About the destructive Georgian discourse
– ‘20% of my country is occupied by Russia’ – and will be…
…if the Georgian discourse doesn’t change. Anyone having been to Georgia at least once will have encountered this phrase. This clear expression is part of a campaign which found great dispersion throughout the country in the recent years. On posters, walls, bags, social media profiles and even on the skin (one time I saw a young woman with such a tattoo) has this phrase been displayed, which makes a lot of sense, as it summarizes the Georgian discourse regarding their disputed territories quite well.
This phrase seems mainly addressed towards those who support their case, the West, America and an overwhelming part of the world’s community. Most of the world seems to agree with the Georgian notion that Abkhazia and South Ossetia remain part of Georgia and should be given back under their control. The current reality is far from such a solution, in fact, it seems the most unrealistic considering the other options.
But what about the Russian occupation as implied in the sentence?
Indeed, this is the reality seen from the Georgian perspective, Russian military is based and has a strong presence in those two territories which had been under Georgian control, more or less, until the breakup of the Soviet Union.
We encounter the first defaults of this phrase wanting to summarize the case, as the implied answer to this outspokenly unjust status quo seems to be: the Russian occupants should go back to Russia and the problem would be solved. The reality of course is nothing such alike, in fact, the most important intermediaries seem to be completely ignored, the inhabitants of those areas who oppose returning vehemently.
Where does this discourse come from and how did it forms over the last years?
As the demand from both sides had been the same for most or the entire conflict time, the packaging of the demands has changed, as from the Georgian side in such a manner addressing the Western world. This is no coincidence as the ‘Rose revolution’ brought a young, dynamic man to power who was educated in the West. Saakashvili fundamentally reformed the Georgia of Shevardnadze, who once used to be the Soviet foreign minister. As his policies made a massive contribution to a modern, progressive and open Georgia seeking integration with the European Union (EU) and America foremost, the attitude towards the break-away regions not only remained the same, but took a step towards a very decisive plan to take them back – even by force.
It surely would be unprofessional and biased to claim that only the Georgian side would have provoked the 2008 war, but tensions escalated in such a manner that Georgia launched an attack on Tskhinvali, the proclaimed capital of South Ossetia, which a few days later ended in a disastrous defeat of the Georgian army due to the Russian intervention, going beyond the de facto borders of the conflicted areas. The Russian reaction followed just weeks later: Abkhazia and South Ossetia were recognized as sovereign states, up to this day Venezuela, Nicaragua, Nauru and Syria followed.
As of today, the positions have only hardened. Georgia wants to reintegrate the two territories, Abkhazia and South Ossetia will not return. It is more unclear to say what their final aim will be. Both cases are quite different and need to be observed more closely. South Ossetia is almost entirely inhabited by the Ossetians, an Iranian ethnic group speaking an Indo-European rooted language. Only about 50,000 people inhabit this sparsely populated mountainous territory which cuts into Georgia from the North down to the approximate middle of it.
As South implies, there is also a North Ossetia which is located simply on the other side of the Caucasian mountains, forming part of the Russian Federation. Ties to the other side and Russia as a whole are naturally quite close. The process of integration into Russia has progressed already on a high level, although South Ossetia deems itself an independent state, heavily dependent on Russian assistance nevertheless. The same more or less applies to Abkhazia whose position will be more closely elaborated on later in this paper.
First a simple, naive question must be posed and answered: why can’t Georgia just let go of these two territories and let them be self-determinant?
It obviously is more complicated and the Georgian insistence must be understood, as essential unsolved issues of economics, history and subsequently strong emotions come into play. Firstly it is a good advice to simply look at the map and see what a de jure loss and a de facto loss already means to this small country: a heavy mutilation to the bone, extremely painful in many aspects.
The loss of South Ossetia brings foremost grave strategic dangers to Georgia. The newly established de facto border of South Ossetia runs along the only highway connecting the West and East of the country, running up to just one kilometer to its north. The city of Gori is a few kilometers opposite to it, the capital Tbilisi only a few dozen kilometers away from where Russian military is building up fences of barbed wire, sometimes moving them further. Clearly, acts of occupation and painful strategic stress tests are taking place. Apart from these important aspects, the mountainous territory itself is not truly significant from an economic perspective. The issue of refugees unable to return from the last wars however probably poses the second biggest issue in this regard.
When it comes to Abkhazia, the factor of significance must be increased by many times. Some might even call this subtropical stretch of Black Sea coast with its lush, green and fertile landscape which rises up to the Caucasian mountains from the coast, a piece of paradise. And it might not be too far-fetched, especially considering the Georgian perspective as Abkhazia might be seen by many as such. This territory used to be, and still is to some smaller extent, a holiday destination, known all over the post-Soviet world. This is where the Soviet elite would reside for their amusement, including Stalin himself, who used to be of Georgian origin, born in Gori. He inhabited several second homes or “Datchas”, one of them by a picturesque lake in the mountains, surrounded by deep forests.
