Abkhazia: difficult way from the Soviet Autonomy to partially recognized state, by Sergey Markedonov

Sergei Markedonov

Reflections on Abkhazia: [14 August] 1992-2012

In 1991 the Soviet Union dissolved leading to the formation of 15 internationally recognized independent states. Since then each of them was able to traverse the difficult path towards legitimacy and establishing statehood. However the newly independent post-Soviet states are not the only product of the USSR dissolution. One of the major consequences of this process was appearance of entities that have also declared their independence and sovereignty but not obtained UN membership and full-fledged international recognition though they were able to defend themselves through armed confrontation as well as bloody conflicts.

Abkhazia has become one of the most interesting cases of de facto statehood building in Eurasia. Twenty years ago, on August, 1992 it was involved in almost 14-month-long conflict with the Georgian government and local paramilitary forces. Since 1993 September 30 is traditionally celebrated in Abkhazia as a Victory Day. That day the Abkhaz armed forces and volunteers from the Confederation of Mountainous Peoples of the Caucasus forced the Georgian troops and militias from the most of the Abkhaz Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic. For Tbilisi it meant the loss of jurisdiction over the part of its de jure recognized territory formally belonging to it. In accordance with the current Georgian legislation Abkhazia is a region which is “illegally occupied by Russian Federation” while allegedly “the Abkhaz Autonomy Government in exile” is the only legitimate body representing the breakaway republic[1]. In reality, however Abkhazia was lost not as a result of the Russo-Georgian war of 2008. Tbilisi didn’t control political, legal, social processes within Abkhazia 15 years before the “hot August” and recognition of this de facto state by Russia. For the whole intervening period the Abkhaz leaders tried to realize their own nation-building project, having very controversial dynamics with “maternal state” as well as external factors (Russia, Turkey, international organizations). Recognizing the huge role of Moscow in the transformation of the Georgia-Abkhazian conflict the “Kremlin hand” has not been the core prerequisite for it. The most important reason for it was the desire of the Abkhaz elite to determine the status of the former Autonomy of the Soviet Georgia beyond the framework of the Georgian independent state. Paradoxically the Georgian leaders distinctively helped the Abkhaz national movement in abolishing all USSR period legislation including the Autonomous status of Abkhazia. The Constitution of the Georgian Democratic Republic of 1921 restored by Tbilisi proposed for Abkhazia as the only “autonomous government” in the “local issues” but not a special Autonomy constituency de jure obtained in the Constitution of 1978. Those steps strengthened frustration and phobias among the Abkhaz leaders as well as their will for self-determination as an ethno-political solution.  The most decisive attempt for such self-determination was made on the 23rd  of July, 1992 when the Supreme Soviet of Abkhazia adopted a decision abolishing the Constitution of the Abkhaz Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic of 1978 and restoring the Constitutional Treaty of 1925 as a framework for future full-fledged republican legislation. The cancelation of the legal framework connected Abkhazia and Georgia before pushing Tbilisi to ill-considered action - putting troops on the territory of the former Abkhaz ASSR. The Georgian military incorporation scenario failure opened the way for the Abkhaz de facto statehood.

It was opened in very complicated conditions of devastated economy and no sustainable government. However since September, 1993 giant development was made. During this difficult evolution Abkhazia faced economic blockade and significant social decline with signs of naturalization of economy and monthly pension rate of 30-50 Russian rubles (equivalent of 1-2 USD).  Sometimes (May, 1998, October, 2001 and July, 2006) Abkhazia was challenged by the Georgian attempts to “unfreeze” the conflict violating status quo of 1993. There have been numerous military and political provocations as well as diplomatic pressure, including by the way the Russian one in 1996-1997. Thus the blockade of Abkhazia was legalized by the Board of CIS Heads of States resolution "On Measures for the conflict in Abkhazia, Georgia resolution" on January 19, 1996. Faced with the Chechen separatist challenge, Moscow initially supported the intent of Tbilisi to restore Georgia's territorial integrity. In 1997 the Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov proposed a formula “Common State” for the negotiation process between Tbilisi and Sukhum/i and tried to convince the Abkhaz leaders to follow his political suggestions. And even in 2003 Moscow and Tbilisi signed the Sochi agreement assuming the creation of 3 working groups (refugees return, railroad restoration between Sochi and Tbilisi as well as renovations of the Inguri hydroelectric power station). However the subsequent "Rose Revolution" and the coming of President Mikhail Saakashvili to power in Georgia (2003-2004) made it impossible to implement the Sochi document as well as some other Russo-Georgian agreements. Finally the Abkhaz leadership using profitable geopolitical conditions (“five day war” of August, 2008 in South Ossetia) established the military and political control over the Kodor/i Gorge (the last part of the former Abkhazian Autonomous Republic, which remained under the authority of Tbilisi). Since the first recognition of Abkhazia by Russia (the 26th of August, 2008) its independence was supported by 5 UN members (Nicaragua, Venezuela, Nauru, Vanuatu and Tuvalu).

