Abkhazia-Georgia, Kosovo-Serbia: parallel worlds?

Zeyno Baran Thomas de Waal
1 August 2006

Thomas de Waal, journalist and Caucasus expert

A fresh look

Dear Zeyno,

I'm glad of the opportunity to pursue at greater length a debate we began in the Financial Times in May 2006 about Kosovo and the Caucasus.

It's a good moment to do so. United Nations-sponsored talks have at last begun on the final constitutional status of Kosovo and many western officials are openly saying they will end with Kosovo becoming independent of Serbia.

Moreover, these are worrying times in Georgia. The two moderate voices in the negotiations with Abkhazia and South Ossetia have been sidelined: Irakli Alasania, former senior presidential aide for Georgian-Abkhaz relations, was confirmed as Georgia's new ambassador to the United Nations on 18 July; and Giorgi Khaindrava, former minister for conflict resolution, was sacked on 21 July. The result of these maneouvres at the heart of Mikheil Saakashvili's government is to leave the bellicose, ambitious defence minister Irakli Okruashvili in charge of negotiating a settlement with Abkhazia and South Ossetia – at the very time that a fresh armed crisis has been brewing in the contested Kodori Gorge region inside Abkhaz territory.

Many western observers say that Kosovo is a special case. I disagree. Events set precedents, whether international leaders like it or not, and it's best to be prepared for them. The granting of independence for Kosovo – especially if it occurs without the consent of Serbia – will be a big event in international affairs. Let's hope that the final-status arrangement will protect the Serb minority and make the Balkans more stable. An outcome that grants independence on less rigorous terms would merely look like a reward for Kosovo's loyalty to the west.

Thomas de Waal is Caucasus editor of the Institute for War & Peace Reporting in London. He is co-author (with Carlotta Gall) of Chechnya: Calamity in the Caucasus (New York University Press, 1998) and author of Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan through peace and war (New York University Press, 2003)

Also by Thomas de Waal in openDemocracy:

"The north Caucasus: politics or war"
(7 September 2004)

"Musa Shanib in the Caucasus: a political odyssey"
(12 October 2005)

"Abkhazia's dream of freedom"
(10 May 2006)

Thomas de Waal also writes on the connection between Kosovo and Abkhazia in "The Kosovo talks are about much more than just Kosovo" (Financial Times, 10 May 2006); Zeyno Baran's reply, "Kosovo precedent no solution for Caucasus region" was published in the same paper on 17 May [subscription only]

Now let's consider Abkhazia. It is true that all conflicts are different, yet there is a basic similarity: two minority peoples felt imprisoned inside a newly independent state against their will, after the break-up of a communist-era multi-ethnic federation.

I don't see a moral difference here. The sacking of Sukhumi/Sukhum in 1992 by Georgian irregular forces, including the deliberate burning of the Abkhaz national archive, was as despicable as the behaviour of Slobodan Milosevic's forces in Kosovo in 1998-99. And the other side of the coin – the vengeful ethnic cleansing of Georgians and Kosovo Serbs by victorious Abkhaz and Kosovo Albanians – is just as regrettable.

It is clear that Kosovo has advanced further in terms of its democratic institutions, but Abkhazia is performing well by the standards of the Caucasus. It has a president elected after an extremely demanding process, an opposition, a relatively free media and a strong civil-society sector. The Georgian minority in the Gali/Gal region has schooling in the Georgian language.

I see three differences on the ground:

  • the pre-war population of Kosovo had a clear Albanian majority, whereas in Abkhazia - a land of minorities - only around 17% of the population was Abkhaz and as much as 45% of the population was Georgian
  • Kosovo's overall population (2.5 million) is much bigger than Abkhazia's (around 250,000), making it a more viable potential state
  • under UN Security Council resolution 1244 of June 1999 (which actually reaffirms the territorial integrity of Serbia), Kosovo was placed under UN administration.

These factors give Kosovo a stronger case. But I am not arguing that Abkhazia will necessarily become independent – some kind of treaty arrangement may be the best final option. What I am arguing is that the Abkhaz have the right to make their case and that no final-status option should be ruled out in the negotiations.

Observing at first hand the unresolved conflicts of the Caucasus for the past decade, I have had an increasing feeling of surreality. The separatist territories have de facto broken away. Modern Abkhazia has nothing to do with modern Georgia and indeed is slowly being sucked into Russia – against the will of many of its citizens. The Abkhaz will agree to almost anything except a "return" to a state they have never felt part of. Meanwhile the Georgian position rests on one fundamental point: their territorial integrity of the modern state of Georgia within the borders of the old Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic.

The result is complete deadlock and hundreds of thousands of people living as miserable hostages to this deadlock.

