Georgian politicians on Georgia’s peace policy
This article was originally published on the Center for Social Justice website. The title, text and terminology of the article are unchanged. All rights belong to the Center for Social Justice. Publication date: July, 2022
The interviewed politicians share that conflicts should be resolved only in a peaceful, non-violent way. They also agree that we face an impasse in the peace policy. All politicians share the decisive role of Russia in relation to the conflict regions, although some of them believe that, beyond the Russian factor, the Georgian side should start a dialogue with the political leaders of Abkhazia and Tskhinvali region.
For other politicians, the Russian factor is so decisive that until its influence on these regions is weakened, there is no point in dialogue on political issues with the Abkhaz and Ossetian colleagues. This group does not see Abkhazia and Tskhinvali region as parties to conflicts with which political dialogue is possible.
A large number of politicians do not speak about the need for deisolation of Abkhazia and Tskhinvali regions, although everyone agrees on the necessity of civil dialogue. All of them support the strengthening of bilateral cooperation projects and new initiatives for people living across the dividing lines.
Due to a lack of public discussion and substantive consideration on issues pertaining to relations between Georgia and the conflict regions of Abkhazia and Tskhinvali, we offer an article based on interviews with Georgian politicians from both sides of the aisle to find out what they think of the matter.
The purpose is to show what the mainstream political spectrum thinks of Georgia’s peace policy in the context of the ongoing war, how they relate to the process of rebuilding relations with the conflict regions and the process of conflict transformation, and what their main message is for Abkhaz and Ossetian societies.
Russia’s war in Ukraine has raised a number of questions in Georgian society regarding Georgian-Russian relations, the Georgian-Abkhazian and Georgian-Ossetian conflicts, and on the peace policy in general.
But despite the critical importance of these issues, discussion in the Georgian political spectrum and society does not go beyond political speculation and party confrontations, nor does it take the form of broad public discussion; processes of deliberation and multilateral dialogue have not been created even at the level of government. In general, discussions related to the peace policy are of a non-public, closed nature, which not only makes it difficult to build a consensus around it, but creates the risk of disappearance from the political and public agenda. The prospects, concerns and voices of the Abkhaz and Ossetian communities have completely disappeared from the Georgian public and political sphere.
In addition, the Russo-Ukrainian war and associated international pressure have raised a number of questions about what Russia’s policy towards Abkhazia and South Ossetia should be, such as whether Russia’s influence and support in these regions will decrease as its resources are mobilized in Ukraine or, on the contrary, will try to hide losses suffered in Ukraine by strengthening and capitalizing on its influence in the South Caucasus. In the first scenario, questions also arise for Georgia: does Russia’s focus on Ukraine create a chance for Georgia to restore relations and cooperation with the conflict regions?
Russia’s announcement of cutting subsidies to established political regimes has also raised similar questions. Great discontent in South Ossetia was caused by the conscription of local residents to the Ukrainian front and the withdrawal of Russian troops from this region to Ukraine. In Abkhazia and South Ossetia provocative campaigns have become more frequent over military escalation by Georgia. No political group in Georgia supports a military solution to conflicts, as evinced by these recorded interviews with politicians.
The interviews were with representatives from both the ruling party and from the opposition. In particular, the first deputy chairman of the parliament, Gia Volsky, participated from Georgian Dream.
Interviews were also recorded with those from the leading opposition parties: MP Teona Akubardia from the Agmashenebeli Strategy; MP Khatia Dekanoidze from the United National Movement; Giga Bokeria, leader of the European Georgia party, who was Secretary of the National Security Council in 2010-13; First Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Georgia; David Berdzenishvili, one of the founders of the Republican Party; “For Georgia” representative, MP Giorgi Khodzhevanishvili; and Lelo party representative Grigol Gegelia.
–How would you assess the peace policy of Georgia today, what are its main challenges and achievements?
When evaluating the peace policy, all the politicians interviewed believe that this policy is not successful, but differ as to why. Despite different opinions and assessments regarding the causes of the conflict and its possible resolution, all political parties share a desire for peaceful resolution of conflicts.
The analysis of one of the leaders of the Republican Party, David Berdzenishvili, is especially interesting in relation to the causes of the conflicts and the peace process organized afterward. In his opinion, the main thing in the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict is that during the collapse of the Soviet Union, both societies had different national projects, and in the Tbilisi-Sukhumi-Moscow triad, the two sides, who opposed the third together, were the winners. Berdzenishvili recalled in detail the historical processes that took place in the 19th century, when Tbilisi and Moscow came together against Abkhazia.
