Abkhaz experts discuss what the crisis in Georgia means for Abkhazia. Video

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Foreign agent law in Georgia

Abkhaz public figure Astamur Tania and journalist, editor of Chegemskaya Pravda and JAMnews in Abkhazia Inal Khashig discussed the following topics:

● The vector of foreign policy is changing in Georgia.

● The authorities consistently reject the European path for the country and turn toward cooperation with Russia.

● There are huge protests in the country against the law “on foreign agents” initiated by the authorities. In order to take such a risk and change the vector of development, the authorities need to provide the population with some very serious motivation. This may suggest that Russia intends to somehow “offer” Georgia the return of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

● How these processes will affect Abkhazia, and what the Abkhaz authorities and society need to do right now.

Full text version of the interview:

‘Why did Bidzina Ivanishvili suddenly decide to create problems for himself out of nowhere?

Inal Khashig: Hello, this is Chegemskaya Pravda. Today we will be discussing the events unfolding in Georgia, the ongoing protests triggered by the government’s attempt to pass a foreign agent bill. These events have been ongoing since the beginning of April, and even though the May holidays are over, the unrest continues.

I have a theory as to why this is happening, and today we’ll be discussing this situation with our regular expert, Astamur Tania. Let me start with the theory – why did Bidzina Ivanishvili suddenly decide to create problems for himself out of nowhere?

Before the introduction of this law, what was the political situation in Georgia? It was a fragmented opposition. The economic upturn greatly strengthened the government’s position. Even events such as Georgia’s national team qualifying for the European Championship helped them. You probably remember when Abkhazia’s team became champions, how our authorities managed to capitalize on that.

The same applies to Georgia. Parliamentary elections should take place in Georgia in October. All experts were saying that an unconditional victory of the ruling ‘Georgian Dream’ party should be expected. And suddenly, out of nowhere, Bidzina Ivanishvili is now creating a problem for himself with this law. Now it is not just the fragmented opposition against them, but also huge masses of people. It is not just the civil sector anymore; it is the students, the youth, and more.

Now, 100 thousand people are already taking to the streets. And it’s truly a huge problem for the authorities. I think there must be some very serious motivation to take such a risk. Because in reality, it’s not just about passing this law. Georgia is shifting away from the West towards Russia. And to change this vector, or at least to show that they are changing this vector, they need some serious motivation. And it seems to me that this motivation is related to Abkhazia.

At least, there is an idea somewhere that Abkhazia, and quite possibly South Ossetia as well, will join a confederation with Georgia. Russia may facilitate the creation of such a confederation in exchange for loyalty from Georgia. In return, Georgia commits to being a neutral country without any further plans to join NATO.

Abkhazia will enter into confederative relations with Georgia. Such a change will occur. Many accompanying factors speak to this. For instance, Moscow did not invite either the president of Abkhazia or the president of South Ossetia as honorary guests to the Victory Day parade on Red Square on May 9th.

Although a small circle of foreign guests was present. Among these foreign guests were presidents of countries far removed from the Second World War, such as Laos and Guinea-Bissau. But our president and the president of South Ossetia were not there, although they had always been invited before.

I would like to know your opinion. Do you think what is happening in Tbilisi is somehow connected to Abkhazia or not?

Based on this logic, Russia is ready to hand over Abkhazia or push it towards some kind of relationship with Georgia – but this logic does not take into account the fact that Abkhazia is a subject

Astamur Tania: The first thing I would like to say is that it’s very commendable that you and Lasha (Zukhba) have created such an informational discourse, and then Akgra Bzhania (Abkhaz opposition politician) joined you.

This discourse not only allows us to reflect on the events happening around us and how they might affect us, but also, perhaps, to initiate some expert public discussion on these issues. You have opened, so to speak, the floodgates from such silence.

Many have been quietly concerned about what’s happening, but no one has spoken about it publicly. I hope this serves as a starting point for unbiased, non-emotional discussion of what is happening both in Georgia and in Russia, and indeed in our entire region.

