An interview with the member of the Synergy Network – Group of Advocacy Rusudan MARSHANIA (Georgia)
– The Georgian-Abkhazian conflict is already 20 years old, but there have not been any shifts in the peace process yet. In your opinion, which of the parties is “braking” the conflict resolution?
– Risking bringing the “holy” wrath of my compatriots upon myself, I would say that it is the Georgian side that mainly “brakes” the settlement of the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict. Why? Let us see the facts without emotions: on April 4, 1994, a promising document, entitled “Declaration on the measures for the political settlement of the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict” was signed in Moscow under the Russian pressure. That Declaration stressed the intention of the parties to restore the broken state and legal ties and outlined the contours of the future joint state. According to it, the Abkhazian Republic should have got its own constitution, parliament and government, as well as appropriate state symbols. The document also defined the spheres of the separate and joint Georgian-Abkhazian competences: Abkhazia was supposed to delegate foreign political and economical relations, customs and border guarding service, energy, transport and communications, civil rights and the rights of ethnic minorities to the federal bodies, reserving all other powers to itself. The principle of equal participation in the possible union state was very important for the representatives of Abkhazia.
However, this document did not satisfy any of the sides in the end by the following reasons. It provoked a political scandal in Abkhazia with the appeals to recall the signatures, a year later Georgia itself started to revise the main provisions of the Declaration, using separate military agreements with Russia on preservation of 5 Russian bases on the Georgian territory for 25 years in the exchange of the assistance in the restoration of the territorial integrity. The political rapprochement between Russia and Georgia led to the sea, land and information (switching off the telephone lines) blockade of Abkhazia by the Russian Federation. The Abkhazian residents were not allowed to leave the country by their documents.
The preparation of another document “The Protocol on the Georgian-Abkhazian settlement” in the summer of 1997 also failed, despite the fact that the Abkhazian party agreed for introduction of amendments into seven (out of nine) articles.
Vladislav Ardzinba’s visit to Tbilisi in August 14 of the same year reduced the tension between two sides to some extent, then governmental delegations exchanged visits and the Coordination Council was created to deal with the security, refugees and social-economic issues. However, the parties failed to achieve a substantial breakthrough in the conflict resolution.
The events of May 1998 in the Gali region, the penetration of Gelayev’s gang into Kodori in October 2001, permanent destabilization of the situation in the border-line region by the “Wood brothers” and the “White legion” (ambushes, kidnapping, laying mines, etc.) also pushed the peace initiatives back.
With Mikheil Saakashvili’s coming to power some hopes for the improvement of the situation showed up. On December 5, 2005 a meeting took place in Sukhumi with participation of the Abkhazian Foreign Minister S. Shamba, Georgian State Minister for Conflict Resolution G. Khaindrava and the Special Representative of the UN Secretary General Heidi Tagliavini. The meeting ended with signing of a Protocol stating that the preparation of a document on the guarantees for non-resumption of the war was finished on the ministerial level. But the deployment of the Georgian armed units in the Kodori valley in July 2006 broke down these agreements.
After that another attempt was made: S.Shamba and I.Alasania composed an agreed text of the “Statement of the Georgian and Abkhazian sides on the international guarantees of security and non-resumption of the hostilities,” which was supposed to be signed in Sochi, but that did not happen because the Georgian President refused to sign it.
In March 2008 the Georgian President made the following statement: “We offer Abkhazia an unlimited autonomy within Georgia, a complete federalism, guarantees for a secure and peaceful development within the unified state.” In addition he proposed the post of the Vice-President (not envisaged by the Georgian Constitution), the right to veto any possible changes in the Constitution and the laws of Georgia to prevent decisions that might restrict or infringe the rights of Abkhazians for developing the language, literature, culture. Creation of free economic zones in Ochamchire and Gali regions was also proposed. However, compared with the previous projects, envisaging creation of a union state, it was assessed by the Abkhazian side as a step back. And the following August war in the South Ossetia and subsequent recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia completely changed the configuration of forces in the region.
So one should not be very wise to see how many times Georgia deliberately renounced or broke the agreements. You can make conclusions yourself.
– Experts often speak about “lost opportunities” in the settlement of the conflict. Which concrete opportunities, according to you, have been lost by the parties?
