The Georgia-Russia war of August 2008 refroze a region. The small Black Sea nation of Abkhazia is the key to its unblocking, says Neal Ascherson.
“The gentle art of losing face / May one day save the human race”
This was a favourite saying of Hans Blix, when he was head of the United Nations inspection commission in Iraq. He repeated it, no doubt sometimes under his breath, as he tried to persuade George W Bush and Tony Blair to back away from their proclamations that Saddam Hussein had “weapons of mass destruction”.
But they preferred to save face and, as history will probably judge, to lose Iraq, rather than admit that they might be mistaken. Today, there are several other places in the world where losing face - tearing up a bad policy - might well save a fair few members of the human race. One is Afghanistan. Another is the south Caucasus.
It is now two years since, on the night of 7-8 August 2008, the Georgians bombarded Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia, and the Russians responded by pouring their tanks into Georgia. The “who started it” question is still argued, but the heat has mostly gone out of it. Outside Georgia and Russia, the general view these days shares out the blame. The Georgian president, Mikheil Saakashvili’s decision to attack was crazily provocative, while the Russians - who had been praying for just such a provocation - behaved unforgivably by turning retaliation into a crime of international aggression. But the question which now matters is how to clear up the mess that war left behind.
The closing window
The mess has now congealed into hard-baked confrontation. On 5 July 2010, the United States secretary of state Hillary Clinton returned to Georgia to reaffirm American commitment to Georgia, and to challenge the Russians to end “the occupation of two breakaway Georgian regions” (South Ossetia and Abkhazia). This position, the so-called “defence of Georgia’s territorial integrity” has been maintained by the US, Nato and the European Union since the end of the August 2008 conflict. The “breakaway regions” phrase is still parroted almost daily by western politicians and journalists. To back away from this stance in public would certainly require a courageous loss of face. And yet the “territorial integrity” line is false, useless and dangerous (see “After the war: recognising reality in Abkhazia and Georgia”, 15 August 2008).
Neither of these territories - both ethnically distinct - wanted to be part of Georgia when the Georgians declared independence in 1991. Both fought vicious wars against Georgian encroachment in the next few years. Both have now been effectively independent for over fifteen ears, and there is no prospect of a Tbilisi government taking control of them except by the use of armed force. As that would precipitate another, perhaps even a deeper and more savage Russian invasion of Georgia, it is out of the question. American or British talk of “restoring Georgia’s territorial integrity” is therefore nonsense: at best hypocritical, at worst suicidally ignorant.
But the differences between South Ossetia and Abkhazia matter too. South Ossetia, with a mere 70,000 people, is not really a proposition. Its people, if they were ever allowed a free choice, would probably reject independence and join their North Ossetian relatives in the Russian Federation. Abkhazia, in contrast, has a plausible future. It has about 250,000 inhabitants, the most beautiful stretch of the entire Black Sea coast, and rich sub-tropical agriculture. Most importantly, its people want to make a reality of their independence. They have no intention of letting the Georgians conquer them. To prevent that, they accept the presence of Russian troops and warships. But neither do they want to become just one more slatternly Russian colony. They would like Abkhazia to become a small, free, prosperous Black Sea state with close links to Europe.
That ought to be what the rest of the world wants for Abkhazia too. If “restoring” Georgian rule is a fantasy, then the next best thing must be to prevent Abkhazia falling irrevocably under Russian control. The window to achieve that is still open, but growing smaller all the time. An agreement for permanent Russian naval and military bases at Ochamchira and Gudauta was negotiated this spring; Russian state railways have taken control of the line from the frontier near Sochi to the resort of Gagra, and a Russian trade delegation is now in Abkhazia discussing “joint” economic development.
The immediate need is for the west to establish direct contact with Abkhazia - economic, social and cultural - and to secure sea access to Abkhazian ports. For over a decade after the independence war of 1992-93, Abkhazia lived under a stifling international blockade, in which Russia took a leading part. Now, after Russia’s formal recognition of Abkhaz independence in August 2008, the little nation should on paper be free to open its own contacts with the outside world. It has so far failed to do so, partly because of furious Georgian objections but also because the Abkhazian government has been deplorably nervous of doing anything which might upset its Russian protectors.
Turkey, now in the mood to explore new foreign policies, has recently begun to develop an “unofficial” relationship with Abkhazia which may reduce the latter’s dependence on Russia. There has been a large Abkhaz diaspora in Turkey since the 19th century, and some of its enterprising members have begun to invest and even settle in the “old country”. The European Union ought to risk Georgian protests and launch a modest contact programme - environment, health, theatres, education - which would help Abkhazia out of isolation. Peter Semneby, the wise Swede who is the European Union’s special representative for the south Caucasus, has spoken of “engagement without recognition”.
It’s a good time to change policy. Firstly, because there is growing realisation in Georgia itself that the two territories cannot be “recovered”. Mikheil Saakashvili’s government is still totally obdurate. But moderate opponents like Irakli Alasania, who negotiated with the Abkhazians in 2008, have said that the problems can be resolved by direct talks, and that “the Abkhazian side’s goal also is to create conditions for long-term stability”. And, as Donald Rayfield reports on openDemocracy, Georgian interest has shifted away from sacrificial posturing towards the thrills of economic transformation and money-making (see “Georgia, two years on: a future beyond war”, 5 August 2010).
Secondly, because the west’s non-recognition of the territories, its stolid endorsement of the “breakaway regions” line is doing Georgia no favours. A nation thirled to impossible territorial claims which merely enrage its neighbours is a trapped nation, dependent on more powerful allies who may one day tire of those claims and leave their client in the lurch.
Sterile talks plod on. At Geneva, the discussion on “security and stability in Transcaucasia” has just held its twelfth session. The Abkhazians want an all-round agreement to renounce the use of force. The Georgians, trying to ignore the Abkhazians as unrecognised unpersons, say they will only sign an agreement with Russia. The Russians - sensibly - suggest that they all sign an agreement; but unilaterally, with international organisations such as the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and not with each other. Nothing happens.
Everyone, it seems, is gripped in the drying mud of frantic attitudes struck two years ago. And yet any outsider can sketch an escape-route. America, impatient to reset relations with Russia, stops backing Saakashvili’s rhetoric and persuades Georgia to accept irreversible reality. The European Union opens a sub-recognition contact-programme with Abkhazia, and halts its absorption by Russia. Georgia follows the EU example, reopening transport, trade and cultural links with Abhkazia. Some of the Georgian and Mingrelian refugees who fled Abkhazia in 1993 begin to return, on condition that they recognise Abkhazia’s independence and take its citizenship. Abkhazia learns to welcome them as fellow-citizens, not saboteurs and subversives.
The end product? A warm, even intimate relationship between two independent states in the south Caucasus - one larger, one smaller. Perhaps even a special relationship, for in the end the two societies have much in common. All it takes is the gentle art of losing face. But in the Caucasus, that’s an art with no teachers.
Neal Ascherson is a journalist and writer. For many years he was foreign correspondent and then columnist for the (London) Observer. Among his books areThe King Incorporated: Leopold the Second and the Congo (1963; Granta, 1999); The Struggles for Poland (Random House, 1988); Black Sea (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1996); and Stone Voices: The Search for Scotland (Granta, 2003)