Why Are Georgia and Abkhazia Still Far From Reconciliation?

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 13 Issue: 161

September 27 commemoration of the "Fall of Sukhumi"

On September 27, Georgian authorities and activists commemorated the 23rd anniversary of the “Fall of Sukhumi.” On that date in 1993, an armed group of Abkhaz and North Caucasian fighters, clandestinely supported in various ways by Russian forces stationed in Abkhazia, managed to establish control over the regional capital of Sukhumi. The Georgian population, which traditionally comprised a majority in the city, was forced to flee Abkhazia via passages high in the mountains, where dozens of people, including children, died of starvation and exposure (Newsday.ge, September 27). As a result, the number of ethnic Georgians in Abkhazia was reduced from about 240,000 to 30,000–40,000. The remaining Georgian population resides primarily in the Gali district of Abkhazia, which is adjacent to the rest of Georgia. Thus, for Georgians, September 27 symbolizes the “loss of Abkhazia” (Abkhazeti.info, May 17, 2011).

The Abkhaz side has its own narrative of the conflict, which stands in pointed opposition to the Georgian version. The Abkhaz commemorate September 30 instead of September 27. On September 30, 1993, armed separatist groups reached the Enguri River, thus capturing the entire territory of the former Georgian autonomy with the exception of the high-altitude Kodori mountain gorge. In August 2008, after Russia invaded Georgia’s other former autonomy of South Ossetia, Abkhaz fighters captured the Kodori Gorge itself (Svante E. Cornell and S. Frederick Starr, The Guns of August 2008: Russia’s War in Georgia, New York: Routledge, 2009). Fearing for their lives, thousands of Georgians (Svans) left the Kodori Gorge (Kuna.net, August 9, 2008).

Despite this history of conflict, Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili again called for a “restoration of bridges” between the Georgians and the Abkhaz. Kvirikashvili made the statement on September 27, during his visit to the memorial commemorating those Georgian soldiers and officers who died for the territorial integrity of the country. “We must think about restoring bridges between Georgians and Ossetians, between Georgians and Abkhazians step by step—only through peace because our country needs peace,” the prime minister emphasized (Civil Georgia, September 27).

On the previous day, Kvirikashvili demonstrated what he meant by “Georgian-Abkhaz reconciliation.” The Georgian prime minister visited the village of Ganmukhuri on the “Abkhazian shore” of the Enguri River (which partially but not entirely follows the de facto border between separatist Abkhazia and the rest of Georgia). Ganmukhuri is located on territory controlled by the Georgian government. The official took part in the dedication ceremony for the construction of botanical gardens and a luxury hotel, which he said “contribute to the wellbeing of the local population and the development of local infrastructure.” These projects are “fully in line with the state’s peace and reconciliation policy,” he stressed  (Civil Georgia, September 27). The founder of the ruling Georgian Dream coalition, billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, funds both projects. He has allotted $80 million for them through his Co-Investment Fund.

Another large project, which the Georgian authorities implement for the purposes of reconciliation with Abkhazia is providing free medical treatment for ethnic Abkhaz in the best Georgian hospitals, where they undergo expensive surgeries at no cost to them (see EDM, March 9, 2015). Neither the small Georgian population that still resides in Abkhazia nor the other ethnic groups that live in the Georgian breakaway territory are eligible for similar free medical treatment in Georgia. Through this program, Tbilisi is trying to communicate its good will toward the Abkhaz, hoping for reciprocity.

However, the breakaway government in Sukhumi has repeatedly signaled that such humanitarian projects—often implemented with European Union support—cannot change Abkhazia’s course toward achieving complete independence from Georgia (Mfaapsny.org, September 20). Abkhazian leaders often accuse Georgian authorities of attempts to limit the region’s international ties. The authorities in Sukhumi admonish Georgia for trying to undermine Abkhazia’s external ties not only with the countries of the post-Soviet space, but also with the West. Indeed, with the exception of Russia, to date, none of the member countries of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) have recognized Abkhazia as a sovereign state. “Independence from Georgia does not mean that the territory has the features of an independent state,” noted David Avalishvili, an analyst with the Georgian news agency GHN. “Everybody in the world knows that Abkhazia is fully dependent on Russia. Russians control Abkhazia’s borders on land and sea. Abkhazia’s budget is nearly 100 percent dependent on financial injections from Moscow, exports to the Russian market and Russian tourists. On the example of Georgia, we know how well Moscow can exploit economic levers for exerting pressure on its partners,” Avalishvili pointed out (Author’s interview, September 30).

But if Abkhazia is truly seeking independence and self-determination, why has the regime in Sukhumi not attempted to establish a dialogue with Tbilisi simply for tactical reasons to “balance out” Moscow’s influence? Why is Abkhazia’s rhetoric completely dismissive of the Georgian state? Analyst David Avalishvili thinks that the reason is not only explained by Abkhazia’s utter dependence on Russia, but also on a fundamental Abkhazian-Georgian conflict of interest that dates back to the tragedy of 1993. “Back then hundreds of thousands of ethnic Georgians fled Abkhazia, and no Georgian government will give up the idea of returning them [to this territory]. The Abkhazian authorities, in their turn, will never agree to that,” Avalishvili asserted. Their national goal is to attract to Abkhazia the descendants of the hundreds of thousands of ethnic Abkhaz who were deported to the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century following the Russian-Caucasian war. Those “returnees” from abroad would then be settled in the empty Georgian houses, he argued. “These ideas are so divergent that it is impossible to find common ground. Only some sort of status quo can be maintained,” the expert said. Russia successfully exploits this fundamental and irreconcilable “conflict of interest” between the Georgians and the Abkhaz, Avalishvili explained, to increase its influence in Abkhazia and use the conflict to put pressure on both sides. Until both sides realize this and work to overcome it, reconciliation will likely be impossible.