He recalls Muhajirism, when the Russian Empire exiled the Abkhaz as a “treacherous people”, along with other North Caucasian peoples, to the Ottoman Empire. An interesting fact is that in the period of the mid-19th century, the location of the resettled Abkhazians was largely occupied by Georgians, and thus many Georgian villages were created in Ochamchira, Gulrypsh and other places. When asked why the Abkhazians became pro-Russian, Berdzenishvili explains that at the end of the 19th century the Abkhazians realized that the Georgians posed a greater threat than the Russians.
At the same time, the weakened Abkhaz nation did not have the resources to counter Russia, so it needed it more as an ally than as an enemy. In addition, the oppression of the Abkhaz during the Soviet Union was associated with the Stalin-Beria nomenklatura, who were Georgians, and it was during their time that the demographic expansion and resettlement of Georgians took place in Abkhazia. Added to this were the repressions of the 1930s, which were even more painful for a small number of Abkhazians than for Georgians.
In the same period, the process of introducing compulsory Georgian education in Abkhaz schools was going on, when Abkhaz children did not know Georgian (they knew Megrelian better) and could not study other subjects in Georgian. According to Berdzenishvili, Abkhazian nationalists considered the 1930s–50s an “ethno-Bolshevik policy” aimed at the Georgianization of the Abkhazians.
Berdzenishvili recalls that the Abkhaz have faced a serious demographic crisis with the expansion of the Georgian population in Abkhazia. They made up only 18% of the entire population of the region, while Georgians made up 45%, and the rest of the population was made up of other peoples, including Greeks, Armenians and Russians. That is why the Georgians were the majority in the main self-governments. According to him, after Stalin’s death Sukhumi breathed a sigh of relief because Moscow changed its orientation and went over to the side of Sukhumi against Tbilisi; Moscow has always changed its orientation to suit its interests.
According to Berdzenishvili, the ethno-nationalism led by Gamsakhurdia defeated the liberal views represented by the Zurab Chavchavadze Society, the Republican Party. In the 1980s and 1990s, interethnic conflict flared up, resulting in the war of 1991 and 1992 and the expulsion of Georgians from Abkhazia.
Berdzenishvili recalls that after the war, the Republican Party was actively involved in the dialogue process, and there were several real chances that this conflict would be resolved by keeping Abkhazia within the state of Georgia, by granting it sovereignty at the level of the Georgian constitution. These initiatives were coordinated with the Abkhaz intelligentsia, the Aidgylara movement. However, the initiative was blocked by the advisory council of Prime Minister Sigua, and then Shevardnadze.
According to Berdzenishvili, after that, the dialogue formats continued until 2004, but there was no breakthrough from a political point of view. The last time was in Austria, the so-called “Schlaining Process”. But after the “Rose Revolution” under the new government, these formats were first reduced, and then stopped.
The only person who initially worked on a bilateral dialogue was Irakli Alasania, although he did not have the necessary support from the center. According to Berdzenishvili, after 2008 the process stalled and there was no progress in the political direction. Paata Zakareishvili’s efforts as state minister towards bilateral dialogue were limited to health care and individual humanitarian projects, and he failed to achieve a breakthrough in political issues.
The opinion of the leader of the European Georgia party, Gigi Bokeria, differs radically from this view.
According to Bokeria, in the architecture of negotiations created to resolve conflicts in the early 1990s, Russia was assigned the role of a mediator, and its armed forces controlled the situation in the conflict regions under the formal status of “peacekeeping forces.” In such a situation, it was declared at the international level that the conflict was between the central government and the separatists, and Russia was presented as a peacekeeping force. According to him, this actually harmed the national interests of the country.
At the same time, it was infantile and illusory to believe that this dialogue would lead to anything when Russia plays a key role in the region. According to Bokeria, at a time when Russia was weakened, it was able to maintain control over Georgia without its own political losses and use such conflicts to destabilize them. Beginning in 2005 the new government began to tear apart the architecture, which meant that Russia had to lose the status of peacekeeper.
According to Bokeria, the efforts of the government of that time to break this architecture (removing the status of a peacekeeping force for Russia) could have been more successful if the government had raised this issue along with the issue of a unilateral commitment to the non-use of force, which Russia again requested through Sukhumi and Tskhinvali. This commitment was previously included in the Sochi Agreement in a package along with the return of IDPs, which latter stipulation Russia refused.
