Zakareishvili and Inal-Ipa discussion on the war and after | how to begin the dialogue?

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Zakareishvili and Inal-Ipa discussion

This article was originally published on the Ekho Kavkaza website. The text and terminology of the article have been copied without changes. All rights belong to Ekho Kavkaza. Date of publication: September 27, 2023.

You can listen to the audio version of the discussion at this link.

In the thirty years since that day, the positions of the sides have sometimes seemed to converge, only to drift further apart. Arda Inal-Ipa, head of the Sukhumi Center for Humanitarian Programs, and political scientist Paata Zakareishvili from Tbilisi, share their views on the 30-year history and the prospects for further dialogue.

– Anniversary reminds us that “history does not know the word if”. But still, Arda, what possibilities do you think there were to avoid such a development of events? What were the forks in the road, the chances to avoid this scenario?

Arda Inal-Ipa: At the time, it seemed that no matter how much we said that war was expected, there were still high hopes that it would be possible to avoid it. That is why in Abkhazia they were working on a federal treaty between Georgia and Abkhazia. Just prior to the invasion of the State Council troops the plan was published; its author was Taras Mironovich Shamba. But, unfortunately, the matter did not come to fruition. And when the parliament was formed, the Supreme Council of Abkhazia, there was quite an intense dialogue between representatives of the political class of Georgia and politicians of Abkhazia, and we were able to agree on a formula for representation of ethnic Abkhazians and Georgians in the Supreme Council. Despite the fact that there was very aggressive propaganda in the media, especially in the new newspapers, but also on television sometimes … Despite this, some public figures, some politicians were able to convince their colleagues, sometimes opponents, that it was necessary to have a dialogue. And it did happen.

There were attempts at the civil level. I was also involved in this. I, for example, once went to Tbilisi and met with (Zviad) Gamsakhurdia’s team – but I was shocked to find that there was nothing to talk about. But there were others, so in Abkhazia we also talked about dialogue and tried to discuss the agenda within the framework of the youth creative association. That is, there were those types of activities that suggested a different path. Yes, it was a difficult way of difficult conversation, but it could have taken place, I think, if there was not such a situation in Georgia where criminal leaders influenced decision-making, and the carte blanche of Shevardnadze and so on, but in principle I think there was a chance.

– Paata, was there a chance?

Paata Zakareishvili: Yes, I’m sure there was. We are now celebrating the end of the war. In Abkhazia these are festive days, they call it capture of Sukhumi, liberation of Sukhumi. In Georgia these are sad days, they call it the fall of Sukhumi. Even in this we can see what different registers we are in. And in fact, this day should be a day of reflection and discussion. After all, neither party to the conflict – and there were three parties to the conflict: the collapsing Soviet empire, Abkhazian society had its own goals, and Georgia had some considerations… 30 years have passed. Russia has not made Georgia a satellite of Russia, Abkhazia has not achieved becoming an internationally recognized independent state. Georgia has not achieved territorial integrity and full control over the entire territory of former Soviet Georgia. Therefore, as strange as it may sound, I think that today we are not in 2023, but in 1994 – the parties have not achieved anything in essence and now they are achieving it through politics, which is better than war, of course.

– But in 1994 the chances were not yet lost….

Paata Zakareishvili: Yes, so we have to understand the context. At that time there was a civil war going on in Georgia between the illegitimate Shevardnadze and Gamsakhurdia’s associates (Gamsakhurdia was in Grozny at the time). Strangely enough, by that time Shevardnadze was able to stop the bloody, horrible war in South Ossetia. It was a very important step – it happened in June 1992 – i.e. as if he could do something. And suddenly such a very gross mistake – he called in troops. If you look at newspapers of the time, there was no talk about Abkhazia at all. They were talking about Zviad Gamsakhurdia, that they were kidnapping people, blowing up bridges, stopping railroads, in addition there was war in Karabakh, Armenians could not get their food, etc. – complete chaos. And at this time associates of Gamsakhurdia were often hiding in the Gali district – at least this is how it is formally discussed – and the meeting of the State Council, which decides to introduce troops into the territory of the Abkhazian Autonomous Republic – there is no talk about Abkhazia at all, there is talk about occupation of the railroad, and all those who participate in the meeting of the State Council, including my good acquaintances, close friends, who later talked about all this, there was no talk about Abkhazia. And when troops headed by (Tengiz) Kitovani (quite a strange man) enter, suddenly something else starts there….

