Note: This essay was prepared for the Caucasus Conference at Galatasaray University in Istanbul in June 2003 sponsored by the Strategic Research Center of the Turkish Foreign Ministry.
The acute internal political conflict in Abkhazia began in March 2003. For the first time, the Opposition exerted pressure on the authorities and achieved the retirement of the prime minister, G. Gargulia, whom it considered unacceptable. The change in the positions of the political forces and the growth of the influence of the Abkhazian opposition may reflect in future on the perspectives for a peaceful solution of the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict.
The first publications critical of the government appeared in the Abkhazian press only a few years after the end of the Georgian-Abkhazian war. By that time, the euphoria brought about by victory had subsided somewhat, and the public began to realize that the successful end of the war did nit necessarily mean – as many had expected – the resolution of all problems in a short period of time.
At first, the authorities successfully “wrote off” all social problems as due to the war, the post-war disorder and the policies of the Georgian authorities, who tried to return Abkhazia with the help of economic sanctions and the subversive war in the Gali region. However, as time passed, the Abkhazian public became increasingly dissatisfied with their own authorities, who showed themselves incapable of solving numerous social problems.
The presidential elections in October 1999 were a direct factor in the formation of opposition. The outcome may have seemed triumphal from the point of view of the acting authorities: the vote for V.G. Ardzinba and the state independence of Abkhazia was practically unanimous. However, the very atmosphere of elections without alternatives, combined with public disaffection with everyday problems, resulted in a feeling of disillusionment and annoyance among a certain part of the population, first of all among the intelligentsia. Dissatisfied with the rapid stratification of society and its own difficult material situation, this part of society, being the most critical toward the authorities, became the social prop of the opposition.
Prominent Abkhazian political and public figures, most of whom had previously occupied leading posts in the Abkhazian leadership (such as G. Alamia, A. Ankvab, N. Aakaba, O. Damenia, T. Ketsba, L. Lakerbaya, D. Pilia and others) became the spearhead and irreconcilable opponents of the present powers.
Currently, the opposition is represented by two socio-political movements and one party. The socio-political movement Amtsakhara (“Native fires”) unites several thousand 1992-1993 war veterans, and is an organization of armed people with a high level of mobilization potential. The socio-political movement “Aytayra” (“Renaissance”) reflects the views of the opposition-minded Abkhazian intelligentsia. The membership of “Aytayra” exceeds one thousand, but the movement itself is not a consolidated force. The leaders do not share common views on fundamental problems and their views are frequently diametrically opposed. Part of the membership also holds membership in other political parties, including the pro-government Republican and Communist parties.
The socio-political movements “Amtskhara” and “Aytayra” have acquired a significant degree of social influence. The People’s Party of Abkhazia, which was founded in 1991, does not have such influence, and acts as a “junior partner” to the stronger socio-political movements. Relations within the opposition are contradictory and rivalry among their leaders, however, in view of the ongoing acute conflict with the ruling regime, all differences are temporarily forgotten.
What happened in Abkhazia was not, in actual fact, an ideological division of political forces, as is characteristic of any democratic society, but a division on the principle: “we support the current powers” and “we oppose the current powers.” Therefore polemics in the process between the authorities and the opposition are not ideological in nature, but as a rule are reduced to publication of compromising material, personal attacks and extreme refusal to accept one another. Thus, in one of his more recent interviews, V.G. Ardzinba directly accused the factual leader of the Abkhazian opposition, A. Ankvab, of high treason: “There were those in the Abkhazian leadership who did not believe in our ability to defend our freedom and independence, and even hoped for Georgian intervention. The Abkhazian minister of internal affairs at that timer, Alexander Ankvab forbade the issue of arms to the staff of the Ministry of Internal Affairs who wished to rise up in defense of the Homeland. On his orders, those arms were surrendered into the keeping of the Abkhazian Security Service, which was headed at that time by Avtandil Ioseliani, that is – those arms were practically surrendered to our enemies. Such an act is not high treason only from a purely formal point of view, in fact it decreased our limited possibilities of defense.”
A study of the program documents shows either a close similarity or total correspondence of political slogans declared by the present authorities, pro-government forces and the opposition. They all call for independence and categorically refute the possibility of Abkhazia’s return into the composition of Georgia. In reality, however, most leaders hold more moderate positions than the resent leadership, which not only refused to discuss, but even to adopt the D. Boden Plan” as an official document, according Abkhazia special status within the Georgian state. Many opposition leaders regard this plan as a feasible basis for the search of a mutually acceptable compromise.
At present, the main aim of the opposition is to come to power in the presidential elections that are due in the fall of 2004. The more radical part of the opposition wants the immediate resignation of the new government of R. Khadzhimba and, on the pretext of president V.G. Ardzinba’s illness, demands early elections already in the current year. The authorities in Abkhazia continue to be much more dependent on popular opinion than those of Georgia or Russia. The institution of the “direct will of the people” continues to exist in Abkhazia in the form of general national congresses which, in critical situations, can dictate this or that decision to the authorities in the name of the people. It was the threat of just such a general national congress, that could produce very negative results for the present administration, that forced president V.G. Ardzinba to retire the recently appointed premier, G. Gagulia, and the entire cabinet of ministers.
