How to solve the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict
Russia may finally weaken and be expelled from the Caucasus, and Georgians and Abkhazians will find themselves facing each other. It is necessary to prepare for this situation now to avoid a catastrophe.
This is the opinion of two well-known politicians in Georgia, representatives of the party “Girchi”, Vakho Megrelishvili and Yago Khvichia. They invited conflict studies specialist Paata Zakareishvili to discuss the prospects of reaching a consensus in the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict.
JAMnews publishes the video conversation with the kind permission of the authors. Сaptions prepared by Mikhail Simonyan/JAMnews. Below is a brief text summary of the conversation.
Vakho Megrelishvili: We have an idea how to start relations with Abkhazians and we want to test it. What suggestions can we, Georgian society, address to Abkhazians with? What is generally right and wrong in a situation when the main obstacle on the way to independence, freedom and normal development is suddenly removed (meaning Russia)?
The Russian empire may weaken and fall apart again. In the 1990s, probably no one in the West supported its collapse. No one wanted many nuclear states. But if that happens again, I think the thoughts of Georgian society will be preoccupied with our territories occupied by Russia.
Paata Zakareishvili: The danger for Abkhazia started in 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea. The years that followed did not go in their favor. Then war started in Ukraine and the situation became even more aggravated.
Ossetians have a different situation, they want to be part of Russia. One of the manifestations of incompetent Georgian policy is that we look at these conflicts together. We are meeting with both of them in Geneva at the same time, with Russians. This is absurd and shows how far we are from reality.
The Georgian-Ossetian, Georgian-Abkhazian and Georgian-Russian conflicts are completely different. They are certainly related to each other, but we need to work separately in these areas.
The Abkhazians’ goal is independence. But they already realize that they have no chance. Even if Georgia would give them this independence – Russia would not allow them.
But now the time has come when Russia may leave Abkhazia. And then they will find themselves alone with Georgians.
Paata Zakareishvili: Now the West and everyone has realized what Russia is. They didn’t understand in 2008, in 2014, but now they understand. Now is not the time to analyze what happened in those years. To say: where were you then? – is immoral. Let us make better use of this knowledge today. Politics is done here and now, not in the past.
Russia is indeed a threat. But Russia is not a state. It is aggressive, it is threatening, it has all the downsides, but it is not a state, even though it is a leading member of the UN and a permanent member of the Security Council.
The West, which has realized what Russia is, will kick it out of all the regions it has illegally occupied. As happened in Afghanistan during Gorbachev’s time, in Germany and in Eastern Europe in general.
Russia has damaged Georgia twice. In the 1990s, when its empire was crumbling, and in 2008, when its new empire was being built. Now is a good time to defeat Russia.
The world demands that Russia withdraw all illegal troops from Abkhazia and from South Ossetia. But I fear that the Georgian Dream will claim that they can solve this issue on their own. The world will be very surprised if we tell them that.
So far in Georgia, it was not the opposition that brought the people to the streets. It was the Georgian Dream that did that. It was the actions of the authorities that brought hundreds of thousands to the streets both in the “Gavrilov night” in June 2021 and in the case of the foreign agents bill in March 2023.
It is extremely important to Russia to stay in the Caucasus, and it will go to any lengths, including [putting pressure on the Georgian authorities]. But it is more realistic that the West will force Russia to leave, and the Georgian Dream will not dare to object, no matter how much it wants to.
Georgia has a 6-point agreement of August 12, 2008, where in the fifth point it is written that Russia must withdraw its troops, and this document is signed by the President of Russia.
Vakho Megrelishvili: Georgian society now has time to formulate a political strategy, how to act rationally in a situation when Russia leaves.
Paata Zakareishvili: There is a solution. The European Union is already present in Georgia, it has a monitoring mission here.
And we have to tell Abkhazians: do not be afraid, you will not be left alone with us.
Georgia is not going to attack Abkhazia, it is impossible. We have stated at all levels, including in the European Union, that we are not going to fight. But it is important to remind Abkhazia that the best option for them is the EU.