– … But it was already clear that it was a war with Abkhazia?

Paata Zakareishvili: No, it was not clear in newspapers, on television…

– …In fact…

Paata Zakareishvili: In essence, it is clear. The troops that landed in Gagra, they thought that they came to a resort, for example. Nobody felt it was a war. The war really begins after the fall of Gagra. That’s when people in Georgia realize that this is not a joke and it is serious.

– Paata, excuse me, I’m going to interrupt you, because Arda has something to say.

Arda Inal-Ipa: I want to say that it is a little bit deceitful to think that it was impossible to think about war, because in what context was all this happening? In the context when they were talking about the need to eliminate autonomy, that Abkhazians do not live on their own land, etc. That is, in this context this aggression was clearly perceived not as protection of some economic interests of Armenia or someone else – it was just ridiculous.

Paata Zakareishvili: Funny for you, but not funny for us. In fact, it is…

Arda Inal-Ipa: On the first day we naturally perceived it as a war, because on the first day we had already entered…

Paata Zakareishvili: In Abkhazia – yes, they definitely perceived it as a war…

Arda Inal-Ipa: Yes, because the military were already shooting civilians from helicopters…….

Paata Zakareishvili: Georgians stayed, for example, vacationers – it was summer, but they also did not feel that there was a war, they said evacuate us, what an outrage, we are vacationing here, we can’t leave… So nobody felt that they were in a serious situation and their only task was to leave Pitsunda somehow comfortably. Indeed, the feeling of war came on gradually. And, in my opinion, Shevardnadze also – he suddenly felt that, aha (this is my opinion), it is possible to solve the Abkhazian issue like this: we accidentally got into Abkhazia because of some affairs of Gamsakhurdia and suddenly something can be solved. I think that this was the most important mistake by Shevardnadze: not that he called in troops – it was a very big mistake, a hundred percent mistake, but a thousand percent bigger mistake that he did not withdraw them a week later. He did not realize what a trap he had fallen into. He didn’t realize that it was very serious and it was going to cost a lot of money. What he was then already doing those days in 1993, he should have been doing a week later. So the double mistake – a mistake that is more than a crime – is that Shevardnadze did not withdraw the troops in time. He also thought that this was not a war. Everybody thought that it would be very easy, because he had just put down the war in South Ossetia and he thought that it would all happen just as easily. It turned out that there was very powerful, serious resistance there.

Arda Inal-Ipa: Can I say one thing? It was not resistance that caused the shooting of vacationers from helicopters from Sukhumi beaches – it was an order. It was not because Abkhazians were resisting on the border. Someone was giving this order.

Paata Zakareishvili: I agree, but whose order – Kitovani or Shevardnadze?

Arda Inal-Ipa: …And to go through Abkhazia to Sukhum in half a day is not a coincidence.

Paata Zakareishvili: I am not lying, I am speaking honestly, because Shevardnadze himself admitted several times that they could not find Kitovani for three days – what was he doing there? I don’t want to absolve the Georgian side of responsibility, it was an absolutely terrible crime. But if we want to understand the details, since we are remembering it today, then, unlike others who do not know the details, we do know the details. I will allow myself to say that we unexpectedly found ourselves in a war, and we liked it, that from this accidental gift, maybe something positive would come out of it for Georgia.

Arda Inal-Ipa: I have a different opinion…

Paata Zakareishvili: I respect you very much and your opinion is very important to me, but I am also honest and sincere.

– Arda, let us return to the battle for Sukhumi. A question that is perhaps an illustration of the situation with Russia in many respects. There is a version that Moscow, which was concerned about the events of the mutiny in Moscow, warned the Abkhazian leadership that it was against taking Sukhumi: well, you have taken heights, but if you try to take the city, we will not allow it… And that the operation to take Sukhumi was such an historic act of one person who made this decision. Is this true?

