The last three decades have brought about a new revolution in the way the world functions and operates, with immense technological developments taking place. The spread and introduction of technological advancements and innovations is very much linked to the political structures and systems that provide the population with access to the necessary and needed skills. The territory of the Former Soviet Union (FSU), with its previous power monopoly and planned economy, has been exposed to innovations and new ways of conducting business in the free market economy after the collapse of the Union. The rules of the free market posed unknown challenges and required the economies of the newly emerged states to adjust quickly to comply with the new standards. Most of the FSU Republics struggled to cope with their new realities, however, with the international exposure and targeted expert and financial support, they were able to get on their feet and stabilise their economies.
However, these developments and exposure did not take place throughout the entire territory of what once used to be the Soviet Union. A number of places within the former territory that do not fit in the international world order, have been excluded from this development process. This is due to their disputed political status, where unresolved and protracted conflicts are the defining aspect of any type of engagement. This paper will focus on one of these ‘special cases’ – Abkhazia, a small piece of land squeezed between Russia and Georgia, surrounded by the Caucasus Mountains and the warm waters of the Black Sea. The author will introduce the reader to a brief historical overview and explain the modern-day ambiguous status of Abkhazia, its internal situation, and then will mainly address the limitation of external assistance and its implications on the conflict dynamics.
The present-day Abkhazia is a de facto state that enjoys limited international recognition and is in a political and territorial conflict with Georgia. The world history knows a lot of cases of conflicts between neighbouring nations and peoples, so the Abkhazians and Georgians are no exception in this, living for centuries side by side. The current state of the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict coincided with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the reinforcement of the new national identities and visions of the states’ development. While in the Soviet Union Abkhazia was incorporated into the Georgian Socialist Republic in 1931 as an autonomous Republic, and Gorbachev’s perestroika allowed the Union’s Republics to voice their vision of the future of the union. Georgia under a nationalist leader, Gamsakhurdia, declared independence from the collapsing Soviet Union and reintroduced the pre-Soviet constitution; Abkhazia, fearing for its identity and freedoms within the new state system, did not support this process and expressed a desire to remain within whatever would be left of the Soviet Union. Abkhazia’s claims for a state were not new: Abkhazian leadership throughout their Soviet history expressed desire for a change in their status within the Union and strongly opposed integration into Soviet Georgia. Following Georgia’s return to the pre-Soviet constitution, Abkhazia did the same, stating that it had never been a part of independent Georgia. The power vacuum that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union led to an outbreak of a war in Abkhazia. A war that lasted for 13 months, claimed lives of thousands and was subsequently won by the Abkhazian side, which led to the establishment of the Abkhaz de-facto state.
The negotiation process between the two sides has seen various stages, however, it has achieved little progress; today the sides find themselves in a deep deadlock with mutually exclusive positions and visions on how to address the conflict. At the same time, the situation on the ground is rather dynamic: within the last quarter of a century of Abkhazia’s self-rule, it has managed to establish working institutions and structures. It has even held a series of competitive presidential and parliament elections, with peaceful transitions of power. In 2008, it received the first international recognition of its statehood from Russia, which was followed by a handful of other states. Abkhazia, as any other society, faces a series of challenges and problems requiring proper and strategic planning and management. In most other similar cases, the countries usually resort to internal and external support, both expert and financial ones, the situation with the Abkhaz case is different and has many limitations that have a rather negative effect on the population.
What is the ‘special case’ of Abkhazia?
The Georgian-Abkhazian war of the early 90s had immense negative consequences that severely downgraded the livelihoods of the population, which became almost half of what it used to be before the war. Once the war was over, Abkhazia was put under an international economic blockade that cut off its territory and its post-war population from the surrounding countries. Arguably, this international blockade was as harmful for the population as the war itself. If one looked at Abkhazia in the early 90s, one would find it a mix of a primarily agricultural industry and a high-end tourist destination that was heavily mismanaged under the centrally planned economy. The collapse of the Union and planned economy, followed by the devastating war and the economic blockade left deep marks on the place and its people.
At the same time, it is important to highlight that Abkhazia was and still is a recipient of support and assistance from international actors, such as Russia, the European Union (EU) and the USA. This support played a crucial role in the post-war years, especially from the provision of humanitarian aid. The framework of this assistance is primarily of a humanitarian nature and is directly linked to confidence and peacebuilding measures. In the post-war years this approach addressed a series of challenges and issues on the ground and supported the population. Almost all of the international assistance Abkhazia is currently receiving from Western institutions, primarily from the EU, the USA and Sweden, is linked to, and targeting, the humanitarian and conflict related spheres. The international assistance, due to the political conflict and status of Abkhazia, in no way provides capacity building or support for the much-needed reform of the internal systems.