There is certainly logic in what you’re saying. But, in my view, there are significant ramifications. Based on this logic, Russia is ready to hand over Abkhazia or push it towards some kind of relationship with Georgia. But this logic does not take into account the fact that Abkhazia is a subject.

We constantly assert that Abkhazia is not an occupied territory, but an independent entity. This is our main distinction. This position is one of the main differences from the Georgian side and those who currently support Georgia on this issue.

Inal Khashig: I think this is a moment that can possibly be bypassed.

The process of resolving our relations with Georgia is impossible without the participation of Russia

Astamur Tania: But this is a significant issue. We have had our own experience when attempts were made to pressure us into joining Georgia on the basis of autonomy. Sanctions were imposed on us [from Russia]. But we remember that it led to nothing. Abkhazia stood firm, defended its positions, did not cross the red lines that would have led to the loss of our statehood. So, we have this experience.

But another point is very important. We must understand that geopolitically, Abkhazia is a so called subtropical dead-end. And it will remain so if it does not go along Georgia and further onto the South Caucasus. It’s like a botanical garden where everything is very nice, but nothing can be done. And of course, this carries dangers. But it also holds opportunities because we can demonstrate our subjectivity.

Of course, the process of resolving our relations with Georgia is impossible without the participation of Russia. Everyone understands this. I think even in Tbilisi they understand this. The years gone by have shown that burying one’s head in the sand is pointless. But we must also proceed from the fact that resolving the conflict and the situation in Abkhazia is also necessary on a long-term basis.

It is also important for us to be the subject of some important projects, such as communication projects. So, now is the time for us to develop a position, both on the expert and political levels, based on an understanding of the processes happening around us. So that we don’t become a bargaining chip. And this discourse that you’re initiating, I think, contributes to such a process.

Now, regarding the law on agents that Georgia is going to adopt. I don’t think Bidzina Ivanishvili has any clear ideological convictions. It seems to me that he is simply solving the rather straightforward task of preserving and prolonging his power. Further European integration of Georgia does not contribute to his plans.

I don’t think the Georgian authorities were very happy that Georgia was accepted as a candidate for EU membership. It’s clear that the Georgian authorities rely on conservative segments of the population and seek to clear the political space of people with liberal, Western, and modernist views. Thus, they aim to preserve their hold on power.

Of course, various ideological bases can be drawn under this. But overall, I think Tbilisi will continue to maneuver between Moscow and the West, not shutting off paths to either side and trying to maximize the benefits from this.

Because currently, in my view, the situation in the South Caucasus is such that major players – Russia, the West – would prefer not to draw lines of confrontation in this region. They have too many forces engaged and too much attention diverted.

Therefore, I believe this region will be treated as peripheral, avoiding any steps that could lead to armed conflicts and the like.

But we must understand that even in these events, there is also internal problems in Georgia. I look at what’s happening in Georgian squares. In reality, the Georgian authorities have positioned themselves against the younger generation.

And speaking in terms of long-term perspective, it seems to me that this, at the very least, is a politically erroneous move. It undermines the very goals that the Georgian Dream is working towards, namely, to remain in power for the long term.

It’s evident that Georgia is moving away from the Western vector that has been developing for 30 years

Inal Khashig: Still, for Georgia to remain completely neutral will probably be very difficult. When the world has become so black and white, and everyone is demanded to decide which side they are on, white or black.

On the other hand, this confrontation has led to the European Union becoming a harsh critic of the Georgian government. Some EU members, representatives of the European Parliament, and various other structures have criticized them very harshly, demanding sanctions. And not just against members of the Georgian Dream, but against all of Georgia. To revoke visa-free entry to the Schengen zone and so on.

So, everything that Georgians have been enjoying for several years. And this trend, apparently, is increasing. Especially if this law is passed. And the leaders of the Georgian Dream themselves are also making more and more sharp statements. Prime Minister Kobakhidze refused to visit Washington. All of this does not help [pro-Western] Georgia.