However by the standards of history two decades is a very short time. Today, many of those who took part in the ethno-political conflict of 1990s still shape the republican agenda. For them the conflict is topical though after obtaining the Russian recognition and military support the Georgian factor has lost its exclusive status. For the extraordinary presidential elections of 2011 using the “Georgian card” in propaganda and PR was not so effective. Anyway democratization of domestic policy and development of political competition don’t assume any radical compromises with official Tbilisi. Expectation of “new Willy Brandt” in Abkhazia is not the near future issue.  For appearance of such persons it will take to transform the conflict from “sacred format” to realistic estimations and interpretations not only among the Abkhaz but among the Georgian leaders.

Can we conclude after the two-decade experience that the Abkhaz statehood (albeit de facto) has been sustainable? It seems that unambiguous evaluations can not be made here. According to the experts from Columbia University the Post-Soviet Georgia has not effectively controlled Abkhazia except some months in the early 1990s.  Due to this Sukhum/i doesn’t perceive Tbilisi as the legitimate ruler[2]. Comparing the two former Autonomies of the Soviet Georgia, Thomas de Waal, an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment comes to the following conclusion: “Abkhazia has travelled much further away from Georgia and there is far less recent memory of co-existence. The Abkhaz and the Armenians and Russians of Abkhazia are much closer to the North Caucasus. Abkhazia has functioning institutions, including a parliament, independent newspapers and a lively political culture”[3]. Thus we can speak about the desire of some US and European experts to abandon the "black and white" pictures of the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict and come to understand that the engagement of Abkhazia is needed not for the sake of any specific “pro-Russian” aspirations but following existing realities. It is no coincidence that the EU has proclaimed “engagement without recognition” approach which nevertheless recognizes the fact of the Abkhaz polity existence.

For a long time in the west entities like Abkhazia were called as "breakaway republics". Their political existence was perceived as temporary one. It was supposed they would be back after the initial “break.” However the two decades of de facto state-building have proved that “the return process” could not be finally completed. In fact the political move of Abkhazia from the conflict to the peace development was based on a very shaky foundation when hard power played a role of decisive factor. But during this time Abkhazia has demonstrated a certain momentum in its development. The Abkhaz system of presidential elections has passed a difficult way of transformation from the presidential election within the Parliament (1994) through the sole candidate voting (1999) to the competitive electoral process (elections in 2004, 2009 and 2011). In contrast, UN-member state Georgia has been unable to transfer the supreme power from one leader to the other legally and not through military coups and revolutions. For latest parliamentary elections (2012, March) more than half of former deputies including the Chairman and his Deputy were replaced by new people elected during highly competitive campaign.

Unlike Chechnya, the Abkhaz authorities could pacify the republic and insert “the spontaneous revolutionary creativity of the masses” into the more or less legal framework although a plenty of excesses have taken place. Here it’s necessary to pay special attention to painful issues, both for the Abkhaz and the Georgian audience, as the problem of refugees (sometimes they are also called as “temporarily displaced” or “internally displaced” persons). Numerous facts of selective ethno-political violence in the post-Soviet Abkhazia are well-known. So far in this republic there is no solid legal framework to ensure property rights. The reason for this lies in the "winner takes all” principle which was realized in fall events of 1993 and afterwards when a plenty of real estate left by ethnic Georgians were seen as a legitimate trophy. Subsequently this approach was also applied to the representatives of other "non-titular communities." Unlike the cases with the ethnic Georgians those facts were often “packed” with the quasi-judicial statements, though it could not change the principle. But the ethnic Georgians’ “exodus” has another dimension which has often been out of focus. In one of his commentaries, well-known Abkhaz journalist Vitaliy Sharia remembered the day of the 27-th of September, 1993 (when the capital city of Abkhazia was captured by his countrymen): “That evening we had a discussion with some correspondents on the latest developments. Constantine Gulia said dreamily that when the whole Abkhazia would be liberated they could set the highway Sukhum/i-Dranda long holiday table to celebrate the victory!” After it someone noted that the Georgian guerrillas living around the highway would attack this table. None of the participants in that conversation ever mentioned that day of the mass withdrawal of Georgians as the best solution.  On the contrary, we discussed the ways for restoration of confidence and old destroyed relations and human ties with our neighbors and colleagues”.[4] If we discard the usual emotional excesses of journalism, the story of Vitaliy Sharia would look more rational. In fact, ethnic Georgians living in Abkhazia for the most part were not ready to live in a country in which the first places could be concentrated in the hands of the other ethnic group representatives. Their engagement in the conflict itself was predetermined by different social and political expectations. Thus many of them left Abkhazia even if they were not abused specifically. In one of the private conversations the author’s Georgian friend and colleague noted: "You, Russians are very fond of Georgia but only as a part of Russia!" The similar formula could easily (and maybe today) be applied to the evaluation of perceptions of Abkhazia among the Georgians.