With the stabilisation of the situation in Abkhazia and minor developments that are taking place, the society’s agenda has also further expanded: there is now a demand for a systematic support that can help the population to address the challenges it is faced with.
However, the unresolved conflict again stands in the way for conflict resolution, apart from sides’ having opposing positions, since 2008, there is no agreement of who are sides in this conflict. After the 2008 war in South Ossetia and Russia’s subsequent recognition of Abkhazian and South Ossetian independence claims and Georgia’s refusal to sign a non-use of force agreement, both, Abkhazia and South Ossetia agreed to allow the Russian military bases on their territories. This is seen by Georgia as occupation; while the societies both in Abkhazia and South Ossetia consider this military presence as the only force preventing a new war. Georgia further elaborated its occupation rhetoric in its ‘Law on the occupied territories’ that claims to outline ways and approaches on how to engage with the population of Abkhazia, in reality it virtually cuts off Abkhazia and its population from the outside world. Moreover, Georgia chose to lump all of its conflicts into one – Russo-Georgian. Official Tbilisi states that its issues with Abkhazia and South Ossetia are only components to its conflict with Moscow, while in reality all three are very different and require different approaches.
This policy of shifting responsibility has proved itself to be rather effective for Georgia’s short-term plans, especially in their relations with Western allies. On the other hand, this policy further deepened the divide between the Abkhazians and Georgians, as it reinforced the isolation of the population of Abkhazia and created a sense of insecurity and unimportance that now is in the minds of people, especially the youth.
Being a young person from Abkhazia, one learns early in life that many benefit the modern-world offers are not available for them, such as travel, international education or professional career in a global tech company. Due to the unresolved issue regarding the status of Abkhazia, all of the documents issued by any of its institutions and structure are not recognised valid internationally, and this includes the passport.
How does it feel to live in a place that is surrounded by a virtual wall? One of the main issues this creates is related to the restriction of travel. There is an Abkhazian passport, but, it can only be used in countries that recognise its independence. Therefore, in practical terms it can only be used for traveling to Russia. Most of the Abkhaz population have Russian passports, these passports were issued to the residents of Abkhazia in a simplified procedure until 2008. However, now these passports are issued by the Russian Embassy in Abkhazia, therefore, most countries do not issue visas for the holders of these passports. A significant number of young people only have Abkhazian passport and are not eligible for Russian citizenship making it harder for them to travel outside the Russian Federation.
Most of Abkhazia’s residents describe this situation as an ‘isolation policy’, where they are deliberately denied access to the outside world. And Georgia and the Georgians are seen as actors orchestrating this policy, and it further fuels the negative sentiments and reinforces the image of the enemy amongst the Abkhazians. This ‘isolation policy’ is extremely harmful for the population on the ground, but it also has very negative effects on the conflict dynamics. Being excluded and deprived of development and professional growth opportunities makes the society more closed off, inward looking and less-inclined to engage. Currently, Abkhaz youth finds itself in this situation of long-lasting isolation, with practically no access to Western education, travel and engagement. The fewer opportunities there are for the youth and population in general to develop, the less the society will be interested in addressing the sensitive conflict related issues.
Living with this unresolved and protracted ethnic conflict makes the society extremely polarised; issues of identity are paramount and of most importance. In the Abkhaz case, this is very much visible in the population’s overwhelming support of the establishment of the independent state of Abkhazia, thus, anything that is seen to undermine this cause is unacceptable. Abkhazia and its population are very vocal when they feel that their interests are undermined, this is true not only when it comes to Georgia, but also in relations with its main partner Russia. This is something that Georgia misses when dealing with Abkhazia: whatever offer of ‘engagement’ with the outside world that is on the table, if it comes with a prerequisite of doing it through Georgia it will not even be considered by Abkhazia. For example, Georgia’s latest version of their engagement plan with Abkhazia, which was framed as a peace initiative under the name of ‘A Step to a Better Future’, was slammed by the Abkhaz leadership and did not even bring about a discussion around it. This engagement plan does have several potentially useful initiatives, however, in reality it does not target important areas that would bring out positive change in Abkhazia: such as tourism development or access to external expertise. A number of experts in Abkhazia believe that this initiative was address more to Brussels and Washington rather than to the population of Abkhazia.
The lack of support for development and capacity building of Abkhaz professionals and youth does not allow the structure, institutions and experts to properly function and bring about the much need internal reform and incentives for change. The lack of modern expertise and know-how pushes the society and its institutions into the adoption of hardened positions, this is particularly noticeable in issues related to the languages of education, protection of civic rights, and civil society freedom. One of the main factors that defined Abkhazia’s development, since the early 90s, was the desire to be accepted and recognised by the international community. This desire to comply with the international requirements and standards was among the main driving forces of the democratic developments and initiatives inside Abkhazia. However, the long-term isolation and lack of development have become major challenges for sustaining the pluralistic and democratic composition of Abkhazia.