It’s evident that Georgia is moving away from the Western vector that has been developing for 30 years. And naturally, there will be a reaction from the European Union, from the United States. In my opinion, Ivanishvili has a very poor understanding of Georgia as a member of the European Union. This is a person who earned his capital in Russia in the 1990s. That is, he earned it there, where it could only be done through various dubious deals.

He probably wouldn’t have earned his wealth by honest means there. And under the conditions of the European Union, he definitely wouldn’t have earned such money. So, mentally, another vector is closer to him, not the European one, where there are rules and requirements. I think it would be quite difficult for him in this value system.

He understands completely different values. So his vector is clear. But in order to have the opportunity to change the [pro-Western] direction, to sever ties [with the West] like that, he, in any case, must present something in return to his citizens. 30 years of agitation, 30 years of information campaings, 30 years when there was not a single political force in the country that would not be oriented towards the West. Unfolding from there without having a “carrot” to offer your society would be dangerous for the very power of the Georgian Dream.

‘I think we have long ceased to speak about independence as a sole form of Abkhazia’s development’

But, on the other hand, we are facing the fact that our authority is also feeble. You mentioned resistance in the 1990s. I fear that if we found ourselves in that situation with the attitudes that our authority currently has, there would be absolutely no such resistance. Perhaps, we would quickly be explained that it’s necessary for Abkhazia, and we have no other way out.

Ideologically, I think we have long ceased to speak about independence as a sole form of Abkhazia’s development, the preservation of the Abkhaz ethnic group, and so on. Independence has lost a certain sacredness for us. And in the speeches of our leaders about Abkhaz interests, we practically hear nothing.

There are many accompanying factors that indicate that this plan is possible, however fantastic it may sound. Although now there are practically no more fantastic projects left, there are none that couldn’t be realized. This plan is quite real. No matter how much we say that we are a sovereign state, that we have a Constitution.

There is an article in the Constitution that makes it impossible to repeal the article stating that Abkhazia is an independent sovereign state even in case of changing the Constitution. There are laws stating that any agitation to change the existing regime will be criminally prosecuted, and so on. However, nevertheless, we live in a reality where sovereignty is dwindling more and more.

As one of our presidents says, sovereignty must be shared. Where this line is drawn is unknown. So I don’t exclude that there is such a plan, in which, perhaps, our leaders are not involved. We ourselves have turned away from this, and now there may be some direct, separate consultations between Georgia and Russia.

So, there are many options. But I don’t see any special reaction from the Abkhaz side. These events have been going on for two months already. I don’t see our elite, or our authorities discussing these issues. Deciding on some countermeasures, and defensive mechanisms. I don’t see any brainstorming on this issue at all.

So, overall, everything seems quite calm. They went after Lasha for saying that we don’t need Georgia to pass this law. And after Akhra Bzhania, who said that it would be harmful to Abkhazia too. They accused them of supporting Saakashvili’s supporters, and so on. And what does the Georgian Dream give us, for example? The fact that the Georgian Dream is now loyal to Russia – is that a plus or a minus for us?

The time for the status quo is over. Now we need to find our place and our role in the changing status quo

Astamur Tania: You clearly emphasize how complicated our situation is. I absolutely do not want to refute your perspective. Indeed, we have witnessed all sorts of events over the past 30 years. It would probably be foolish not to consider different options.

There is a strong reaction from pro-government forces, which is also understandable. Firstly, it’s about internal political competition. Secondly, our society is very reluctant to move away from the familiar status quo.

But this is where I can’t fully agree. The time for the status quo is over. Now we need to find our place and our role in the changing status quo. We must assert our interests. Of course, you are right about the reaction of our government. But we must understand that any government is a projection of society. I hope that societal processes will be initiated, which will impact the quality of governance, its reactions, and the surrounding events.