According to him, the August war was not the result of the failure of the then Peace Policy, but rather the inability of the Russian Federation to stop Georgia’s movement towards Europe with other tools, and in the end there was a decision to intervene by military means. Despite the fact that the architecture created after the 90s has collapsed, and no one at the international level considers Russia a peacekeeping force, this does not mean a good result for the country, because the conflicts have not yet been resolved and the situation in conflict regions.
Giga Bokeria sees the period after 2012 as an attempt to return to the 90s, which for him means a return to illusions. He considers it a mistake to shift the focus from the Russian factor to the internal, ethnic side of this conflict. Paata Zakareishvili openly stated that while he is a state minister, Georgia should not be the subject of confrontation between the West and Russia.
Owing to the war in Ukraine, this leads to a decrease in Western support for Georgia. According to Bokeria, the policy of reconciliation in the current circumstances is useless, since the Russian factor is decisive in all directions.
According to Gia Volsky, First Deputy Speaker of the Parliament, one of the main challenges is the information vacuum on the territory of Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region, which means that the population living here has limited information about what is happening in the rest of Georgia.
Although information resources are limited, there is an information field, that is, those people who move to the controlled territory and transmit information to Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region. According to Volsky, there are many such people — for example students and medical patients.
According to Volsky, Georgian-Abkhazian relations are harmed by the decision of the so-called new Minister of Foreign Affairs of Abkhazia, Inal Ardzinba, on limiting civilian projects related to Georgian-Abkhaz relations. Civil organizations in Abkhazia met this decision with dissatisfaction, and in the future it will create serious problems for these relations and pose new challenges.
Volsky cites several reasons why the restoration of territorial integrity by force on the part of Georgia is out of the question. According to him, despite the fact that there are disagreements on how to resolve conflicts, they agree on a fundamental principle: “Our children should not be allowed to look at each other through the barrels of guns, and nothing can justify the blood and tears that this will bring us.” According to him, any confrontation will open the wounds of the war between our peoples and make it impossible for them to live together in the future.
According to Volsky, the policy of the state will always be based on the principles of restoring trust and on good relations. He also gives pragmatic reasons why the outbreak of hostilities is ruled out. This will harm critical infrastructure and economic projects in the country. In addition, Georgia is the only alternative corridor between Europe and Asia besides Russia, so it is important for everyone to maintain stability and peace in Georgia.
Regarding Georgia’s conflicts to the international dimension, Volsky notes that until 2006 important projects were undertaken in the direction of cooperation on economic and social issues, and bilateral negotiations on political issues continued. He criticizes the radical policy of the National Movement, which dispensed with these formats and brought the situation to military confrontation.
The current situation is critically assessed by parliamentarian Teona Akubardia from the Agmashenebeli Strategy party, who divides the existing challenges into three areas around which, in her opinion, the state’s peace policy should develop: 1) de-occupation and cooperation with the occupied regions; 2) the population living near the line of occupation and the range of social and security challenges facing them; 3) the issue of annexation of conflict regions.
According to Akubardia, no work is being done in any of these areas today. There is no political will to launch processes, there is no state strategy. The process of updating the engagement strategy, adopted in 2010, began last year, and at such a pace it will not develop in time. Meanwhile, we are losing decisive and important time, especially in the current geopolitical situation.
Akubardia states that there are critical challenges for the population living near the occupation line — 46,000 people, 115 villages where Russia creates zones of fear. What the government has been able to do so far is to give these regions the status of “mountain zone”, which means certain financial benefits for local families. But under conditions of creeping borderization, these people are still in a difficult social situation.
According to Akubardia, the government does nothing against the annexation policy of Russia, while in Tskhinvali they openly talk about joining Russia, about which the Georgian Foreign Ministry did not make a statement.
The representative of the Lelo party, Grigol Gegelia, shares Teona Akubardia’s view that there is no political will for change. He recalls a time when the chairman of the ruling Georgian Dream party said he had not visited the dividing lines and says that Georgian Dream is not interested in what is happening on the occupation line or how the population lives. According to him, today the rhetoric and practice of the country’s external security is dysfunctional, we do not have a framework and strategy for national security, and there is no political will to transform the conflict.
