European values to the East, and the Kremlin spares no effort to undermine this process. During debates in the Russian Duma regarding the text of a statement to be made in response to the aforementioned resolution of the European Parliament, the chairman of the State Duma Foreign Affairs Committee, Aleksey Pushkov, said: "this is a geopolitical fight, and there is no common ground between us and Europe on this issue"[8].

Realities and illusions

However, Georgia (like Moldova) faces another challenge directly related to the obstructionist position of Moscow – unsettled conflicts.Let us state explicitly – the author has never shared the simplistic position of the former Georgian government (headed by Saakashvili) that Georgia has only a single grand conflict with Russia and that the Abkhazia and South Ossetia conflicts are mere components of this conflict. The Georgian-Abkhaz and Georgian-South Ossetian conflicts of course do have their own history, roots and genesis, and if, by some miracle, the Russian factor goes away one day, these conflicts will not resolve themselves immediately and automatically. At the same time, it is also clear that it was the Russian factor that brought them to their current status of irresolvable problem that causes so much trouble for the West. In equal measure the author does not share the superficial approach of those who are inclined to assess conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia in a symmetrical way, on a similar plane, ignoring multiple fundamental differences. In this regard it would suffice to note that the South Ossetian national project is in its essence irredentist, and the notion of the "independence" of South Ossetia is not perceived in a serious manner not only in Moscow, but even in Tskhinvali itself[9].

The Abkhazian national project (the national project of ethnic Abkhazians - this specific circumstance does have critical significance in the given context), on the other hand, pursues the independence - as full-fledged as possible - of Abkhazia. For dozens of years (even back in Soviet times, when Abkhazians periodically asked Soviet leaders to be excluded from the Georgian SSR and merged into Russia) the essence of the Abkhazian effort was to use Russians to get rid of Georgians and then, maybe, somehow, slip out of Russia's grip as well. For the time being, part one of the program has been more or less realized - up to three quarters of all ethnic Georgians that used to live in Abkhazia have been expelled, whilst after the Russian-Georgian war of August 2008 the Russian Federation recognized the independence of Abkhazia (Nicaragua, Venezuela, Tuvalu and Nauru later followed suit), which appears to represent a sufficient guarantee of Abkhazia's cessation from Georgia. 

Yet the path to the final realization of the Abkhazian project is blocked by two major insurmountable obstacles. First and foremost, it was not Russia's intention in seizing Abkhazia from Georgia to ensure its real independence. Russian spending on Abkhazia is considerable – Russian money has accounted for an average of 70 per cent of the budget of Abkhazia year by year[10](90% in the case of South Ossetia[11]), but of course this is not done out of charity. Abkhazia and South Ossetia are Russia's military footholds in Georgia (and in the South Caucasus, and the "Near Abroad"); apart from that, Abkhazia constitutes quite an attractive Black Sea coastal strip immediately neighboring the venue of the Winter Olympics in 2014, whilst Ochamchira harbor serves as a marine base of Russia's Black Sea Fleet. Russia managed to establish a military and political, economic, and informational monopoly over Abkhazia. It is unclear how the Abkhazian elite envisions slipping free of the Russian grip. The not-so-ancient history of the closest relatives of Abkhazians – the Shapsugs and Ubykhs, who used to inhabit the area around Sochibut were either largely driven into exile or exterminated by the Russian Empire in the 19th centuryor assimilated later - is evidence of the risks to one's national identity that placing oneself in the Russian space might pose.

It should not be assumed that the national project of the Abkhazians is shared by the whole population of the republic. At present, the population of Abkhazia (now less than half of what it was before the armed conflict of 1992-1993) is composed of three main ethnic groups - Abkhazians, Georgians and Armenians - and, one might assume that the ethnic Russian community is gradually catching up to themin terms of numbers. The spatial and political orientation of these main groups differs: the majority of Abkhazians, as it has been already mentioned, consider their overarching goal to be achievement of independence; the Georgians who remain in Abkhazia see their future naturally in a single space with the rest of Georgia, whilst Russians, also quite naturally, in a single space with Russia. The Armenian community's position is more complicated, as it has managed thus far to combine loyalty to Abkhazian national project with the desire to have unlimited access to Russian space. Yet, if Armenia went along with Georgia in the latter's pursuit of EU approximation, this might kindle Abkhazia's Armenian community's interest as well.

Somehow or another, the preservation of the ethnocratic rule in Abkhazia (Article 49 of the Constitution of Abkhazia, for instance, directly stipulates that the office of the President of the Republic must be held by a person of Abkhazian ethnicity[12]) will only kindle inter-communal tensions there. On the other hand, virtual denouncement of ethnocracy (though Abkhazians are not showing any signs of willingness to do so) might also undermine the Abkhazian national project[13].