My argument is that if we look at the conundrum anew, focusing on the right of Abkhazia to make an argument for sovereignty on the one hand and the right of return of the 250,000 Georgian internally-displaced people (IDPs) on the other, then we will have a much more positive and realistic process, which could end the agony. As in Kosovo.

Best wishes,


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Zeyno Baran, Center for Eurasian Policy, Hudson Institute

Two different cases

Dear Tom,

I am also pleased to have the chance to resume our discussion of Kosovo and Abkhazia. At this critically important time for both the Balkans and the Caucasus, a more detailed examination of both cases is welcome and necessary – not just for the regions concerned, but also for the international community as a whole. As independence draws nearer for Kosovo, and as tensions rise steadily within and around Abkhazia, the need for final resolution of the status of these disparate entities is even greater. Accordingly, certain international policymakers – especially in Moscow – are seeking to tie together the two cases in an effort to find a solution.

However, the differences between the two conflicts are so broad as to make it impossible to resolve them in the same way. In light of the relevant demographic, historical, and geopolitical factors, I cannot support your contention that "there is a basic similarity" between the two cases.

First, you downplay too easily the role of demographics in each case. In Kosovo, the ethnic majority of the titular state (Serbia) was a significant minority, with Albanians comprising over 90% of the province's population before the war. In Abkhazia, on the other hand, the prewar Georgian population was (as you acknowledge) over three times larger than that of the Abkhaz population. These facts render the two conflicts fundamentally different in character.

Perhaps Kosovo would be a precedent for Abkhazia if the international community had not supported the Albanians in 1999 – then, the Serbian minority would have Kosovo all to itself, in a similar way as the prewar Abkhaz minority has done in Abkhazia. A better precedent, then, for the Abkhaz drive to independence would be that of the Bosnian Serbs' desire to become independent from Bosnia. Both have sought to gain independence after brutal campaigns of ethnic cleansing carried out with the support of each group's much larger neighbour.

Zeyno Baran is senior fellow in the Center for Eurasian Policy, Hudson Institute

Second, you characterise the Kosovo Albanians and Abkhaz as "two minority peoples felt imprisoned inside a newly independent state against their will, after the break-up of a communist-era multi-ethnic federation." This formulation distorts the sequence of events in the two cases. Kosovar Albanians were discontented and "felt imprisoned" long before the fall of communism. They were suppressed by state institutions even within the province throughout the communist period – and were denied the broad autonomy granted to the other major ethnic groups in Yugoslavia, from Slovenes to Macedonians.

The Abkhaz, on the other hand, experienced not oppression but disproportionate political power during the Soviet period – largely due to the communist regime's "divide and rule" policy. It was only natural for them to revolt after Georgia became independent – not to break out of their prison, but to protect their privileged position as the jailers.

Additionally, to equate the burning of the Sukhumi archives with the mass murder of Albanian civilians is inaccurate, not to mention outrageous. While unfortunate, the burning of archives and other buildings by Georgians in 1992 (actions that, it must be noted, were undertaken despite the wishes of the Georgian government) cannot be compared with the murder of more than 10,000 ethnic Albanian civilians and the expulsion of over a million others from their homes in Kosovo (actions that were undertaken at the direction of the Serbian government).

It is true that the Serbian population of Kosovo suffered at the hands of vengeful ethnic Albanians after the war ended – but these actions occurred despite the instructions of the political leadership under Ibrahim Rugova. The "cleansing" of ethnic Georgians from Abkhazia was not the result of spontaneous acts of revenge, but rather of a deliberate government campaign, directed by an outside power: Russia.

Considering Moscow's central role in the entirety of the Abkhaz conflict – from supporting the "indigenous" Abkhaz forces at the beginning, to sending "peacekeepers", to its modern efforts to tie the Abkhaz case to that of Kosovo – I am puzzled to see virtually no mention of Russia in your letter. The dominant role of Russia is so significant as to completely distort any potential comparison to the two cases.

In Kosovo, third-party involvement came later, and was undertaken on a humanitarian basis – from the beginning, the international community made great efforts to protect the minority Serb population from reprisals. Russian involvement in Abkhazia was far from neutral; in fact, Moscow's help was essential in facilitating the bloody expulsion of more than 250,000 ethnic Georgians from the region.

At best, the continued Russian role in Abkhazia is interfering with efforts to resolve the conflict; at worst, it constitutes the annexation of what is broadly recognized as Georgian territory. Rather than facilitating a resolution that can be accepted by all sides (as the international community is seeking to do in Kosovo), Moscow is preparing to impose a solution, even by force if deemed necessary. In July 2006, foreign minister Sergei Lavrov declared that Russia is ready to fight to protect its "citizens" – i.e., that majority of Abkhaz to which it has illegally given passports – and to protect the troops it has stationed on Georgian soil without Georgia's consent.

