“We should start listening to Abkhazians and Ossetians”.
You have repeatedly spoken about the need to approach Sukhumi and Tskhinvali as parties to the conflict and to start direct negotiations with them. What could be the tangible results of such an approach?
From the beginning, I have said that our main task is to transform the Georgian-Ossetian and Georgian-Abkhazian conflicts. If we communicate more directly with them, Russia will not so strongly influence these conflicts. Of course, Moscow has its interests and will continue to influence. We must not be under illusion here. But if the Georgian side could actively communicate directly with the Abkhazians and Ossetians, its influence would be less than now.
Although the independence of both entities has not been recognized by most of the world community, Russia is a powerful state that can manage the situation without it. Abkhazians and Ossetians currently have no other choice – either Russia or Georgia. If we do not cooperate with them, only Moscow cooperates with them, resulting in a more significant influence.
Therefore, our reluctance to admit that Tbilisi, Moscow, Sukhumi and Tskhinvali are all parties to the conflict and the resulting reluctance to communicate with them only strengthens Russia’s influence.
What is the narrative of official Tbilisi once it does not consider Sukhumi and Tskhinvali to be sides of the conflict?
Both governments, the current one and the previous, have the same position on this issue. According to them, Georgia has no conflict with the Abkhazians and Ossetians, but only with Russia. Therefore, until we resolve the conflict with Russia, we cannot resolve any other issues. However, I am categorically against this thesis. We will not resolve our disputes with Moscow in the foreseeable future. We should at least try to ease our relations with the Abkhazians and Ossetians and resolve contentious issues.
If we are talking about starting a dialogue with the Abkhazians and Ossetians – with which of these two parties, do you think negotiations could be easier under the given conditions?
The easiest way to find out is to start direct negotiations with them. Three parties need to be negotiated – with the Abkhazians and Ossetians at the national level and Russia at the international level. I am not saying that we must stop negotiating with Russia. That would be nonsense. However, we must also start negotiations with the Ossetians and Abkhazians.
It is like playing chess. Where the figure can be moved reasonably, it must be moved. There are situations when there is a greater possibility of progress in de facto Abkhazia, and there are situations when there is an opportunity in de facto South Ossetia. Likewise, there may be a situation where a shift with Russia will be possible, and it should not be wasted. If Georgia chose such a strategy, it could better regulate the situation. In our current strategy, it is primarily regulated by Russia.
At the same time, Georgia has sufficient diplomatic resources not only on its territory but in the entire Southern Caucasus. Last year’s war in Nagorno-Karabakh showed this. Only Georgia has good relations with Azerbaijan, Armenia and even Turkey. However, Tbilisi makes absolutely no use of the resources at its disposal, not even concerning de facto Abkhazia and de facto South Ossetia.
After the war in 2008, Georgia has relied on a policy of attracting these two regions and their people to its success and development. A similar policy is beginning to bear its fruits in Moldova. To what extent can this strategy be successful in the case of Georgia, where the conflict is much more recent and people-to-people contacts, unlike Moldova, are kept to a minimum?
We had a good situation in de facto South Ossetia until 2008. There was the equivalent of the Transnistrian situation in our country at that time. We have lost this positive moment. I wish Moldova not to follow this path. If Moldova decided to resolve the issue of Transnistria militarily, it would turn out as it has in our case with all the long-term consequences. We have missed our opportunity. Now, of course, we are very far from the Moldovan scenario. In de facto Abkhazia, the war was long gone, and therefore dialogue is now easier there than in de facto South Ossetia.
The difference, however, is that while Transnistria is more industrialized than the rest of Moldova, it is quite the opposite in the case of Georgia and its separatist regions. The industry was more developed in the rest of Georgia. De facto Abkhazia has been a tourist destination, but so have many other regions in Georgia, and de facto South Ossetia has always been an agricultural region. Its industrial character gave Transnistria a particular possibility of independent development. Such development is much more limited in the case of de facto Abkhazia and especially de facto South Ossetia. This is an opportunity for Georgia to offer development to de facto Abkhazia and de facto South Ossetia.
Let us say Georgia had achieved dizzying socioeconomic success – would the Abkhazians and Ossetians know about it at all? Do they have access to objective information? Are they interested?
They are not completely isolated and have access to information about what is happening in Georgia. Of course, during a pandemic, direct contact is limited. Among other things, many Ossetians and Abkhazians come to us for treatment.
The main problem is something else. There are many severe issues in Georgia, and they see them. A very tense relationship between the government and the opposition can serve as an example. Both sides make various promises and then do not keep them. For example, the recent agreement between the government and the opposition, which neither side complied with. Although the agreement is not directly related to the conflict, its fate tells Abkhaz and Ossetians a lot about the situation in our country.