The growth of the influence of the opposition coincided with the crisis within the ruling regime, whose positions were seriously weakened by the conflict between V.G. Ardzinba and the former prime minister, A.M. Dzhergenia, who makes no secret of his presidential ambitions. The retirement of A.M. Dzhergenia and his move to the camp of the opposition disrupted the formerly monolithic nature of the ruling clan. It became obvious that in this new situation, the hopes nourished by some of V.G. Ardzinba’s followers of his re-election were unrealistic. The possibility of a change of regime and the coming to power of the opposition were equally obvious.
The growth of the opposition’s influence is explained by public disaffection with social problems that brought disillusionment with the ruling regime among a significant sector of society. However, in view of the popular attitudes in Abkhazia, the opposition cannot openly reject the slogan of political independence.
The decade following the war did not bring about any changes favorable to the Georgian government. Most Abkhazians are still convinced that the Georgian state is hostile, and is the cause of most evils and misfortunes. Under such circumstances, refutation of the slogan of independence and the very concept of compromise of according Abkhazia special status within the Georgian state means instant political death for any Abkhazian politician. Therefore, it is logical that both the authorities and the opposition strive to show themselves firm champions of Abkhazian independence. At the same time, the opposition accuses the ruling powers of an insufficiently steady defense Abkhazian independence, and the authorities accuse the opposition of “conspiring with the enemy.”
In the current situation it is very important to take steps to lower the level of military resistance in the zone of the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict. Clearly, it is impossible to achieve changes in public attitudes toward the Georgian state without radical steps to put an end to the activities of subversive groups: their terrorism continues to remain a constant social irritant and reinforces the positions of the Abkhazian radicals.
A reliable basis for normalization of the situation could be created through the realization of special projects of economic development within the scope of the entire south Caucasus region, combined with local projects for the development of specific areas. A real means for the improvement of the economic situation could be the realization of Georgian-Russian agreements concerning the unblocking of existing transport corridors, first of all – railways, connecting the republics of the South Caucasus with Russia through Abkhazian territory.
The accomplishment of regulation is seriously hampered by the prevalent negative attitude toward the neighboring peoples in the South Caucasus. The implementation of educational and scientific projects aimed at the removal of such negative stereotypes could be achieved with the assistance of the Georgian leadership in the restoration of the Abkhazian National Archive, which was burned during the 1992-1993 war, and the return of confiscated library and museum holdings.
A decrease in the level of tension could be facilitated by a special international program for improving the lot of Georgian refugees. During the entire post-war period, the refugee problem has been actively exploited by various forces to further their own political and economic interests. At present, a large number of Georgian refugees has returned to Abkhazia, many of whom had fled to Russia and other countries.
The situation of Georgian refugees is negatively affected by the frankly speculative approach adopted by certain political forces to the problem, and also the material interests of those further forces in its continued existence and aggravation.
In the present circumstances it is quite clear that the mass and simultaneous return of Georgian refugees is possible only with a new military campaign to subjugate Abkhazia, and the expulsion of its present population. The return of refugees by peaceful means require great efforts, large means and much preparatory work.
In the first place, it is necessary to establish the current status of the problem: the actual number of refugees in Georgia, how many of them are willing to return to their firmer places of residence, under what conditions, and so forth. It is necessary to establish the availability of workplaces for those returning, their property rights, the present condition of the property that had belonged to them earlier, and also the scope of necessary financial aid to re-establish their economic and living conditions.
In examining the question of the return of specific families to their former place of residence, it is necessary to appraise the attitude of the local population, their neighbors. This would require the development of a special program of visits by Georgian refugees to their former homes under the aegis of international humanitarian organizations, so that they could acquaint themselves with the current situation in those places. Such a program would enable the recognition of the less conflict-minded part of the refugees, and to facilitate their return as a priority.
Alongside the preparatory work on the return of Georgian refugees to Abkhazia, it would be advisable guarantee their normal life in places of their present location. Among other things, it is necessary to set up effective international control over the distribution of humanitarian aid and financial support, the greater part of which, according to available data, is not being used for the purposes it was designated to serve.
A significant role in normalization could be played by multilateral intra-Georgian dialogue (with the participation of the central government and representatives of various regions of Georgia, and also Abkhazia, Adzharia, Southern Ossetia).
The peaceful resolution of the Georgian-Abkhazian and similar conflicts in Georgia is possible if being part of the Georgian state were to become profitable for the national fringe areas. This could become a real possibility with the democratization of public life, the overcoming of the crisis and rapid economic development of Georgia. In such conditions, there is a greater opportunity that the political forces which come to power in Abkhazia shall be prepared to compromise in solving problems on the basis of granting Abkhazia a special status within the framework of the Georgian state.
An alternative military means of solving the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict runs counter to the interests of neighboring countries and the international community, as it threatens to destabilize the situation not only in Georgia, but in the neighboring areas of the Caucasus.