In closing, I join with you in affirming the value of precedent in conflict resolution. The broader lessons of particular international conflicts are all-too-often ignored – especially, I must add, by Russia, whose calls for "self-determination" and appeals for the independence of those groups held "against their will" ring rather hollow in light of its experiences in the north Caucasus.

Ultimately, the two major principles of international law as enshrined in documents such as the Helsinki Final Act (1975) – that is, territorial integrity (Article 4) and self-determination (Article 5) will often conflict. In instances in which they are at odds, we must look to other criteria, such as regional stability and humanitarian needs. Weighed on these grounds, the cases of Kosovo (a stable, prospering state created in order to end a tragic campaign of ethnic cleansing) and Abkhazia (a rump entity created as a result of a tragic campaign of ethnic cleansing) simply could not be more different.

With best regards,


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Thomas de Waal, journalist and Caucasus expert

The sovereignty option

Dear Zeyno,

There are no angels in the conflicts in the Caucasus and I'm worried that you have uncritically bought the Georgian side of the argument on Abkhazia.

The government in Tbilisi basically began to lose Abkhazia not at the end of 1993 when the conflict ended, but fourteen years ago yesterday: on 14 August 1992, when Georgian defence minister Tengiz Kitovani brought his troops into Sukhumi/Sukhum, where they indulged in an orgy of looting and burning. Initially it was the Abkhaz who were "ethnically cleansed" as they fled north.

As the Abkhaz see it – and their view is broadly shared by the other non-Georgian nationalities in Abkhazia – this was the culmination of Georgian xenophobic nationalism towards Abkhaz that stretched back into the 20th century. Abkhazia's high sovereign status inside the Soviet Union was revoked in 1931 and Lavrenty Beria and Joseph Stalin then embarked on a process of "Georgianification" of Abkhazia that changed the demographics and crushed Abkhaz culture. Then Zviad Gamsakhurdia's virulent nationalism of 1989-91 scared all minorities in Georgia out of their wits, the Abkhaz most of all.

This was the prelude to Kitovani's assault on Sukhumi and the physical destruction of many of its people and its Abkhaz institutions. The terrible reverse expulsion and flight of the Georgian population followed a year later. There should be no "hierarchy of suffering" here: these ethno-territorial conflicts are horrible for everyone and we all know how quickly victims can become oppressors and vice versa (in Kosovo too). Each side has its own valid claims of justice.

You ascribe a central role to Russia and today I agree that Russia is currently playing a very manipulative role in Abkhazia. But here you are confusing cause and effect. Elements of the Russian security forces helped the Abkhaz in 1992-93, as did Chechens and north Caucasian volunteers such as Shamil Basayev. But Russian security policy was chaotic and privatised and other Russians, to a lesser degree, armed and aided Kitovani. Yeltsin himself stayed neutral and he ensured that after 1993 Abkhazia remained isolated. It is only under Vladimir Putin that the policy has changed.

Russia must not be demonised but dealt with on the facts. I am also distrustful of Putin's motives in mentioning Abkhazia and Kosovo together, but his logic works against him: if Abkhazia were to follow the Kosovo route it would be freed of its full dependency on Russia and reopen links with Georgia and Turkey. And most Abkhaz would welcome that.

So let's not allow Russia to distract us from the underlying issues. The difficult Georgian-Abkhaz relationship predated Russian involvement and would still be there without it. Indeed I would go further. By constantly blaming Russia, Georgians are committing the same fundamental mistake that got them into this mess in the first place: they are failing to take the aspirations of the Abkhaz seriously.

Georgia's "rose revolution" of late 2004 had two sides to it. One I endorse wholeheartedly: this is Mikheil Saakashvili's attempts to make Georgia a more open, European, transparent society free of corruption. If he had stuck to that agenda for his first term, Georgia would have begun to look an attractive beacon for the Abkhaz and Ossetians. Unfortunately, Saakashvili's second project, his passionately sold "Georgian national idea" with the promise of "restoration of territorial integrity by 2009" has frightened not only the Abkhaz and Ossetians, but Georgia's other minorities as well. It is gross irresponsibility for defence minister Irakli Okruashvili to say he wants to "meet the new year of 2007 in Tskhinvali" (capital of South Ossetia) – that sounds like a declaration of war.

In the same spirit Saakashvili aspires to Nato membership. Of course he has the right to do so, but he should realise that joining Nato would alienate the Abkhaz and Ossetians (whom he of course failed to consult) still more and very likely trigger even more overt Russian intervention in those territories.

What is to be done? I hope we both agree that war is unacceptable: it would destroy thousands of lives and all the fragile progress that has been made and Russia would inevitably be dragged in.