They say that if we cannot agree among ourselves and abide by agreements, where are guarantees that we will abide by any agreements with them? Abkhazians, in particular, see all these problems of ours. They see that we cannot guarantee the civil liberties they want. Even the nations that now live here and wish to integrate into Georgian society fully cannot do that. Azerbaijanis, Armenians, Muslims are trying, but their influence on state governance is minimal. We do not see them in higher echelons of power; we still have a kind of national filter in this regard. The Ossetians and Abkhazians then, of course, wonder why they should integrate into such a state.
In the case of Georgia, its identity crisis is a huge obstacle. Our government is not ready to develop a civic identity. State identity is still intensely national, and relations between nations and religious groups are still very tense. Most Georgians are still reluctant to accept otherness. We must first resolve this before talking effectively and pragmatically with the Abkhazians and Ossetians about economic issues. However, if this changed and Georgia became a modern European state free of such discrimination, they would find out and become more interested in our state.
As you already hinted, there is a significant level of distrust towards Tbilisi, both in de facto Abkhazia and de facto South Ossetia. What guarantees might persuade local people and elites to trust Georgia and seriously discuss the possibility of reintegration?
Unfortunately, such guarantees are not yet visible. In Georgia, there are right-wing radical forces with which the state cooperates. It was seen on June 5 and 6. There is a symbiotic relationship of mutual loyalty between them. The fact that moderate nationalists in power in Tbilisi are willing to cooperate with radical nationalists is a very negative signal towards Ossetians and Abkhazians.
If this precondition is fulfilled, we can offer the Ossetians and Abkhazians such serious guarantees as a common state on a confederative basis. This should be the basis of our offer. However, it must be an actual confederate model and not just on paper. Look at Adjara, for example. It is formally an autonomous republic, but it depends on the centre in practice. In Tbilisi, they completely forgot that Adjara is an autonomous entity and treat it as Kakheti or Shida-Kartli. Moreover, this is another terrible signal for the Abkhazians and the Ossetians.
Therefore, for Georgia to be attractive to them, it must become not only economically prosperous but also truly and firmly democratic.
What are the specific beneficial interests of de facto South Ossetia and de facto Abkhazia in a possible settlement of the conflict and reintegration with Georgia? What can Tbilisi offer them that they would give up the idea of independence in the case of de facto Abkhazia and integration with North Ossetia – Alania in the case of de facto South Ossetia?
Georgia must begin to listen to Ossetians and Abkhazians in the first place. Listen to what they want. They come up with specific requirements almost constantly. Some may be unrealistic, but they need to be heard and discussed. Subsequently, we can work together on something realistic. What they want from us in the first place is an agreement that we will not use violence. They are afraid that such a scenario might happen in the future. Not that this government would do it, but some future one. Like Saakashvili after Shevardnadze. It is speculative, but it is in their best interest.
Moreover, we need to start addressing their interests. We have to put other common interests into it. For example, we will sign a non-use of violence agreement, but we will attach some economic agreements as well. Also, that will be in the interest of both parties. We need to make their interests national so that they do not feel alienated from us. For example, we could offer them access to the European market, as Moldova has done to Transnistria.
We started our conversation about the importance of Georgia’s active communication with de facto Abkhazia and de facto South Ossetia representatives. What are the possibilities and actual state of formal and informal communication between Tbilisi and de facto representatives of these two regions?
The only official channel is the Geneva international discussions. There, Tbilisi representatives meet with Tskhinvali and Sukhumi. Meetings in Ergneti and Gali (Incident Prevention and Response Mechanism meetings) also operate within this format. Unfortunately, the meetings in Gali are not taking place at this moment. There are no other official channels of communication left. In addition, there is some communication between secret services, but it is also rather rare. However, even this communication channel, for example, if someone is detained, depends on cooperation with the EUMM. When I was a minister, I tried to communicate with Sukhumi and Tskhinvali directly whenever possible. It does not work that way now. Then there are informal contacts at the NGOs and civil society level. For example, on November 8, we issued a joint statement with Abkhazian NGOs, calling on the Georgian government to begin specific communication processes with Sukhumi.
Did this joint statement have any tangible impact?
Not yet. Our ministry did not even mention this initiative at all in its annual report. This is despite the fact that it is a unique and ground-breaking documentary. It is very bad that the government does not pay any attention to the cooperation of Georgian NGOs with NGOs in de facto Abkhazia and de facto South Ossetia. Although, of course, civil society in de facto South Ossetia is very weak, unlike in de facto Abkhazia. Rather, there are individual civic activists. On the contrary, in Abkhazia, civil society is very strong, and we feel that Russia wants to weaken it. Moscow wants Sukhumi to pass a law on foreign agents.
