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Abkhazia and South Ossetia, a year on

About the author
George Hewitt is professor of Caucasian languages at London's School of Oriental & African Studies (SOAS). His work includes (as editor) The Abkhazians: A Handbook(Routledge, 1998)

A little over a year, on the morning of 8 August 2008, those of us in Abkhazia who had not stayed up to watch the late-night news awoke to reports of the Georgian military assault on the centre and the environs of Tskhinval (Tskhinvali), the capital of South Osssetia. It was not entirely unexpected: there had been reports of Georgian plans to attack Abkhazia itself in spring 2009, and overall tensions had been high. But it was still a shock, and we speculated on the consequences for Abkhazia and the region if Russia did not swiftly move to repel the Georgian advance across the demilitarised zone around South Ossetia.

George Hewitt is professor of Caucasian languages and linguistics at London's School of Oriental & African Studies (SOAS). Among his many works is (as editor) The Abkhazians: A Handbook

Also by George Hewitt in (Routledge, 1998) on openDemocracy:

"Sakartvelo, roots of turmoil" (27 November 2003)

"Abkhazia: land in limbo" (10 October 2006)

"Abkhazia and South Ossetia: heart of conflict, key to solution" (18 August 2008) 
The sense of Abkhazia's potential vulnerability was increased by awareness that the Georgian president, Mikheil Saakashvili, had in 2006 broken the terms of the Moscow accords of 1994, which formalised the ceasefire in Abkhazia after the brutal war of 1992-93 that had ended in a shattered Abkhazia securing its freedom from Georgian rule. Saakashvili had done this by introducing a contingent of military personnel into the one part of Abkhazia (the upper Kodor [Kodori] valley) that had remained under Georgian control after the war. This illegal act - which Georgia's western partners all too typically chose to ignore - was accompanied and followed by frequent boasts that Tbilisi would soon "recover" South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

The outcome, in what turned out to be five days of intense combat on 8-12 August 2008, was very different. The Russian military responded to the Georgians' initial assault with overwhelming force of its own, including the destruction of Saakashvili's arsenal stored at the military base in Gori (thus ensuring no further Georgian military advances in that area for the foreseeable future).

In Abkhazia itself, the authorities both forestalled any possible action from Georgia and took advantage of the situation by launching an operation in the Kodor valley; this was retaken over two days, with no loss of life on the Georgian side or amongst the local Svan population. The Georgian troops stationed there duly fled without offering any resistance, abandoning their equipment in the process. Indeed, a staggering amount of weaponry and munitions were uncovered in the aftermath; Mikheil Saakashvili's hubris was reflected in the presence in the Kodor of a "NATO Information Centre". The operation extended to military stores in Senaki and the port of Poti (both in neighbouring Mingrelia), thus protecting Abkhazia from future land-incursion or seaborne-assault.

The cost of misreading

The decision by Mikheil Saakasvhili to activate his battle-plans against South Ossetia on the night of 7-8 August 2008 was extraordinarily stupid - so much so, that it is hardly surprising if many in the west instantly embraced Tbilisi's charge that Russia must have made the first move. This rush to judgment regrettably skewed reporting of the entire war by many western news-media outlets, including the BBC (thus continuing a long record of journalistic failure in the region).

This is far more than a jibe, for the misreading of events in and around Abkhazia and South Ossetia - by western media, but more widely by the west's diplomats and politicians - has played and continues to play a role in clouding the actual circumstances of the region. The implication is that to understand the conflicts surrounding these territories (in the early 1990s, as well as 2008) and to draw relevant lessons involves also criticising how these conflicts have been misconstrued at the highest policy levels.

After all, the outcome of the west's policy choices over these years has been to produce the direct opposite of what its consistent support for Georgia has been meant to achieve: namely, the ever-closer ties of Abkhazia and South Ossetia with Russia. This process culminated in Moscow's recognition of them as independent states on 26 August 2008, and all that will flow from the subsequent agreements being signed with Russia in terms of security, transport, trade and investment.