Isolation has two components: one is external isolation, a reality Abkhazia has been faced with for more than a quarter of a century now; the second one is internal or self-isolation, a relatively new phenomenon for Abkhazia. Long lasting international isolation inevitably makes the one exposed to it more cautious, suspicious and inward looking. The populations of Abkhazia are now entering that state of isolation; seeing the technological advancements and developments of the outside world from behind a closed door, being excluded from it, led to growing frustration and mistrust. However, due to the fact that Abkhazians have very little space to voice their perspective internationally or influence a position, they resorted to the only option of choosing not to engage when asked. This coupled with the lack of opportunities of access to international exposure and experience and the growing feeling of unimportance evolves into a self-isolation. Self-isolation, if not addressed adequately, will have negative consequences not only to the conflict resolution process, but also internally. Today Abkhazia and its society are faced with a series of challenges and problems, most of these issues are in the core of ethnic and societal composition of Abkhazia and require tailored and systematic approach. However, due to the fact that there is limited access and exposure to the international best practices, lack of resources: human, expert and financial, most of these issues continue posing threats to the population. The effects of lack of proper address are already experienced by the most vulnerable groups of the population, in many cases that also includes minorities.
The issues experienced by Abkhazia are not unique, however, the context of Abkhazia is extremely unusual. The current deadlock in the conflict resolution process does not allow for much space for constructive and programmatic approach, the new developmental divides between Abkhazia and Georgia, coupled with the unaddressed and still burning hardships of the war years, only further escalate the position. Closing the developmental gap between the two entities can become a solid foundation for a future impactful conflict resolution process. A development agenda targeting and based on the needs of Abkhazia, with a status neutral approach and international assistance can boost the process. The more the Abkhazian society develops, the more ownership they can claim to the processes on the ground, the more they find solutions to their challenges, the more the society advances into a more inclusive, democracy and human rights based one, the more inceptives they will be to address the sensitive conflict related aspects. On the other hand, the more Georgia continues to shield off Abkhazia and its population from the outside world, the more hardline will be the positions.
What can be done?
A starting point should be the acceptance of the fact that the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict will not be resolved anytime soon. Today, this conflict, similar to others on the territory of the FSU, has many layers and are no longer conflicts between the two parties, with Russia, the EU and other third parties involved, further narrowing down the opportunities for easy and fast solutions. At the same time, it is important to understand, that any conflict resolution that will bring about lasting peace in the region will have to be taken and accepted by the populations on the ground. The sense of development and progress being made for Abkhaz society, especially for the youth, is paramount for this process.
Another aspect that should be taken into consideration is the fact that it is not an easy task to carve out a policy that will be accepted by all sides to the conflict. In the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict it is particularly difficult, as the sides have mutually exclusive positions, with many redlines and limitations, and there are even disagreements on who the actors and sides involved are. Finding a status neutral approach and framework that does not cross redlines is not an easy task, but it is not an impossible one; with proper international guidance and mediation, clear incentives and creativity, a pathway can be identified and, with time, the sides can even take ownership of the process.
A number of success stories in the field of education that
have managed to breakthrough ‘the isolation wall around Abkhazia’ allow for
some managed optimism. Education, environment, small scale business
opportunities and capacity building development of the Abkhaz youth can bring
about positive change. It might sound paradoxical, but in order to progress in
conflict resolution it is important to divert, for the time being, from a
confidence building and humanitarian assistance and supporting role to a more
comprehensive and inclusive developmental one. The more secure and
professionally developed the Abkhaz society becomes, the more ownership and
responsibility it will have towards the peace process. The missed opportunities
and false estimations of the last quarter of a century can become a very useful
learning from mistakes exercise, and
show all sides that development is the key for the conflict resolution process.
A process that will be very slow and difficult, but it will lay the much-needed
foundation to address and discuss the grievances of the local populations.
Author bio: Rustam Anshba is an Academy Robert Bosch Fellow on Russia and Eurasia at Chatham House. Rustam’s research addresses the political and developmental issues that contribute to the existing debate and discourse around the deadlock in the negotiation process for the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict. Rustam has been involved in peace and negotiation processes in the conflict, but also the wider South Caucasus region. His previous work with government, civil society and international organizations allows for a better understanding of the various approaches taken by these actors in relation to the conflict. As a regular contributor to international conferences and events related to peace processes, education and conflict, Rustam has been working in Abkhazia as a guest lecturer at the International Relations’ Department in the State University, as well as with UNICEF’s field office as an education officer.
Photo by President of Russia, New bridge on the Russia-Abkhazia border, January 2012, http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/14361. No modifications to photo. Creative commons licence, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/deed.en
 Another disputed territory