And the EU is already here, money has been spent, bureaucracy has been set up, and it is very complicated there. And since they are already here, let us turn the EU observer mission into a peacekeeping force.
The EU also wants this. And we see how the EU has implemented the same scheme in Armenia as in Georgia, deploying an observation mission on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border. This clearly shows that the EU is interested in the Caucasus.
We should ask the EU to stay, to be a peacekeeping force. And inform Abkhazians that the EU will be a guarantor that no one will attack them.
In this way we can neutralize fears of Abkhazians and Ossetians.
Paata Zakareishvili: Then it will be time for the second step.
For years Abkhazians have been asking Georgia to sign an agreement with them on non-use of force. We responded that Russian troops are there. What logic is there to sign an agreement with Abkhazians on non-use of force, on non-resumption of war when Russian tanks are there?
Can Abkhazia stop them? No. It has no tanks at all.
But if the Russians leave and the European Union comes in – the Georgian side would undertake to sign such an agreement in an expedited manner with both the Abkhazian and Ossetian sides.
Paata Zakareishvili: The third step is Turkey. It is a NATO member state. Georgia aspires to NATO and Turkey is on the Black Sea.
We need to invite a Turkish peacekeeping contingent. Now Turks are standing in Kosovo, and Kosovo is a topic of the European Union.
By strengthening Turkey’s presence, we will also inform Russia that it should not interfere in anything, because the presence of Turkish forces is actually NATO’s defense.
Just recently Turkey and Azerbaijan signed an agreement on joint defense of airspace. Shouldn’t Georgia also be a part of this agreement? Why instead of looking for partnership, our authorities publicly complain that they are alone in confronting Russia?
We are not alone. Turkey and Azerbaijan have planned 16 military exercises for this year. Why aren’t we participating? Why don’t we tell Russia that there is no threat to our security because we have on our side a state to which you in Moscow are accountable and with which you are friends (meaning Turkey)?
Paata Zakareishvili: You can organize a meeting with Abkhazians quite quickly, in Istanbul or Vienna, somewhere. And tell them: you see, you are alone, there are no Russians. We are ready to give you guarantees that you are not threatened.
Otherwise, how are you going to live? Recognition is impossible, neither Georgia nor the world will recognize you.
So let’s talk about a common state. I propose a model of federation, and it should be ready by now.
We can publish this model in some media resource in December 2023. And say [to Abkhazians]: whether you like this document or not, this is our proposal, this is a project, let’s work on it.
Write your ideas, requests, and let’s work out a single document where we see each other in one state, where your rights are fully protected, including with regard to land and property.
Paata Zakareishvili: In Abkhazia land is the property of the state and real estate is the property of citizens.
I personally do not like this idea, land should be part of the market economy. But if they insist that land should be owned by their authorities – let it be so for 50 years. And a clause can be introduced in the federal structure that Abkhazia has the right to determine this.
The context of return of internally displaced persons should be included here, of course. Those who lived in Abkhazia and return will have the same property rights.
Vakho Megrelishvili: Here we are discussing how we will tell Abkhazians that we will join the European Union, that we are becoming a developed country so that they can see for themselves where it is better to be, in Russia or in Georgia.
But we have not done work in our country to offer something to Abkhazians.
Iago has proposals on how to build economic cooperation with the Abkhazians that can restore trust.
Iago Khvichia: We must first of all offer our plan to the Georgian society and get its support. Of course, support of those who do not want to kill Abkhazians, but want to solve the problem.
I believe that the main deterrent in this conflict is disputes over property.
On the one hand there are people who have been deprived of their property quite unfairly. And on the other hand, there are people who have received property just as unjustly.
On the other hand, a generation has already changed. There are people in Abkhazia who were born in houses where Georgians used to live. If someone says to me that the place where I was born does not belong to me by right, this, in my opinion, is wrong.
Georgia should have this position: we will not take anyone’s property by force.
We will not go to any Abkhazian and tell him that he must leave his house on the grounds that it was the house of a Georgian family.