It might seem already clear, which significance Abkhazia had when it was included into the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) with an autonomous status. The most tragic and complicated factors of dispute which ended in a fatal and bloody war between 1992 and 1993 must be explored in the following. The key question is of historic nature: who inhabits Abkhazia. Both sides try to decrease the significance of each other’s ethnic group on this territory which has seen a dynamic and complex history of belonging and settlement over millennia. It obviously does not involve only Abkhaz and Georgians but many other ethnicities and subgroups which came, went and stood. Without losing ourselves in seemingly contradicting numbers about who populated which part of this territory at which time in which number, it roughly can be said that both Georgians (in particular the Kartvelian subgroup of Mingrelians, native to the North-Western region of Georgia) and Abkhaz (the North-Western Caucasian group who finds themselves more closely related to North Caucasian ethnic groups such as the Circassians, speaking their own language belonging to the North-Western Caucasian language family) inhabited this land for many centuries.
There exists a long, shared and intertwined history between the Georgians (Mingrelians in particular), and the Abkhaz, who formed and were part of the united Georgian kingdoms for centuries. They shared the same fate of being overtaken by the surrounding empires, being occupied for hundreds of years as well. After the Ottoman rule, the Russians conquered the Caucasus which had been a tough task. In particular the Abkhaz suffered from the brutal conquest of the region during the 19th century, a significant part of their ethnic group and others were deported and many killed. This example may also give a hint that Russia hasn’t been a natural ally of the Abkhazian inhabitants.
As Abkhazia was included in the Georgian SSR, events took a path towards fueling resentments and tensions. Under Stalin and Beria (who was Abkhazian Mingrelian), a forced Georgianisation took place plus additional mass settlement of Kartvelians (again mostly Mingrelians) to the less densely and fertile Abkhazian territory. In the following decades the Abkhaz were a clear minority in comparison with the Georgians alongside Armenians and Greeks and others.
The break-up time of the Soviet Union was particularely chaotic and destructive in Georgia which descended into civil war, an institutional vacuum in which strong nationalism prevailed. As protests against the outspoken thread of losing a status of autonomy in an independent Georgia emerged in Abkhazia and elsewhere, war started with seemingly renegade Georgian forces (which could not be seen as a regular army initially) launching an attack in a clear attempt to crush a separatist thread. A full-scale war broke out in which the Abkhaz along other native groups with Russian and North Caucasian support defeated and drove out the Georgian forces carried by ethnic cleansing which had taken place on both sides. This resulted in over 200,000 Georgians having to flee Abkhazia, which would add up to half the population back then. Only a small part could return to the Gal\i district in the South of Abkhazia. The issue of the large number of refugees who are denied the right to return, as from the Abkhaz perspective this would create an unacceptable shift of population ratio and power balance, probably remains the greatest issue.
After having outlined the common events and the Georgian perspective, it is time to lay out why the discourse, which mainly seems to focus on the Russian occupation, is counterproductive for the Georgian part especially but likely as well for the Abkhazian.
It may be a misconception that Abkhazians would be totally inclined and pro-Russian. In some sense they have to be, to survive economically and, as they perceive understandably, militarily, as the Georgians continue threatening to take what is viewed as their legitimate property. It may be understandable that the Georgian perspective is based on serious issues and strong emotions, but it must be clearly said that this attitude will not achieve any pursued goal.
The simple question: ‘What will be the reaction of the Abkhaz side be?’, reveals a path to counterproductive results. There will be further moves towards Russia, who will strengthen their position, increasing the Abkhaz dependence on them. This however, cannot be in their interest, understanding the history of the Russian nation.
Georgia has to clarify that, relying on Russia will harm their course for true independence, which is in the Georgian interest. An Abkhazia close to Russian annexation is much more threatened to be taken away from any Georgian sphere of influence. By gaining true independence, it will be in the Abkhaz interest to seek normalization with their neighbors, including Georgia.
The most optimistic and maybe realistic scenario would see an independent Abkhazia building ties with Georgia, foremost with commercial interest, such as opening the railway through Abkhazia again. Reestablishing an important trade route by having a North-South axis linking Russia with Turkey will greatly benefit both entities on the way. As this may sound quite utopian and only in sight in a distant future. In the meanwhile, rhetoric has to change, surely from both sides, as there will not be a one-sided solution.
My conclusion can thereby only be an appeal to the Georgian side in particular, to stop with the current discourse as expressed by the phrase: “20% of my country is occupied by Russia”. The occupation will only continue and will even get worse, as long as the Georgians mostly addresses the issue in this simplistic, uncompromising approach.
Soft power must therefore be the choice while slowly increasing mutual trust, as soon as it seems acceptable from both sides. The Abkhazians should then consequently not fear to run into a trap which could have them swallowed by either of their neighbors.
Photos credits : @maxkuk