You clearly emphasize how complicated our situation is. I have no intention of refuting your perspective. Indeed, we have witnessed all sorts of events over the past 30 years. It would probably be foolish not to consider different options.

There is a strong reaction from pro-government forces, which is also understandable. Firstly, it’s about internal political competition. Secondly, our society is very reluctant to move away from the familiar status quo.

But I completely agree with Akhra Bzhaniya that the time for the status quo is over. Now we need to find our place and role in the changing status quo. We must assert our interests. Of course, you are right about the reaction of our government. But we must understand that any government is a projection of society. I hope that societal processes will be initiated, which will impact the quality of governance, its reactions, and the events around us.

We need public policy in this area, which concerns not only the authorities. Unfortunately, even the opposition does not provide any public assessments

If we are an active society, we must respond. I understand that our planning horizons aren’t very long because we are a small community. But even within short horizons, very turbulent events can arise. We must respond to this in a timely manner. Our expert community, concentrated in non-governmental organizations, should begin discussing these issues. I believe that representatives of the government and parliament should be involved.

The parliament is increasingly demonstrating itself as an independent political force. We have often said in this program before that, over time, the parliament will act more independently. In other words, we need to start a discussion that will allow us to develop our approach.

The reaction and behavior of “Georgian Dream” are natural. I repeat, it is natural because further integration of Georgia into European structures would mean the dismantling of this political system, led by “Georgian Dream” and Bidzina Ivanishvili.

However, this does not happen spontaneously, and they do not exist in a vacuum. We see that they also have political support, primarily from the conservative right-wing segments of the political spectrum, which are quite influential in Georgia.

Also, Georgia has economic and political interests related to Russia, including a Georgian diaspora in Russia. We are essentially witnessing a competition between two vectors. I do not believe that Georgia will abandon its attempt to balance between these two directions in the long term. This will continue.

We need to use our brains. We need public policy in this area, which concerns not only the authorities. Unfortunately, even the opposition does not provide any public assessments. There must be public evaluations so that our society feels that significant processes have begun. A long period of stagnation could lead to us waking up to a changed reality.

Therefore, I think this issue is not only addressed to the authorities but to our entire political spectrum. They need to discuss these issues in their closed meetings and then move to public discussions.

There is no tactical plan on how we will act in this situation

Inal Khashig: I would like to propose we reflect on another aspect. For 30 years, Georgia has been moving towards the West. And for 30 years, the West’s assessment of the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict has been formed based on Tbilisi’s position.

We still see this today. After the August war of 2008, the Georgian parliament passed the Law on Occupation. And Brussels said: “We adhere to this law. It will be as stated there.” This means that all the sanctions imposed on Abkhazia by Georgia are also enforced by the European Union. We have no economic relations with them, we are restricted in all movements, in everything that is not done through Georgia. Otherwise, it is simply impossible for us.

But now the relations between the European Union and Tbilisi are deteriorating, and again, this is escalating. Yet we have not developed any strategy. As I understand it, there is no tactical plan on how we will act in this situation. In recent years, we have been categorically severing ties with the European Union, even the small threads that connected us. Let’s say the EU Special Representative for the South Caucasus visits. Sometimes he is allowed in, but when he is, our Foreign Minister doesn’t meet with him.

The explanation given was a very busy work schedule. So, there was complete disregard. But now, I believe Abkhazia should have a very flexible policy of contacts with the EU. This isn’t about getting recognition from them. Sooner or later, we hope they will recognize us. But right now, there is an immediate opportunity to change something.

Given this situation, how can we use the tension between Brussels and Tbilisi to our advantage? On May 17, Georgia passed the Foreign Agents Law. Meanwhile, in Abkhazia, which the EU calls an occupied territory at Georgia’s urging, this law has been sitting for 10 years without being adopted. I think this somehow affects people’s thinking. I believe that overall, it influences our situation.