Arda Inal-Ipa: I, of course, am not a military specialist, but indeed those who directly participated in the war, during these 13 months of the war came to the conclusion that when some military operations were discussed with representatives of the Russian military, somehow they found out about it and many operations were disrupted. This last offensive was conducted and prepared in secret. There were even some programs on Abkhazian television, it was talked about, and there was an opinion that maybe somehow Russia was trying to keep this conflict as it was after the invasion of 1992, and maybe someone was not interested in Abkhazians reclaiming their country and liberating their capital. Indeed, there are facts that support this theory.

– Paata, the opinion that Georgia lost this war not to Abkhazia but to Russia is dominant in Georgia. But what we have just discussed with Arda and everything that happened afterwards – as it is fashionable to say today, not everything was so unambiguous, including in relations between Moscow and Sukhumi. Why did Georgia not take advantage of this then and how legitimate is the idea that it lost to Russia and not to Abkhazia?

Paata Zakareishvili: I was engaged in human rights, humanitarian issues during the war and I can safely say that 90% of the percent of dead Abkhazians, prisoners with whom I had to work, were ethnic Abkhazians. That is, Abkhazians fought, they spilled their blood and, of course, to say that Abkhazians did not fight is absurd to me. There were very few Russians who directly fought. Maybe they helped in artillery, Russian planes were flying – one plane was shot down and even Shevardnadze went up and showed that it was a Russian plane. So there were three sides involved and Russia was a full party. The fact that, for example, as soon as the war starts, the Georgian armed forces very easily occupy Sukhumi, pass Sukhumi, pass Gumista, go up to Novy Afon mountain – and then suddenly there is a call from (Boris) Yeltsin to Shevardnadze that “not a step further and we should take a step back”. Georgian troops go down and occupy the approaches to Sukhumi. So, that Russia was involved – this is unambiguous. Because at some point it was Yeltsin who called Shevardnadze – when there was already a threat to Novy Afon and maybe Gudauta too.

This, in fact, would have been a terrible situation for Abkhazia, because ethnic Abkhazians who had left Sukhumi all crowded together in Gudauta. So it is clear that Russia was involved from the very first days: some generals, some officers who were monitoring all this. I believe that one third was the Abkhazian war, one third was the Georgian war, and one third was Russian. The first agreements on September 3rd in Moscow – rather heavy agreements were about the withdrawal of troops from the Gali district. Eventually Gagra was taken. The last treaty on July 27th 1993 – Georgian troops were completely disarmed.

It is as silly to absolve Russia of responsibility by saying it was a Georgian-Abkhazian clash as it is to say that it was only Georgian-Russian. Everything was together there. There were two forces in Russia, there was (Ruslan) Khasbulatov… Look: on September 27th we lost Sukhumi, on October 4th, a week later Yeltsin organizes October coup – two Russians were fighting… In Georgia there were two forces – Zviad Gamsakhurdia and Shevardnadze. Zviad Gamsakhurdia immediately returns as soon as the treaty is signed. Two Georgians (Gamsakhurdia-Shevardnadze) are fighting among themselves and looking for fish in troubled waters in Abkhazia, two forces are fighting in Russia – Khasbulatov and Yeltsin are looking for fish in troubled waters in Abkhazia, and only one side – Abkhazia – which quite skillfully, I would say, plays between these four sides, juggles and manipulates, in a good sense of the word. And they achieved something then, but if you look today – how much of what they achieved is what they wanted? So it is a very complicated tangle and we have to understand it in detail. For Georgians it is Georgian-Russian war, but for me this is absolutely unacceptable wording.

