Is Russia Decoupling South Ossetia and Abkhazia?

By David Iberi

Responding to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s statements during her recent Eastern European tour saying that the Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia are occupied by Russia and that the occupation should end, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said on July 6, “Some think it is occupied and some think it is liberated. And this is an issue for a dialogue between the peoples, between the Georgian people and the South Ossetian people…Russia and other representatives of the international community could only act as guarantors…I know there are many forces in Georgia who would like the normalization of the Georgian-Russian relations and would also like to build a common future with the Ossetian people. It is necessary to proceed along this road. But there is no need to seek solutions on the side.”

Putin’s statement is interesting in many ways but, arguably, the most important aspect is that he spoke of “South Ossetia” but did not even mention Abkhazia by name. When the Russian premier’s quotes appeared in Russia’s printed media and internet websites, reporters apparently felt compelled to add Abkhazia in brackets after Putin’s mentioning of “South Ossetia,” as the Russian news agency Regnum did in its July 6 publication. Apparently, Putin was misunderstood by his own media outlets since what he hoped to achieve through his statement was to redraw the line between Abkhazia and South Ossetia two years after the war.

Then, as if a follow-up to the Putin’s statement, Director of the Carnegie Moscow Center Dmitry Trenin’s article appeared in the Moscow Times on August 9. In the piece entitled, “How to Make Peace with Georgia,” Trenin tried to reinforce the notion of “demarcating a line” between Abkhazia and “South Ossetia” by suggesting an independent status for Abkhazia and a peculiar “Andorran model” for “South Ossetia” where Georgia “would be legally present.”

While speaking about the right of ethnic Georgians to return to “South Ossetia,” Trenin eschewed discussing the same rights for the Georgians expelled from Sokhumi and other parts of Abkhazia where they had constituted the majority of the population before the fall of 1993 when the Georgian rule in Abkhazia was overthrown with the help of Russian forces and their proxies.

Until the August 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia there was a widely accepted understanding that to solve the problem in the Tskhinvali region/South Ossetia was an easier task than in Abkhazia. The less populous, much smaller and land-locked “South Ossetia,” with an area of 1,506 square miles, where the Georgian government controlled more than one third of the territory, hardly represented any special value to the Kremlin. Compared to that, Abkhazia, with an area of 3,256 square miles along the Black Sea coast, was seen as a more difficult case primarily because Moscow viewed and presented it that way.

While Russia had its “peacekeeping” forces deployed in both territories before the war, the fact that their presence was supervised by the United Nations in Abkhazia and by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in the Tskhinvali region showed that the international community, too, viewed those conflicts as separate cases. Along very similar lines, reports on Abkhazia by influential international think-tanks and NGOs abounded, whereas South Ossetia was hardly ever mentioned in their accounts.

But if the August 2008 Russian invasion proved anything, it was how significant South Ossetia’s central, heartland location along Georgia’s east-west highway is to Russia, as well as its proximity to the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. Those features give the otherwise unimportant swath of land a strategic value, which could well parallel that of Abkhazia’s on the Black Sea coast. After the war, Moscow reinforced “South Ossetia’s” status both politically – by declaring it “independent” – and militarily – by establishing military bases there. The regime in South Ossetia is arguably more secretive than that in Abkhazia, and many Western diplomats stationed in Tbilisi admit that unlike Abkhazia it is virtually impossible for them to travel to South Ossetia or communicate with its de-facto authorities. The ethnic cleansing of Georgians in “South Ossetia” during and after the August 2008 war was even more brutal than that conducted in Abkhazia some 15 years ago. In the latter situation, Russia and its proxies abstained from bulldozing entire Georgian villages and towns, but that was not the case in 2008. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev visited Tskhinvali in 2008, while he only made it to Sokhumi a long two years later, on August 8, 2010.

So why has this renewed talk in Russia of “decoupling” Abkhazia and South Ossetia again? Is it because a new invasion of Georgia is no longer on the Kremlin’s agenda and with that the significance of South Ossetia has been demoted? Or, alternatively, have the Russians shelved their plan to overthrow Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s government (because it is impossible to do anyway, at least for the time being) and started to show their willingness to bargain with “South Ossetia” for greater legitimate acquisitions in Abkhazia or somewhere else, for instance, to gain Georgia’s support for their WTO membership?

Whatever the reason, Georgia should be careful to not be tricked once again. First, the unconditional return of all internally displaced persons and refugees to their homes both in Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region/South Ossetia under international security guarantees should continue to top Georgia’s conflict resolution agenda. Second, duly authorized international policing mechanisms should be established on the ground in both regions. Third, Russia’s behavior and intentions should be judged on how fully it observes all obligations taken under the August 2008 ceasefire agreement. No “decoupling” would be as assuring as those measures.