– I would like to note that I am not an expert, so I would refrain from making an expert evaluation; but I’ll try to formulate my vision of the problem: the whole time since 1994 up to now is a period of lost opportunities. I have to stress that these opportunities have been lost by the Georgian party, not the Abkhazians, as far as sometimes Abkhazia gave its agreement under a huge risk. Why risk? Because the security issues were understood by each party differently: Abkhazian authorities were more focused on the security guarantees for the population, living in Abkhazia (including the Gali region), meanwhile the Georgian party was concentrated on providing security to the return of the Georgian refugees to the whole territory of Abkhazia. However, there were no written mechanisms for any of the two guarantees. In addition, it is Abkhazia that initiated the creation of the document on the guarantees for non-resumption of the war. One may treat such a documents differently, but the events of 1998 in the Gali region, the Kodori events of 2001 and the August war of 2008 proved that the fears of the Abkhazian party were justified. We also should take into consideration that since the coming of the new power in Georgia, the military expenditures of that country have multiplied 27 times (from $36 to $990 million), which is equal to the 29 % of the GDP.
– Georgian expert Mamuka Areshidze expressed the idea that Tbilisi should start thinking about the possible recognition of Abkhazia’s independence. How was a reaction to it in Abkhazia itself?
– I fully support Mamuka Areshidze’s idea, and it is important not to lose the moment for starting discussions on the matter with the Abkhazian side. We saw the reaction of the Georgian society to his statement; it was predominantly negative. People thought that the recognition of Abkhazia would mean its loss and impossibility of the return, meanwhile it is just after that the return will be possible (probably, at first step by step), as far as this issue is supposed to be tied up in the recognition context. But here the point is that most of the refugees do not want to get back to Abkhazia unless the Georgian jurisdiction is there, or at least it would be present there in any shape. According the sociological survey, even in case of security guarantees, only 155 of the refugees are ready to return. It means that the social problem is seen by the Georgian refugees through the political prism, which does not seem correct to me. As for Abkhazia, the proposal has not been discussed publicly in the society. Although, there are some individual, saying that this issue is not pressing for Abkhazia, and that the latter does not strive for recognition of its independence by Georgia. An Abkhazian researcher Irakly Khintba said that it is necessary to start discussing such a proposal, and mentioned several questions that would definitely concern the Abkhazia society: “Are we really ready to discuss “the cost for recognition”, i.e. the concessions that we could do for the sake of the recognition? In particular, do we consent to the return of the refugees in exchange of the recognition by Georgia? Are we ready to make some territorial concessions? Do we really need the recognition by Georgia? Is it fraught with risks for our society or not? Are we ready to all that?”
– If Tbilisi suddenly recognized the independence of Abkhazia, how would it impact our relations and how would the events develop?
– The question is not so correct, as far as there will be no sudden recognition. It will be a very long laborious task of preparing numerous documents with all necessary provisions, conditions, guarantees and mechanisms. And the relations between Georgia and Abkhazia will be built based on the contents of such documents. Now, when even a conversation on such issues has not been started in our societies, it is very difficult to predict anything, but I dare suppose that there will be civilized good-neighboring relations, based on the mutual respect and cooperation. In addition, to prove what I’ve just said, I would like to mention the results of a survey, held by Abkhazian experts A. Inal-Ipa and A. Shakryl: “…The Abkhazian society absolutely rules out any other political status, except the status of an independent state. The recognition of Abkhazia would provide stability, which is also required for Georgia’s membership in NATO and further integration into Europe.” Besides the growing prestige, according to the Abkhazian respondents, Georgia, by means of such an “interesting step,” might solve many other problems, related to the conflict: “For Georgia it would be a possibility to impact on the Abkhazian policy one way or another with the use of the same international structures…, a development of trade-economic ties, the solution of the problems with the status of the Georgian population in Abkhazia, … cultural relations.” Some respondents pointed out the importance of the possible recognition for the improvement of the relations between the Georgian and Abkhazian peoples: “The recognition of Abkhazia is not a result of the settlement process, it is the first step toward establishment of the friendly relations with Abkhazia.”
– You visit Sukhumi quite frequently – how does the local society consider the issues of establishing relations?
– I would not say that the arrangement of relations with Georgia is an actual problem for the Abkhazian society. People are more concentrated on the survival problems and the issues related to the Abkhazian state-building. However, naturally, the overwhelming majority understand very well that we are neighbors, we have lived side by side for centuries, had a common history, and sooner or later we will start establishing contacts anyway as far as there are no “eternal enemies.” But the common relations are seen only as independent, equal and good-neighboring. That is why we should start joint discussions to know how the Abkhazian society sees the establishment of relations with the Georgian one
Interview by Irakly CHIKHLADZE