Arda Inal-Ipa: I agree that there were many participants in this war, but I would not divide it so equally. Because, in fact, there were not one, not two, maybe more forces in Russia, and very important are the Tashkent agreements, under which armament of Transcaucasian military district was transferred to Georgia, with which they went to Abkhazia; there was a conspiracy in Dagomys, where actually Shevardnadze got the right to decide more boldly Abkhazian issue… So from the Abkhazian point of view we cannot say that unequivocally somehow Abkhazia was supported. There were some generals, and, indeed, someone from the Caucasus – indeed, there was help from there, but the position of Russia was very ambiguous. And from the Abkhazian point of view, when we did not receive any weapons, we understood that Russia was not on our side.

– Arda, history loves coincidences: exactly on the day of the anniversary of the start of the Abkhazian war, Azerbaijan launches an operation in Karabakh – a decisive operation, as it turned out a day later. How are these coincidences perceived in Abkhazia? The conflict in Abkhazia, unresolved for 30 years, is not resolved in peaceful conditions. Now we see that there are variations when these things are solved militarily and successfully.

Arda Inal-Ipa: You know, we have such smart people who say that the conflict has been resolved, but it’s naive to take wishful thinking for reality. Of course, basically everyone is watching with great apprehension as conflicts unfreeze. In this regard, of course, we would like the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict to present a different pattern. After all, the dialogue has not stopped since 1994-95, and this is the factor that distinguishes the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict from the Armenian-Azerbaijani, where such initiatives were very difficult and were not supported by either side. It seems to me that there were missed opportunities in this regard, because there were very interesting initiatives – the Schlaining Process, where this idea of an agreement on non-resumption of hostilities emerged, (Irakli) Alasania and (Sergei) Shamba were engaged in this dialogue for a very long time and were on the verge of signing it. I think that this signing would have transformed the process. I think that unfortunately when Saakashvili came to power he had a different view, he decided that he could use the growing conflict between Russia and the West in the interests of Georgia and by substituting – what Paata is talking about, declaring Russia as a party to the conflict and removing this status of Abkhazia. He decided that it would be easier to solve this issue that way. It seems to me that development took a different course, which deprived us of many opportunities.

– What happened in Karabakh changes any ideas about approaches in Abkhazia – even a theoretical possibility of a forceful solution?

Arda Inal-Ipa: Theoretically, I think, there is always a possibility, especially since it is not far from being practically implemented. Of course, there are concerns, and very many people are watching the development of defense and offensive capability in the Georgian army, and very high hopes for the support of a strategic partner. So it is certainly not excluded. But I think that our society has not lost hope that there is another way.

– Paata, I am not even going to ask you about the temptation that is probably felt in Georgia looking at the Karabakh conflict. I will ask in a different way: in Azerbaijan too, the possibility of a forceful solution has been considered in a purely theoretical way for a very long time. Is it possible that in some way, in some case, the transition from the theoretical to the practical is possible for the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict?

Paata Zakareishvili: For the last 6-7 years Baku never had illusions, they kept saying: if there is no surrender of seven districts around Karabakh, there will be war. As for Georgia… Of course, theoretically everything is possible. In fact, there are people who think about revenge, that our time has come. Yes, frankly speaking, there is such a sentiment, especially among those people who are fighting in Ukraine today, and they feel some adrenaline, and I can’t exclude it one hundred percent. But the current Georgian authorities are definitely, and it is clearly felt that they are not going to, they are not planning anything like this… And the opposition is also trying to be correct and not to peddle this, this is an unacceptable position for the society. That is why the myth that someone wants to force us to open a second front works so well – precisely because it is not popular in society.

So at this stage the way out should be the following: we have seen in Karabakh how Russia works, and my position differs in many ways from the position of my friends in Abkhazia, whom I love and respect very much. The first difference is that as long as Russia is in the Caucasus, nothing normal will happen, there will be no peace. Therefore Georgia should be involved in the European movement that demands that Russia leaves all the territories where it is illegally located. The European Union should be involved. Peacekeeping forces from the European Union should stand between us and Abkhazians. They have already stood in Armenia, along the border with Azerbaijan (EU observation mission – EC). That is, I think that in one sentence, not with commas, but with dots, we should say: withdraw Russia, strengthen the European Union and then create some sense of security for our Abkhazian friends, Abkhazian society. Where Russia is, there is no security for anyone.

