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Engaging the Rebels, by Justin Lyle

Until Tbilisi Changes Its Attitude Toward South Ossetia and Abkhazia, 

All Western Efforts to Secure Peace and Stability in the Region Will Fail

By Justin Lyle
Special to Russia Profile 02/07/2011

As Europe looks for ways to sidestep the problematic issue of recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia, progress on resolving the conflicts will depend upon a substantive shift in Tbilisi’s attitude toward the breakaway republics. In the face of widespread international acceptance that the present status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia is here to stay, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili continues pursuing an uncompromising policy on the ground that will fundamentally undermine the engagement he is promising at an international level.

Last week Tbilisi claimed to welcome a development that it fiercely opposed a year ago. According to the January 27 decision, monitoring of the “consequences of the war between Georgia and Russia” by the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) will no longer be a dossier in its own right. Instead, the European inter-governmental human rights forum has appointed co-monitors of Russia and Georgia’s ceasefire obligations as part of its routine monitoring of the two countries’ obligations.

The leading official of the monitoring commission hailed the re-format as a small breakthrough in finding an acceptable platform for substantive developments. Long reluctant to lose the visibility of the old dossier, Tbilisi has accepted the rebranding since it still obliges Moscow to withdraw its recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The Russian Foreign Ministry, on the other hand, has welcomed the new monitoring format as a de-politicization of the issue, considering the stalled Geneva discussions an adequate forum for discussing the political aspects of the conflict.

Since the August 2008 war over South Ossetia, president Saakashvili’s Administration has been determined to establish its story of the war and its aftermath in the international consciousness. Russia responded emphatically to Tbilisi’s August 2008 attempt to retake breakaway South Ossetia by force, sweeping through both South Ossetia and Abkhazia into Georgia-proper before extending recognition to both breakaway regions. Western politicians were initially stunned at Russia’s actions, which were received not only as a breach of international law, but also as an aggressive redrawing of the Georgian map and a statement of purpose regarding the future of NATO expansion. While many in the West considered Moscow the originator of the conflict, through its economic support and controversial peacekeeping role in the breakaways, an EU-sponsored fact-finding mission later concluded that the Georgian government started the fighting itself.

The influx of $4.5 billion of Western aid to Georgia after the war was testament to the success of Saakashvili’s portrayal of his country as a victim of Russian aggression. But this money was also a substitute for decisive Western political commitment to Tbilisi’s cause. At a time of anxiety about Western political and military overstretch through NATO’s eastward expansion, as well as increasing European energy dependence on Russia, and above all fear of large-scale conflict over an area of Russia’s declared “privileged interest,” Western leaders opted to mediate and donate. The Kremlin, meanwhile, bolstered the breakaways economically and militarily, congratulated itself on protecting innocent civilians and peacekeepers and asserted the rights of Abkhazia and South Ossetia to national self-determination. This locking of horns at the twilight zone of international law – the ambiguous question of self-determination, post-Kosovo – has left Russia and Georgia stranded in principled opposition, without formal relations. European leaders, meanwhile, were left with the unenviable challenge of chairing the discussion.

One key to Saakashvili’s success on the international stage lies in his effective playing down of the inter-ethnic logic of the conflict, which has enabled him to cast Russia as an aggressive outsider propping up mere “puppet regimes” in the breakaways. The situation on the ground has always been more complicated, however. De facto independence in Abkhazia and South Ossetia had been established for 15 years before the war, and was determined more by local inter-ethnic dynamics than by pernicious outside influence. Although Russian support was crucial to the success of Abkhazia and South Ossetia’s independence wars in the early 1990s, the fears that fuelled them were not generated by Russia. It started with the ultra-nationalist agenda of President Zviad Gamsakhurdia, which aimed to incorporate the regions into a “Georgia for the Georgians” in the early 1990s. The “Rose Revolution” of 2004, for all its democratic promise, carried Saakashvili to power on a nationalist ticket; namely the pledge to restore the territorial integrity of the Georgian state. As Mamuka Areshidze of the Tbilisi-based House of Free Opinion noted, “Saakashvili has not yet started to assuage the fears of the breakaway leaderships.”

In search of a way out of the deadlock, the European Union has promoted a strategy of “engagement without recognition” for Abkhazia and South Ossetia. It aims to halt the international isolation of the breakaways by stimulating dialogue toward conflict resolution, without igniting the status issue. With even the restoration of Georgia-Russia formal relations out of sight, the West hopes that constructive contacts at ground level between the breakaways and both Georgia and the broader outside world can reduce the risk of tensions flaring into conflict.

Initially reluctant to take on a policy that could open new and empowering options to Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the Georgian government has since championed the approach, enshrining it in its “State Strategy on Occupied Territories: Engagement through Cooperation,” adopted in 2010. It is not clear that this strategy marks a departure from the logic of isolation that underpinned policies such as the “Law on Occupied Territories,” which aimed to restrict the breakaways’ commercial and diplomatic contacts with the outside world. Many in Abkhazia remain sceptical about the strategy’s real value, seeing it as a lip service alignment with Western preferences, rather than a substantive policy change. They point out that the document foresees strict limitations on cooperation with international organizations and NGOs, and also highlight the document’s less-than-accommodating references to “occupied territories” and “puppet regimes.”

As Medea Turashvili of the International Crisis Group in Tbilisi pointed out, “EU and international engagement in the breakaway regions is in the interest of Georgia, as it will allow the de-isolation of these territories from extensive Russian influence. Additionally, it will help to improve the quality of education, transparency, democracy and human rights and good governance (not necessarily state-building) practices in these regions.”

The Saakashvili Administration has remained too suspicious to embrace these changes, however, and has as yet shown no sign of the promised constructive engagement. At present even dialogue instruments established by the Geneva talks, such as the Near Border Incidents Prevention and Response Mechanism (IPRM) are proving ineffectual, serving largely as a formal arena for the exchange of accusations and insults between the sides. Policies such as tightening up restrictions on travel abroad for holders of Russian passports resident in Abkhazia and South Ossetia have done little to encourage popular confidence. Perhaps most damaging is Tbilisi’s line that all actions and stances of the breakaways are in fact merely driven by Russia.

More than any outside influence, it is the Saakashvili Administration’s ongoing rejection of engagement with the Abkhaz and South Ossetian leaderships that undermines confidence-building efforts. The lack of confidence in Saakashvili’s recent non-use of force pledge before the European Parliament exemplifies a damaging disconnect between circumstances on the ground and Tbilisi’s presentation of its intentions on the international stage. Without a genuine change of attitude in Tbilisi, even the most imaginative European strategies will founder.

Source: Russia Profile

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