According to Giorgi Khojavanishvili, a member of the For Georgia party, the ongoing processes of borderization and occupation, which are accompanied by abductions, detentions and inhuman treatment, are alarming. In addition to this complex security context, Khodjevanishvili mentions a second major problem — the lack of a common peace policy, strategy and politically consolidated vision.
According to him, in the geopolitical situation that has developed after the Russian-Ukrainian war, when many windows of international diplomacy have opened, the country cannot use these opportunities, and it is a mistake when a wide political spectrum is not involved in the process of working on a new strategy, because there should be a high political and public consensus on an important issue of national interest.
Khatia Dekanoidze, a member of the United National Movement, shares the opinion that the issue of the ongoing occupation in Georgia and the threat from Russia is not relevant in the international arena, which is a deliberate policy of the ruling party. According to her, today a number of opportunities have appeared at the international level, which provide opportunities for transforming Georgia’s peace policy.
But after Western pressure on Russia has increased and Georgia can also be considered under the common security umbrella of Ukraine, today this issue is not on the agenda at all. Dekanoidze states that it is necessary to develop an integration direction within which the residents of Abkhazia and South Ossetia will be offered various projects and will see real support from Georgia.
–What should the peace policy of Georgia be in the current geopolitical situation?
According to Gia Volsky, the peace policy requires formats of bilateral dialogue with de facto regimes, which will not lead to international recognition, since international legal and political positions regarding recognition are unambiguous. Although Russia will not allow such negotiations, efforts on Georgia’s part are needed. Volsky explains that the practice of such formal negotiations existed until 2006, and the interaction strategy for 2010 is a list of wishes that cannot be implemented at the practical level.
Grigol Gegelia stresses the critical importance of informal dialogue. According to him, contacts and communication between people, especially among young people, are practically absent: “We need as many common formats of dialogue as possible in order to have some changes in the peace policy.”
Gegelia does not agree on a formal dialogue, that is, a dialogue between officials in Tbilisi and representatives of de facto governments. According to him, it contains risks associated with recognition. In addition, under conditions of effective Russian control, he cannot imagine that the leaders of Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region could make decisions on their own, because they are absolutely undemocratic and not independent, but he does not exclude dialogue between political classes, since this is not of a formal nature.
Ggelia also emphasizes the need to deepen both social and health projects. This is the most important thing for the transformation of conflicts, because 1) we will contribute to the achievement of general well-being and 2) this will help us spread the right content in conflict regions, that we are building a common state, with common social benefits and the prospect of a European future.
Giga Bokeria believes that only after the elimination of the Russian factor will any bilateral dialogue with the conflict regions be effective, and until then these processes will be a mistake both morally and pragmatically. In his opinion, dialogue does not make sense when there is no agreement between the parties on basic values.
In Abkhazia a completely ethnocentric nationalism prevails, where people who are ethnically Abkhaz have rights, and all other ethnic groups have rights of different rank. As long as the opinion prevails that blood is the decisive factor for the granting of rights, dialogue will not make sense. Bokeria is not sure that in Abkhazia and Tskhinvali they saw the evil and inhuman face of Russia even after the war in Ukraine. When the USSR collapsed, they had a chance to distinguish evil from good, but they ended up on the “wrong side of history”.
Bokeria believes that such a change has not yet occurred in any region and its society, and dialogue here would be hypocrisy. Thus, as long as Russia is a key security player, and where values are completely mixed in society, it would be impossible to achieve change.
According to Bokeria, in parallel with the construction of such a state, in his opinion economic and social projects should be continued. In his opinion, such investments are justified as they will demonstrate that Georgia is a country where everyone has opportunities.
Giorgi Khodzhevanishvili and Khatia Dekanoidze believe that in the current geopolitical situation, we must use the levers of international diplomacy to solve the problem of occupation and weaken Russia’s influence in the conflict regions. Khodjevanishvili believes that it is extremely important for the government to have a consolidated vision and proactively use diplomatic methods.
We should also use the window of opportunity now created and cooperate more with the de facto regions and have more proposals for cooperation in various fields. Dekanoidze also sees a solution in the issue of the occupation of Georgia at the international level and in active diplomacy, as well as initiating bilateral cooperation projects with conflict regions.
Berdzenishvili believes it is necessary to start a meaningful, real dialogue with the Abkhazians and South Ossetia about a single state with common prosperity. He believes that the new phase of dialogue will take years to achieve results, but it is a necessary process before we get used to each other again and re-establish ties.