Thus, the work to normalize relations between the neighbors is necessary regardless of how the final status of Abkhazia would be recognized by Tbilisi. The case of the Abkhazia self-determination has a lot of unique aspects but nevertheless it can be considered as a case of nation-state building practice. Eastern and Central Europe survived a similar experience half a century ago which was accompanied by borders changes and population withdrawals. Anyway those excesses were moved down due to inter-state rapprochement and normalization. It seems that normalization the international legitimacy of Abkhazia will always be without such changes. Meanwhile any compromises with Georgia do not mean the victory of Tbilisi, and even more so, a return to the situation prior to 1993. Such a scenario should be immediately discarded as unrealistic. In today or tomorrow’s context it is possible to discuss only finding of some Modus Vivendi between the neighbors.

Of course, the problem of building relations with Russia and the Western states world also poses many difficult questions of Abkhazia. How can the Abkhaz authorities find the keys for a diversified foreign policy having limited resources and depending politically and militarily on Moscow? Many other questions have been raised. The Abkhaz security and self-determination from Georgia are guaranteed by Russia. But how much does it cost politically and economically? What impact will the penetration of big Russian business (“Posneft” of “Russian Railroads”) have on the Abkhaz development? Will it decrease windows for the national business? What about taking care of the Abkhaz environment? Similar questions could be addressed to the security, military areas as well as governance. Will Moscow keep the domestic policy (electoral campaigns and governmental appointments) of Abkhazia? Today those questions form new agenda for Abkhazia because the direct threat from the Georgian side after 2008 has been minimized.

Apart from the relations with neighbors Abkhazia will face plenty of topical domestic issues. According to the American analyst Gerard Toal, “Abkhazia’s biggest challenges today are not about recognition but about creating stable foundations for its internal legitimacy”[5]. Indeed after the war and in the conditions of suspended sovereignty it is impossible to create a liberal open society. But it is required to find the most optimal nation-building model. Abkhazia is not Nagorno-Karabakh Republic or even South Ossetia where “the titular ethnic groups” have evident numerical superiority. Indeed, it is unlikely for the Armenian, Russian and Georgian (Megrelian) population of the republic to be satisfied with the constitutional provision (Article 49 of the Constitution of Abkhazia) with the exclusive right for the Abkhaz people to obtain the presidential position. It is necessary to take into account the growing economic role of the Armenian community (the size of which is practically equal to the number of Abkhaz) in the republic. Hence new approaches to the nation-building would be claimed sooner or later.  And the last (but not least) it is the need to uphold law and order. The state which is based on the ideas and practices of expediency (because without them it could not survive in the conflict) should make a shift to the dominance of formal procedures. Following this way the Abkhaz partially recognized state could reach the real independence not just the independence from the Georgian sovereignty.

[1] Cited on: The Georgia’s Law on the Occupied Territories //http://rrc.ge/law/kannGeo_2008_23_10_R.htm?lawid=1731&lng_3=ru

[2] Cooley A., Mitchell L. Engagement without Recognition: A New Strategy toward Abkhazia and Eurasia's Unrecognized States //The Washington Quarterly. 2010. October issue. P.61

[3] Cited on: Andorran model for the Caucasus - Tom de Waal (interview with Tom de Waal prepared specially for the Caucasus Times by Sergey Markedonov) //http://www.caucasustimes.com/article.asp?language=2&id=20328 2010. September 14

[4] Sharia V. Remembering the fall of 1993 // http://www.ekhokavkaza.org/content/article/2169837.html 2010. - September 27.

[5] Cited on: Gerard Toal: "Standards for the status are more realistic than" territorial integrity" (interview with Gerard Toal was prepared specifically for the Caucasus Times by Sergey Markedonov)// http://www.caucasustimes.com/article.asp?language=2&id=20292 2010. September 4.

Sergey Markedonov

Visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Russia and Eurasia Program, in Washington, DC. USA

Source: Reflections on Abkhazia




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