Another factor to be taken into account is the increasing mutual irritation in relations between Sukhumi and Moscow, which is easily detectable in the statements of politicians and experts. Abkhazians are concerned with the fact that, following recognition of their independence by Russia, the scope of this very independence and Sukhumi's ability to take independent decisions has only narrowed, whilst internationally, Russia is "pressing" for the recognition of Abkhazia's independence much less successfully than Abkhazians might have hoped. Russians, on the other hand, are displeased with Sukhumi's efforts to make their own decisions given that Russia is not only the lone guarantor of Abkhazia's separation from Georgia but also largely supports the republic with its own money. It would be premature to say that Sukhumi's concerns with Russia's unchallenged domination are channeled into increased interest towards Georgia as a possible alternative. For twenty years, Sukhumi's stance has been to distance itself from Tbilisi, to build a "Berlin Wall" with Russian hands along the dividing line between Abkhazia and the rest of Georgia, to turn a blind eye to positive trends in Georgia but seize on and remember any negative information about it. And yet, mutual distrust about each other's real intentions is increasing between Sukhumi and Moscow, thus opening up a prospective opportunity for external actors in Abkhazia. Given the circumstances, such external actors might be the EU and Turkey.  

EU: engagement through engagement

Turkish potential and plans in Abkhazia (and elsewhere) is a topic worth separate discussion. As for EU policy in relation to Abkhazia (and South Ossetia), the latter is expressed through a "Non-recognition and Engagement" policy and is well calibrated. The "non-recognition" part of the formula is applicable not only to Abkhazia (and South Ossetia) but also to Russia's action against Georgia in 2008. For instance, in the Report by The Independent Fact-Finding International Mission on the Conflict in Georgia (Tagliavini Commission) it is stated that not only did South Ossetia and Abkhazia have no right of secession from Georgia, but also that the recognition of breakaway entities such as Abkhazia and South Ossetia by a third country is consequently contrary to international law[14]. Thus, the very raising of the issue of possible recognition of Abkhazia (and/or South Ossetia) by any of the EU member states would have practically served as an indulgency for Russia, justifying the latter's illicit actions and opening up opportunities for further outrageous acts on the international arena.

The "engagement" part is less unequivocal. Unlike the Saakashvili government, the new authorities in Tbilisi do not share the idea of "engagement through Georgia only" and have made several steps towards the de-isolation of Abkhazia. Yet it is not in Moscow's plans to open up Abkhazia to the outside world, least of all to the West. Consequently, any effort on the part of EU to become more active in Abkhazia runs up against a number of mainly artificial obstacles. Moreover, the position of the Abkhazian authorities, best expressed as "Since you (EU) refuse to recognize us, we won't have anything to do with you", looks overly ambitiousfrom any point of view. Ultimately, Abkhazia needs Europe more than Europe needs Abkhazia. The Abkhazian approach – seeking unlimited access to the countries of the West while building a "Berlin wall" and isolating itself from the rest of Georgia – is an inherent contradiction in terms. It should be clear that, when the EU, in pursuing the "engagement" principle adheres to the "non-recognition" principle, it is based on sheer calculation – in attracting and engaging Abkhazia, one cannot risk the trust of Georgia, otherwise one might lose much more than one gains.

At the same time, taking into consideration the acute suspiciousness of the Abkhazian elite towards anything Georgian (even things of an a priori positive nature), the goal Western strategies should pursue would be the reconciliation of Abkhazians and Georgians through transformation of the conflict and the gradual replacement of the existing total mutual distrust with a recognition of and respect for mutual interests and needs, prompting Sukhumi towards dialogue and cooperation with Tbilisi. Consequently, de-isolation and engagement should develop following the principles of conditionality and mutuality.

For instance, the hushing up of the problem of more than two hundred thousand ethnic Georgians forcefully displaced from the conflict territories and the issue of the rights of Georgians remaining in Abkhazia (and South Ossetia) would have been contradictory to the fundamental values and principles of the EU. A relevant "soft power" policy requires both patience and sophistication, but there are no simpler options in view[15].

Prospects and Conclusions

Despite these (and many more) complications which the EU encounters in the post-Soviet space, its current policy - whether it will be unwavering commitment to rapprochement with Eastern Partnership countries or "non-recognition and engagement" of Abkhazia (and South Ossetia) - should be continued with increased vigor as ambitions and pressure from Putin's Russia are growing. European soft power - but power, not powerlessness - is the main hope for societies "hanging" in the void between a democratic Europe preaching partnership and an authoritarian Russia pursuing its "right to hegemony". European Georgia will be a country with whom both Abkhazians and Ossetians will find some common ground, as it is precisely Europe that has elaborated and implemented the highest standards of protection of small nations and minorities. And European guarantees for the preservation of Abkhazian (and South Ossetian) identity and reasonable forms of their self-governance will prove much more reliable than Russian ones.

[1] All roads lead to Vilnius (lat.)
[2] Survey carried out by National Democratic Institute (NDI):
[3] (in Georgian)
[4] Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement
[7] About this policy, see, for instance: Лилия Шевцова«Валдайская доктрина Путина», 23.09.2013,
[9] For more information, see Ivlian Haindrava “Two Ossetias in the Context of Russian-Georgian Relations”; in the collection Russia and Georgia: Searching the Way out, Georgian Foundation of Strategic Studies, 2011 [10]
[13] See: С.Маркедонов «Параллельно противоположные проекты» September 30, 2013.
[14]  vol.1, p.17
[15] See, for instance: “THE DE-ISOLATION OF ABKHAZIA”, International Alert, 2011,


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