The Canute Syndrome, by George Hewitt

The Soviet Constitution introduced in 1936 by Iosep Dzhughashvili, the Georgian better known to the world as Stalin, has been described as one of the most examplary documents of its kind, and yet it appeared the same year that Stalin unleashed The Great Terror, a two-year period when the Soviet State devoured countless numbers of its own citizens. The gap between theory and actuality was all too apparent (to the Soviet populace, at least, if not to foreign observers). At the end of January, the Government of Georgia published its 'State Strategy on Occupied Territories: Engagement Through Cooperation'. Whilst this proposal predictably seems to be winning approval from Tbilisi's European and American supporters, on the ground in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, offensively referred to as 'occupied territories', it is a total irrelevance.

Georgia's President Mikheil Saak'ashvili urgently needed to improve his international image after the publication of the Tagliavini Commission's report on his disastrous adventure of August 2008 in South Ossetia. With the subsequent recognition by Russia of Abkhazia and South Ossetia on 26 August 2008, the final nail was hammered into the coffin of Georgia's Ministry for Reintegration, but minister Teimuraz Yak'obashvili, the promoter of this Strategy, seems not to have grasped that his office is nothing more than a sinecure. For all the document's fine words and lofty sentiments, the fundamental problem is ignored: the Abkhazians and South Ossetians have not the slightest wish to be 'reintegrated' into a unitary Georgian state. Messrs. Saak'ashvili and Yak'obashvili can discuss their proposals to their hearts' content with backers in Brussels, London and Washington, but nobody in Sukhum (capital of Abkhazia) or Tskhinval (capital of South Ossetia) will have any interest in joining the discussions. What they do want are direct contacts with the West and its institutions along with the freedom to travel outside their republics on their own passports, unmediated through Tbilisi. If the West replies that this will not happen, the reaction will be: 'So be it! If you give us no choice, we shall strengthen our links with Moscow.'

Paragraph 4 of the Strategy asserts that Georgia 'rejects the pursuit of a military solution'. If so, why has the Saak'ashvili government doggedly refused to sign a non-aggression pact with the Abkhazians and South Ossetians? When Saak'ashvili contravened the 1994 ceasefire-agreement with Abkhazia by introducing in 2006 militia and an alarming amount of weaponry into the Upper K'odor Valley, the one area of Abkhazia not removed form Georgian control at the end of the 1992-3 war, Abkhazia suspended negotiations, making the signing of such an accord one of the preconditions for their resumption. Even after the August 2008 war, sparked by Saak'ashvili's assault on Tskhinval, the Georgian delegation to the Geneva peace-talks, the one remaining forum where all sides (Georgians, Abkhazians, South Ossetians and Russians) meet face to face, says that it will only sign such an accord with Russia, not with Abkhazia or South Ossetia, and yet it is precisely because of Georgian attacks in these areas (dating back to 1918-21 but more recently in 1991, 1992, 1998, 2001, 2004, and 2008) that the Abkhazians and South Ossetians have no trust in Tbilisi, still striving to rebuild its military capability, and insist on determining their own destiny.

Page 2 proclaims the intent of 'supporting the preservatrion of cultural heritage and identity'. The Abkhazians would remind anyone reading this noble aspiration that Georgian forces burnt to the ground their Research Institute with its priceless library and the State Archives on 22 October 1992, keeping fire-fighters away at gunpoint, in order to destroy much of Abkhazia's cultural heritage and to erase documentary evidence of the Abkhazian historical presence on the territory of Abkhazia, a fact which so much Georgian historical propaganda (still) aims to deny.

When Eduard Shevardnadze returned to his homeland in March 1992, Georgia was in chaos, with war still raging in South Ossetia and a violent insurgency in support of his ousted predecessor, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, in Gamsakhurdia's home-region of Mingrelia; tensions were also building next-door in Abkhazia. At this moment, the West (with John Major's Conservative government taking the lead) made a crucial miscalculation, in arrogant and/or uncaring disregard for the rights of the Abkhazians and South Ossetians to self-determination: do our old friend Shevardnadze a favour, recognise Georgia, secure his position by granting membership of the IMF, World Bank and on 31 July the UN, and let him restore order in his old fiefdom — after all, did not the West have enough trouble in the former Yugoslavia? Thereafter, the recognising states were locked in to championing Georgia's territorial integrity. Georgia celebrated all of these unconditional gains by attacking Abkhazia on 14 August, initiating a 14-month war that cost the victorious Abkhazians 4% of their population. Since then all they have been offered by Tbilisi is essentially a return to the 'status quo ante bellum'. It is hardly surprising that they say: 'No thank you.'

For much of the post-war period Moscow's stance was decidedly unsympathetic to the Abkhazians; Shevardnadze's former Politburo-colleague, Boris Yeltsin, was Russian President, and his protegé, Andrej Kozyrev, was Foreign Minister. But Abkhazian determination not to yield and the appearance of Vladimir Putin as Yeltsin's successor brought about a change. The 'no war, no peace' status of the disputed territories had to be resolved, and Saak'ashvili's move against South Ossetia provided the opportunity. The Georgian military was ejected from both South Ossetia and the K'odor Valley. President Dmitry Medvedev then promptly corrected Russia's mistake in recognising Georgia's Soviet frontiers (done at a time to avoid encouraging secession in Russia itself) by offering recognition to Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Georgia's Western friends should persuade Tbilisi to face reality and recognise the lost territories. One can hardly hold back the tide of history forever. This would allow the international community to follow suit. One could then finally engage in meaningful talks on how to build mutually beneficial relations to establish viable stability in Transcaucasia, surely the universal desideratum.

To go around hawking a proposal that in the Appendix attached to the Georgian text (alone!) defines the term 'the authorities controlling Abkhazia and South Ossetia' as 'the puppet-regimes created on Georgia's occupied territories by the occupying power and supported by it', when Sergej Bagapsh was democratically elected President of Abkhazia for the second time only in December, is a simple waste of everybody's time and effort.

Prof. George Hewitt is a leading scholar of Abkhazian and Georgian languages and culture, and author of: Georgian, a Structural Reference Grammar (John Benjamin, 1995), and A Georgian Reader (SOAS, 1996); Hewitt is also a contributor to Some of his other works include ‘Peoples of the Caucasus’ (in F. Fernández-Armesto, ed. Guide to the Peoples of Europe (Times Books, 1994)); and The Abkhazians, a handbook (as author & editor, Curzon Press, 1999).




Articles & Opinion


Abkhaz World

Follow Us