Although you stress the need for communication with de facto Abkhazia and de facto South Ossetia, the Russian factor cannot be overlooked. Russia has long term interests in supporting de facto Abkhazia and de facto South Ossetia; what steps from the Georgian side might realistically change Moscow’s position?
As far as Russia is concerned, as I have already said, we need to communicate with it. There is an Abashidze-Karasin format. However, as long as Russian troops are illegally stationed on Georgian territory, it is an occupying power for Georgia, and it cannot mediate in our conflict with Sukhumi and Tskhinvali. However, Moscow does not want any guarantees from us so far so that the talks can be postponed. On the contrary, this status quo suits them. If they signed an agreement with us, withdrew their troops, they could become an honest mediator in resolving the conflict. However, we cannot be passive just because we cannot reach an agreement with Russia. We still have to start communicating with Sukhumi and Tskhinvali and look for common interests. After all, they want almost the same thing from Russia – a guarantee that we will not attack them.
Separatist conflicts in Georgia are not only about the powers’ politics and geopolitical interests but also about ordinary people living on Administrative border lines (ABLs) or those being driven from their homes. What has the government done to improve their situation, and what still has to be done?
In 2014, we adopted the concept of support for communities at ABLs. We focused on the general issues that affected everyone in this first stage. These were the condition of roads, gasification, drinking water and irrigation water. We focused on this. Alternative sources of drinking water have been drilled in many villages. Also, a program of free colleges for local youth was implemented. Unfortunately, what we did not get to was phase 2, which would mean a more individual approach to the problems of individual villages and families. Unfortunately, we have not been able to do this yet.
I could see these individual and more specific problems in nearly every community I visited on the Georgian-South Ossetian ABL. Why haven’t they been addressed yet?
In Georgia, it is all about acquaintances. I had an influence because I had acquaintances, and therefore, I knew how to enforce my vision. We may have an extremely talented minister, but he will not be able to enforce his plan if he does not know the right people.
After me, there were very talented women in the office, but they did not have my influence. As a minister, I had my team, and I had my own Republican Party in the coalition, which is why I knew how to pursue my politics and vision. From 2012 to 2016, we had a real coalition within the Georgian dream.
What practical agreements could be reached with Sukhumi and Tskhinvali at the moment to improve the situation of people living on both sides of ABLs?
These are the issues that the Gali and Ergneti meetings are designed to address. They are a tool that should solve the practical problems of the regions at ABL. Unfortunately, these meetings are too often politicized. Political issues should be addressed in Geneva and practical in Gali and Ergneti. If a political problem arises at this level that hinders further progress, it should move to Geneva. In Gali, such a problem arose in the case of the killing of Giga Otkhozoria. Although Abkhazians argued that this was a political issue that Geneva should address, the Georgian side was adamant that it should be part of the agenda at Gali meetings. In response to that, Sukhumi decided to suspend negotiations at Gali level. In this way, we have lost a pretty good tool for addressing specific local issues.
How do you assess the security situation on the Georgian-Ossetian ABL? There are still many reports about locals being abducted, zones where locals fear to enter widening and increasing Russian activities well beyond the line? What could or should be done about these trends?
This is Russian politics; this is their modus operandi. The problem is that in Soviet times, the internal borders were not clear. Currently, we also see this in the case of land disputes between Armenia and Azerbaijan. We also have a problem in this regard with Azerbaijan around David Garedja. So, the boundaries were unclear even between the federal republics, not yet between the republics and their autonomous units. I have seen many maps from which it is clear that the kolkhozes and sovkhozes regularly exchanged and donated extensive forests, orchards and fields. Moreover, this also applied to the state farms of de facto Abkhazia and de facto South Ossetia and Georgia. It was legal under Soviet law.
One of the biggest problems here was caused by Zviad Gamsakhurdia when he abolished the autonomy of South Ossetia. Their districts merged with the districts in the rest of Georgia. Saakashvili later restored this autonomy, but only on paper. There is no official Georgian map of de facto South Ossetian borders. However, there are a large number of old Soviet maps. The Russians are now combining them to declare the largest possible area of de facto South Ossetia. At the same time, they offer us to sit at the negotiating table and agree on exactly where the borders lead to push us to recognize the independence of de facto South Ossetia.
Paata Zakareishvili is a Georgian political scientist. Currently – professor at the Grigol Robakidze University. For more than 30 years, he has been involved in humanitarian activities in the framework of armed conflicts in the Caucasus, in particular, he took an active part in the processes for the release of prisoners and hostages, as well as in the search for the missing in the Georgian-Abkhaz and Georgian-Ossetian conflicts. From 2012 to 2016, he served as the State Minister of Georgia for Reconciliation and Civic Equality.
This interview was made as a part of the project “Development of communities along the administrative borderline separating the Tskhinvali region from the rest of Georgia, with an emphasis on local self-government,” which is funded by the SlovakAid.