Also in his opinion, it is necessary to give weight to the frozen formula of the European Union of “interaction through non-recognition” and open the way for Abkhazians and Ossetians to Europe, and for this a neutral mechanism must be found. According to Berdzenishvili, we should get used to cautious relations and then build up economic cooperation and contacts. Georgia should be a safe country for Abkhazia, where there will be more opportunities than they have today.
–Against the backdrop of the Russian-Ukrainian war, does Georgia have the opportunity to transform conflicts and cooperate with de facto regions?
Politicians disagree as to whether resources exist to cooperate with de facto regions in a given geopolitical position, but most see this as a window of opportunity to transform these relationships.
According to Teona Akubardia, in the current domestic political reality, when there is no political will, there are fewer opportunities to work on these topics. Transforming conflicts requires political will and consensus, which today’s internal work does not lead to. Gegelia also believes that the chances of Russia’s weakening are high, including economically, which is a resource for proper use in this geopolitical situation.
He believes that given the high dependence of the conflict regions on Russia, the Georgian side should have proposals for them. Gegelia believes that when people have a free choice, they choose well-being. MP Giorgi Khodjevanishvili also shares the opinion that in the current geopolitical context, a window of relations with de facto regions has appeared.
Giga Bokeria is skeptical about cooperation with the de facto regions, saying that as long as Russia plays a decisive role, dialogue with these regions does not make sense. Bokeria expresses hope that the war in Ukraine will cause economic difficulties for Russia, which will affect the resources allocated to the conflict regions.
However, this will not be enough to force these regions to negotiate against Russia. He believes that dialogue is impossible as long as ethno-fascist views dominate in Abkhazia. According to Bokeria, the only solution is to “show how we treat other ethnic peoples, how we are building a state. This will not bring immediate results, but this is the only correct model of how our state can develop.”
Khatia Dekanoidze is also skeptical, who believes that as long as Russia has the levers to control these regions, it will be impossible to conduct a real dialogue with them. She believes that there is a window of opportunity in diplomacy at the international level, but we do not use it.
-What would be your appeal as a Georgian politician to the population of Abkhazia and South Ossetia?
The vast majority of the politicians believe that the conflict can only be resolved peacefully, non-violently. Despite the differences in opinions about the causes of the conflict, strategies and ways of the Peace Policy, all politicians have a peacekeeping message for the Abkhazian and Ossetian societies.
Teona Akubardia states that the commitment to the peaceful resolution of conflicts in Georgia has been taken from the highest international tribunes, both from the National Movement and from the Georgian Dream government. She believes that “when the Russian factor is neutralized, we must be ready to restore relations with people living beyond the dividing line.”
Grigol Gegelia shares this opinion and states that “the world has no alternative. Both regions have one real chance to achieve their identity, prosperity and peace, namely to walk with Georgia along the right path to prosperity, peace, Europe and NATO. I am sure that our compatriots in Abkhazia and Tskhinvali are on this side, so I look at a very complex and very long conflict with optimism, I think that common sense will win in the end.”
Giga Bokeria says that siding with Russia is a grave mistake that these regions are making, which means that there are no prospects for future generations. He believes that only on the terms of a civil contract with Georgia can one preserve one’s identity and create normal living conditions.
Khodjevanishvili also openly declares the exclusion of forceful methods and expresses a desire to create such a platform that will allow the warring peoples to coexist peacefully.
Khatia Dekanoidze believes that for the population of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Russia is the past, and identification with it means the loss of their own identity and means that the next generation can become an accomplice in serious crimes committed by Russia. “The future is not on Russia’s side, they must understand this,” Dekanoidze says.
The politicians interviewed believe that conflicts should be resolved only by non-violent means. They also agree that, at this stage, the peace policy has reached an impasse. All admit the decisive role of Russia in relation to the conflict regions, although some of them believe that in addition to the Russian factor, Georgia should start a substantial dialogue with the political leaders of Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region.
For some others, the Russian factor is so decisive that until its influence on these regions is weakened, they see no point in dialogue on political issues. They do not consider political dialogue with Abkhazia and Tskhinvali possible, but agree on the need for efforts at mitigation of existing problems in the conflict regions.
Many of the politicians do not assert a need to de-isolate Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region, although they all agree on the need for civil dialogue. They also all support the strengthening of bilateral cooperation projects and new initiatives for people living on the other side of the dividing line.