The realistic option

The most important conclusion of the August 2008 war, now shared even by hawkish commentators in the United States who have been vocal advocates for a hardline Georgian stance, is that both South Ossetia and Abkhazia are permanently lost to Georgia (see "Abkhazia and South Ossetia: heart of conflict, key to solution", 18 August 2008). This conclusion seemed obvious to informed observers at the end of their wars (in, respectively, June 1992 and September 1993); but the cataclysmic events of August 2008 seems at last to have convinced many who had been in denial.

But even many of those who have come round to this view resist its self-evident consequence: namely, that the two republics should be promptly and universally recognised de jure as well as de facto. If this policy was followed, it would have at least three positive consequences.

First, it would be good for Georgia. The country would be faced with a realistic if doubtless difficult option: to discard any remaining fantasy of Tbilisi's re-establishing its control, and to focus on building normal, good-neighbourly relations with these political entities.

Second, it would be good for the republics. They would be opened to all the regular advantages enjoyed by fully recognised states; among them unrestricted and universal travel-rights for their citizens, inward investment, and the free flow of ideas that accompanies contacts between nations. All of these would balance the dominant influence of Russia, which otherwise - under conditions of continuing western boycotts - can only strengthen. At the same time, it is unrealistic to expect Russia to withdraw altogether, for two reasons: Russia has legitimate interests of her own in the region, and the Abkhazians (in view of the west's longstanding support for Georgia) would not wish this to happen.  

Third, it would be good for the inhabitants of the region, on all sides. The guarantee of the security of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and the improving economy and infrastructure that would follow, would have beneficial knock-on effects. The eastern part of Abkhazia around Ochamchira is an example: here, the war damage from 1992-93 is still everywhere visible, with residents left to survive as best they can amid the ruined houses (only in 2007 was the Halo Trust able to finish clearing the region of thousands of mines that had rendered whole tracts of fertile land too dangerous to risk being farmed). A process of reconstruction could revivify the area, and make it possible that in time more of the refugees who fled from Abkhazia to Georgia in autumn 1993 will finally be able to resume life in their former homeland.

The wasted support

Some analysts offer a very different set of recommendations. Spencer B Meredith advocates severing all links with the "separatists"; he suggests that, if Russia does not make the necessary investments in Abkkhazia and South Ossetia, the result will be two failed states (see "Restoring Georgia's Sovereignty, Redux", Foreign Policy Journal, 5 August 2009).

This is wrong. Russians' affection for Abkhazia's Black Sea coast, and the fact that most Ossetians live in Russia's north Caucasus (where for centuries they have been Russia's closest allies), ensure Moscow's continual engagement. In questioning where the two republics would be without Moscow's support, Meredith neglects Georgia's dependence since 2003 on huge subventions from Washington; in lamenting Georgia's lack of funds to spend on the thousands of refugees living within its reduced frontiers, he overlooks that much more could have been done if funds spent on Georgia's military had been devoted to humanitarian projects (Tbilisi's defence budget increased from $36 million to $990 million in 2003-08).

Such "support" for Georgia is part of the same pattern that led to the disaster of 2008 (see Vicken Cheterian, "Georgia's arms race", 4 July 2007). It is a long way from the true support that Georgia needs, which would enable it to accept what happened in the war and begin to move on.   

There is a danger that without a decisive step forward, there will be merely a continuation of more of the same failed policies that since the early 1990s have led to the present impasse.

Indeed, after almost two decades of wasted and counterproductive efforts, it is time for a radical reassessment. If this is to happen, it will do well to look again at the events of the early 1990s; in particular at the way that high political calculation in the west reacted to and helped to shape events on the ground in this period, with disastrous results.

The rush to judgment

The west could probably have done little to prevent the Georgian-South Ossetian war of 1990-92, imposed by Georgia's first post-communist leader Zviad Gamsakhurdia on the then autonomous district of South Ossetia. This is because at the start of the war both parties to the conflict were integral parts of the still-existing Soviet Union. But the same most assuredly cannot be said of the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict (see "Sakartvelo, roots of turmoil", 27 November 2003).