The status quo is at least (more or less) peaceful, but also deeply unsatisfactory. Abkhazia is growing ever more estranged from Georgia. As in other breakaway territories, a policy of isolation has merely driven the separatists further away. Yet this status quo could persist for years or decades: the Cyprus and Taiwan disputes are no nearer resolution after all this time. So I believe that insisting merely on remaking Georgia within its Soviet-era borders gets us nowhere and sells the internally-displaced people (IDPs) a false prospectus. Sadly, their chances of returning home are currently nil.

Again I argue that the only real solution to these post-Soviet conflicts will come if we hold out the offer of substantial sovereignty to the breakaway territories, while making tough demands on them over democracy and the right of return of refugees.

And that is where Kosovo holds out a potential positive model, if we follow it rigorously. Although the international community previously accepted the territorial integrity of Serbia, it is now abandoning that as a mirage and arguing over something more real: Kosovo's obligations towards its neighbours and minorities.

No one is pretending this is easy. Maybe the Abkhaz would fail the Kosovo test. But the current impasse benefits no one, so surely it's time for a fresh intellectual approach?

Best wishes


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Zeyno Baran, Center for Eurasian Policy, Hudson Institute

Stability is the key

Dear Tom,

You are absolutely right to say that these ethno-territorial conflicts are very painful for all sides; indeed, each side has experienced tangible suffering that cannot be ignored if we are to develop a peaceful solution. Yet we cannot ignore the facts of history. As I have mentioned, even considering independence for the Abkhaz would mean that the international community would be tacitly accepting ethnic cleansing of the Georgian population of the region; to say the least, this would not set a very good precedent.

This brings me to my second point, which is that war in Abkhazia is not acceptable. I understand the concerns many Europeans and Abkhaz have about the possibility that Georgians may launch attacks on the Abkhaz. Some of the statements Georgian leaders have made indeed seem bellicose. What will help to calm the situation is the fact that Georgia was awarded intensified dialogue with Nato, an ongoing process that will keep the Georgians committed to a peaceful solution.

But Georgia's aspiration to Nato membership is another point of difference between us. You say that Mikheil Saakashvili did not consult the Abkhaz or the South Ossetians beforehand about Georgia's application, leading to alienation and concern. No doubt, the populations of the two separatist regions were alienated by the move – after all, the tightly-controlled media in Sukhumi and Tskhinvali has repeatedly alleged that the Tbilisi government will use Nato forces to launch attacks on them.

Yet, anyone with experience of the Nato accession process (in relation to Latvia or Romania, for example) knows that it requires the candidate country to abide by certain strict norms. In other words, despite Abkhaz and South Ossetian (and Russian) claims, neither the move towards nor the achievement of Nato membership will necessarily lead Georgians to believe that military conflict is in their interest. In fact, it is likely to lead them to conclude the opposite.

Also in openDemocracy on Georgia and Abkhazia:

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

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

Alexander Rondeli, "Georgia: a rough road from the rose revolution" (4 December 2003 )

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

Then there is the Russian factor. You imply that the Georgians focus too much on Russia. Yet how can they (and I) ignore the elephant in the middle of the room? It is true, as you say, that Russia's direct, concentrated efforts in the region began only in 1993, but you cannot discount the influence of Russia before that. Russia had already actively encouraged separatist movements in the southern Caucasus. Why? Even under Boris Yeltsin, Moscow saw interference with Georgia's national consolidation and state-building efforts as being in its national interest.

Today, moreover, Russians clearly want to provoke the Georgians into a military response in Abkhazia or South Ossetia, so that they can boast to the Europeans that they were "right all along" about Georgia. (Yes, there are some Georgians who need no provocation to launch such attacks, but they are kept in check and will not do so unless there is a fundamental change on the ground.) Why is it that many Europeans seem to allow Russia to throw its weight around as if it were still an empire, rather than asking it instead to behave like a normal country?

In closing, I would suggest that instead of comparing Abkhazia and Kosovo, we need to compare Abkhazia with the other zones of "frozen conflict" in the former Soviet Union: Nagorno-Karabakh, South Ossetia and Transdniestria. A fresh approach is urgently needed for these four strife-ridden areas, which have many common aspects.

Ultimately, the future of the entire region rests on the resolution of these conflicts. Disastrous Soviet-era nationalities policy helped to give birth to defective successor states. How can these nations – especially Georgia – pursue the goal you endorse of an "open, European, transparent society" without territorial integrity?

In order to end the cycle of suffering and put these states on the solid path to development, stability is the most important goal. Abkhazian "independence" will only further undermine the progress made since 1991: not only in Georgia, but across the entire former Soviet Union.

With best regards,


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