Astamur Tania: As I have said, our region is peripheral, and it’s unlikely that people in Brussels, or even in Moscow, wake up every day thinking about the Abkhazians. That is why I believe the fact that we haven’t adopted this law is primarily in the interest of our society.

Inal Khashig: Because it’s in our hands?

‘I believe that at this stage, we should discuss transforming the Geneva platform from a consultative body into a negotiating one’

Astamur Tania: Because we cannot copy an experience that would negatively affect the integrity of our society. This needs to be understood. No matter what relationships we enter into, we must maintain our sovereignty as an independent state and pursue the interests of our society. This is why we have not adopted this law for so long.

As for Brussels’ position, I don’t think sanctions will be imposed on the Georgian population, such as the revocation of visa-free travel, because this wouldn’t serve Europe’s long-term interests or its relations with Georgia. Of course, some sanctions might be applied to Georgia’s political leadership.

These events have heightened the situation for us, but it hasn’t changed much. We see that no player in our region has a monopoly anymore. This means that resolving relations here might be based on some balance of power. The main thing is to ensure that our interests are not overlooked in this balance of power.

What do we see in the Geneva discussions? The format is ineffective because it lacks the main element – the parties to the conflict who can make decisions, sign, and implement agreements. This is the main flaw of this format.

However, if we look at the external players represented there – Russia, the European Union, the United States, and the UN – this composition is quite adequate. Therefore, I believe that at this stage, we should discuss transforming the Geneva platform from a consultative body into a negotiating one. This will help us.

We need to engage in various forms of interaction with different actors, including the Georgian side, the Russian side, and other external participants. We must not isolate ourselves from the outside world, because it will inevitably force its way in. We should not be caught off guard.

Unfortunately, we are not a player that determines the political climate on a global scale. We must understand this. Therefore, we should not close ourselves off from any contacts with international organizations or different countries.

Moreover, we should use these contacts to advance our own agenda. As we did in the 1990s and early 2000s, we should articulate what we want. We had a very broad format back then. The International Group of Friends of the UN Secretary-General participated, as did the UN and the OSCE. We had disagreements with them and with the Russian side.

Nevertheless, we used this platform to promote our own interests and address current issues. We have significant challenges, related to the humanitarian situation, the supply of various goods, healthcare, social issues, and the situation in the Gali district. We used this platform to tackle our complex problems.

For example, I would carry out the first major renovation of our maternity hospital with the support of the U.S. еmbassy. Or the preservation of the radioactive waste storage facility could also be managed this way.

In other words, we need to advance our political agenda while addressing fundamental issues for our population. Self-isolation will lead to nothing good. We claim to be an ally of Russia. If we isolate ourselves, it would mean delegating to Russia the role [of representing us]

But this contradicts their own stance. Therefore, we need to be active participants in this process. I believe the time has come for this.

Inal Khashig: But the real question is how all of this will resolve with the adoption of this law [on foreign agents].

‘Most of Georgian youth were quite apolitical. Now, the authorities are essentially mobilizing this youth into the ranks of the opposition for the long term’

Astamur Tania: I cannot make any predictions. The crisis is in an acute phase. Any subjective factor could trigger a spark, like dry forest catching fire. Making predictions here is a thankless task. It seems to me that some force within Georgia should try to defuse the situation because this could lead to very dangerous consequences.

I think the authorities will persistently push their agenda. They might succeed in passing this law, but it won’t strengthen their position. The conflict has already penetrated the informational space and the perception of the youth, who were largely apolitical before these events. We must take this into account.

Most of Georgian youth were quite apolitical. Now, the authorities are essentially mobilizing this youth into the ranks of the opposition for the long term. That’s what will happen. Whether clashes occur or not, no one can say, including the direct participants in the events in Tbilisi.

Inal Khashig: Alright, we will wrap up and continue to monitor the situation. We hope that our authorities and political circles will also keep an eye on this situation and have a plan to respond to developments.

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