– And what about the idea of occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which is considered immutable in Georgia – is there any ambiguity here? After all, many people perceive this situation in such a way that now Russia will weaken, will withdraw from Abkhazia and Abkhazians will raise the Georgian flag and return…

Paata Zakareishvili: This is absurd. I do not believe…

– But in many ways the term “occupation” seems to follow as if it is exactly that. Okay, the occupation ends – but the conflict doesn’t end, does it? How harmful is the idea of Russian occupation of Abkhazia from the point of view of this discussion?

Arda Inal-Ipa: I think it is very harmful because, first of all, it does not correspond to reality. For all its peculiarities, the presence of a military base, Abkhazia is not an occupied country. This can be seen at least by how many complicated moments in Abkhazian-Russian relations, unfortunately, appear. As for what Paata said about the need for involvement of other organizations – I for one believe that at one time the departure of the UN was very regrettable, I believe that if the UN mission in the zone of the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict continued to remain, it would still – yes, slowly, but still would lead, it seems to me, to constructive, positive development of events. But, unfortunately, this is all connected with the fact that Abkhazia has lost the status of a party to the conflict, and I think that it is very important to return this status so that Abkhazia can participate in a negotiation process. We have a lot to discuss. I see this potential, this could be an example of developing very complex relations, not like in those places where conflicts are thawed through war, tragedies and again killing and death. So I think these missed opportunities, like signing of the agreement on non-resumption of hostilities, like rejection of the thesis of occupation of territories – this creates a platform for dialogue, which I think both Georgia and Abkhazia need.

– Paata, do you agree with this?

Paata Zakareishvili: Yes, I agree with almost everything. All these things that Arda just listed – they are all unique, we can make a separate program on each of them: how the UN left, how the OSCE left, why an agreement on non-resumption of hostilities has not been signed and so on. Because everywhere you can see that it is Russia… When I was a state minister, I always said that Abkhazia is a party to the conflict – not only to the conflict, but also a party to the negotiation process. I believe that unless we sit directly with the Abkhazian side and negotiate Tbilisi-Sukhumi, nothing good will come of it, because Russia is everywhere. It is necessary to find a common language with Sukhumi without Russia. As for the occupation… According to international law it is, of course, occupation: Russian troops are on the territory that is considered by international law as Georgia. But this is part of the problem. I don’t use the word “occupation” very often. To speculate, to juggle with such topics – it only complicates and weighs down our discussions. If we want to arrive at something, we must free ourselves from those terms that hinder the conversation. But according to international law it is unambiguous- it is, of course, occupation, and I have no doubts here. But why we have to talk about it all the time is another question.

Arda Inal-Ipa: It is clear that Russia is a big player that has its own interests in the South Caucasus, and this is understandable. But it seems to me that Paata, you are a little bit taking the position of those with whom you usually argue. I do not see the responsibility of the Georgian side in your words. It seems that Georgia had no chance of doing something… Abkhazia also had its own missed opportunities, but now I am talking about this: somehow you are always talking about Russia, as if Georgia has nothing to say….

Paata Zakareishvili: No, of course not. You said that the UN left and the OSCE, I said that it was Russia that withdrew – we did not withdraw them, we did not have so many forces. If Russia wanted it, the UN would have stayed. Georgia could neither withdraw the UN, nor could the UN come in. It’s only Russia, it’s a member of the UN Security Council. This is really a controversial issue, but if you hear slyness in my words or that I support the opinion that nothing will be solved without Russia – no. Our dialogue with Sukhumi can weaken Russia, and, conversely, by refusing dialogue with Sukhumi, we only strengthen Russia, because Moscow speaks to us, to the whole world on behalf of Sukhumi. So we must rule this out. We must weaken Russia by showing the whole world that we can, we are able to communicate with Abkhazians, and this can bring, perhaps, small but significant results that will be seen by the whole world and will support such a dialogue in the future. Unfortunately, the responsibility for this is also on Tbilisi – I can honestly say. Tbilisi is not looking for such forms of dialogue and, unfortunately, we are standing where we are now.

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