Zviad Gamsakhurdia was ousted in a coup in January 1992. The war in South Ossetia was still in progress, and a new (truly civil) war broke out in Gamsakhurdia's home province of Mingrelia (western Georgia) between his supporters and those of the junta that ousted him. Amid this chaos, the coup-leaders invited the Soviet Union's former foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze out of his Moscow retirement to provide still-unrecognised Georgia with a standard-bearer who would appeal to the west.

The ploy worked brilliantly: the west was eager to reward the man it regarded as a heroic architect from within of the dissolution of the Soviet system. But why was there such a rush? A clue lies in the internal politics of Britain at the time.

A general election was due in Britain on 9 April 1992. The Conservative prime minister John Major had inherited office from Margaret Thatcher after her forced retirement in November 1990; a colourless figure whom most opinion-polls suggested would lose to a Labour opposition emerging from long retreat. Major and his foreign secretary Douglas Hurd believed they had every reason to look on Eduard Shevardnadze with favour; the idea that (as a former British ambassador to the USSR told me) "we in the west owe Shevardnadze a huge debt of gratitude" was widespread in establishment circles. (A one-time speaker of the Abkhazian parliament, Sokrat Dzhindzholia, offered me the very different view in during a London taxi-ride that "Shevardnadze is a fine executor of other people's decisions, but he is not a person to be head of state himself", though few western governments of the time would have listened to such views).

In any event, two weeks before the election, the John Major government recognised Georgia and established diplomatic relations with it. Britain was due to assume the six-month presidency of the European Union in July 1992; the country continued to - in Douglas Hurd's deathless phrase - "punch above its weight", as all the major European countries and the United States matched the British policy in reaching out to Tbilisi.

It was a fateful step - for it locked the recognising states into the position of support for the territorial integrity of the recognised entity, however questionable or indeed illegitimate that "integrity" (in the case of Abkhazia, it reflected Stalin's subordination of Abkhazia to his native Georgia in 1931). But what was to follow was worse. Georgia at the time had no government with a democratic mandate; the state was in internal chaos, the civil war was still in progress in Mingrelia, and tensions in Abkhazia (where there had been fatal clashes in July 1989) were rising.

A wise policy at this point would have offered Eduard Shevardnadze and his military- (later state-council) colleagues the conditional enticements of membership of (for example) the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and United Nations membership - to be granted once his government had earned democratic legitimacy in the elections planned for autumn 1992, ended the ongoing internal conflicts, and reached a peaceful resolution of the crisis in Abkhazia (see "Post-war Developments in the Georgian-Abkhazian Dispute", Parliamentary Human Rights Group, June 1996).  

Instead, the rush to embrace Tbilisi was heedless. True, the war in South Ossetia was ended with the Dagomys agreement in June 1992, mediated by Boris Yeltsin; but the Georgian government and its militia supporters "celebrated" its acceptance by the United Nations with an assault on Abkhazia - reflecting (in my interpretation of events) Shevardnadze's (mis)calculation that Gamsakhurdia's Mingrelian supporters would rally round the national flag in the face of a common foe.

What happened instead was tragedy all round: widespread bloodshed, the loss of Abkhazia to Georgian control, a once relatively prosperous economy in ruins, almost a generation of blighted lives on both sides. The particular disaster from the Georgian point of view was that Abkhazia was lost to Georgia's control as of 30 September 1993. 

The last war

The precise sequence of events suggests that the west in general, and Britain in particular, bears a grievous responsibility for the tribulations suffered by many of the region's peoples in the early 1990s and subsequently: the Abkhazians, more latterly the South Ossetians, and those Kartvelians (viz. Mingrelians, Georgians and Svans) whose lives were lost or livelihoods permanently disrupted in the immediate or longer-term wake of the woeful decisions of 1992. This should be publicly acknowledged and a suitable recompense paid, specifically through the recognition of the two states that acquired a de jure status on 26 August 2008.

This would be a precondition for serious thought about how the Transcaucasus region can be taken forward to the secure and prosperous future its peoples surely deserve. Such a settlement, apart from being the only realistic solution to two decades of failure, would be the best way to redress the mistakes committed since 1992. The anniversary of Mikheil Saakashvili's crassness in 2008, as of two decades of misguided and self-damaging Georgian policies, would be a good time to move towards it (see Donald Rayfield, "The Georgia-Russia war, a year on", 6 August 2009). 

The precipitateness of the British decision to recognise Georgia was underlined when, contrary to expectations, the party of John Major won the British general election of April 1992. His and Douglas Hurd's misjudged policies in ex-Yugoslavia were to be responsible for huge damage there too. It is very late in the day, but these statesmen's contemporary European Union and American successors need to learn the lessons of the last two decades, and come to decisions that will ensure that the war of August 2008 proves to be the region's last.

Among openDemocracy's articles on Georgian politics and the region, including the war of August 2008:

Neal Ascherson, "Tbilisi, Georgia: the rose revolution's rocky road" (15 July 2005)

Donald Rayfield, "Georgia and Russia: with you, without you" (3 October 2006)

Robert Parsons, "Russia and Georgia: a lover's revenge" (6 October 2006)

Vicken Cheterian, "Georgia's arms race" (4 July 2007)

Donald Rayfield, "Russia vs Georgia: a war of perceptions" (24 August 2007)

Alexander Rondeli, "Georgia: politics after revolution" (14 November 2007)

Robert Parsons, "Georgia's race to the summit" (4 January 2008)

Robert Parsons, "Mikheil Saakashvili's bitter victory" (11 January 2008)

Jonathan Wheatley, "Georgia's democratic stalemate" (14 April 2008)

Robert Parsons, "Georgia, Abkhazia, Russia: the war option" (13 May 2008)

Thomas de Waal, "The Russia-Georgia tinderbox" (16 May 2008)

Alexander Rondeli, "Georgia's search for itself" (8 July 2008)

Thomas de Waal, "South Ossetia: the avoidable tragedy" (11 August 2008)

Ghia Nodia, "The war for Georgia: Russia, the west, the future" (12 August 2008)

Donald Rayfield, "The Georgia-Russia conflict: lost territory, found nation" (13 August 2008)

Neal Ascherson, "After the war: recognising reality in Abkhazia and Georgia" (15 August 2008)

Paul Rogers, "Russia and Iran: crisis of the west, rise of the rest" (21 August 2008)

Ghia Nodia, "Russian war and Georgian democracy" (22 August 2008)

Robert Parsons, "Georgia after war: the political landscape" (26 August 2008)

Vicken Cheterian, "Georgia's forgotten legacy" (3 September 2008)

Rein Müllerson, "The world after the Russia-Georgia war" (5 September 2008)

Martin Shaw, "After the Georgia war: the challenge to citizen action" (22 September 2008)

Katinka Barysch, "Europe and the Georgia-Russia conflict" (30 September 2008)

Robert Parsons, "Georgia: the politics of recovery" (24 October 2008)

Donald Rayfield, "Georgia and Russia: the aftermath" (16 November 2008)

Thomas de Waal, "The Caucasus: a region in pieces" (8 January 2009)

Thomas de Waal, "Georgia and Russia, again" (30 January 2009)

Tedo Japaridze, "A Georgian chalk circle: open letter to the west" (12 May 2009)

Robert Parsons, "Georgia on the brink - again" (20 May 2009)

Nino Burdzhanadze, "A Georgian appeal: open letter to the west" (12 June 2009)

Ilia Roubanis, "Georgia's pluralistic feudalism: a frontline report" (3 July 2009)

Vicken Cheterian, "Georgia: between war and a future" (8 July 2009)

Robert Parsons, "Georgia: social chasm, political bridge" (21 July 2009)

Ivan Krastev, "The guns of August: non-event with consequences" (30 July 2009)

Donald Rayfield, "The Georgia-Russia war, a year on" (6 August 2009)

Plus: openDemocracy's Russia section reports and analyses


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