George Katcharava – The solution of the Abkhazia problem shall be based on international law

14 August marked 31 years since the beginning of hostilities in Abkhazia. Unfortunately, the issue of Abkhazia remains Georgia's open and unhealed wound. Interpressnews spoke on the matter with Mr. George Katcharava, an expert of international relations and security.

- Mr. Katcharava, unfortunately, August is tied to the hardest dates in our country's recent history. It has been 31 years since hostilities broke out in Abkhazia on August 14, 1992. It is a time to discuss once again the consequences of the 1992-1993 war in the light of Ukraine-Russia war in which Abkhaz separatists are fighting along with the Russians, as the Kremlin's "strategic ally." Or rather, what was the outcome of the 13-month war? Who won in this war, and to what extent situation in Abkhazia changed?

- The point is that our struggle for independence and sovereignty is not over until the country restores its territorial integrity. This is what everyone should acknowledge.

In the modern times it is not necessary to wage war with force to achieve the goal. This can be done using different means, and therefore, as the classicist maintained, the struggle always makes sense, the main thing is to achieve the set goal.

No doubts, 1992-93 were devastating years for Georgia, resulting in temporary loss of the territories, including 2/3 of the country's coastline, losses of civilian lives and military personnel, economic collapse, an unprecedented number of IDPs that at a certain point reached 10% of the total population. All these, in turn, descended the country into a deep turmoil. An internal crisis of such a scale threw the country into a knockout, shocking symptoms of which are still felt by its population today.

The demographic situation in Abkhazia has changed dramatically. As a result of ethnic cleansing, the Georgian and not only ethnic Georgian population were expelled from this region, and many people have become victims of aggressive separatism.

Private and state property, enterprises, tourist and social infrastructure located in Abkhazia were completely looted. As a result, Abkhazia, once prosperous, became a ghost territory, with devastated and expelled indigenous Georgian population, destroyed economy and vanishing infrastructure.

It must be acknowledged that existing destruction largely is not directly caused by the military actions. Multi-billion-dollar losses should be attributed to the so-called "winning side", thus those responsible for all these should face justice one way or the other.

- Georgian society has long begun discussing the mistakes made in Abkhazia. It is true that sometimes conversations on this issue looks more like "heaping burning coals of shame on our heads" in the sense that many blame only the Georgian side for what happened.

For years, part of the Abkhaz society has been realizing that "independence of Abkhazia" is actually an illusion, but the fact is that "reality without Georgians" is acceptable to many.

What are the prospects for the population remaining in Abkhazia?

- Unfortunately, the remaining population in Abkhazia lives in an illusory environment. The illusion of victory creates false feelings of so-called freedom and independence. Abkhazia economically, supply-wise, financially, energetically is heavily dependent on external resources, and Russia is not the only source for that matter.

In addition, in terms of international law and existing international system, Abkhazia is unable to match basic criteria, both in terms of human rights protection and other important propositions of international law. In fact, Abkhazia today lives according to an archaic and often chaotic rules, and unfortunately, population there does not understand the existing international rules.

Moreover, it is considered a good tone in Abkhazia to ignore universally accepted human rights and to present its interpretations that suit their particular cause, although having nothing in common with international practice. All of these indicates a deeply deadlocked mindset that prevails among current population and elite in Abkhazia. Under present circumstances it is even more difficult to have any serious conversations with anyone in Abkhazia on given matters.

This, obviously, adds to impunity syndrome and encouraged harsh anti-Georgian, often cynical rhetoric that is so popular among the remaining population at all possible levels. This unfortunately became natural nowadays in Abkhazia because no one has been punished for expressing such an open hatred or for robbing someone else's private property, or state-owned enterprise, and it has been going on for three decades now.

Therefore, the "victory" in the war was a kind of “flash of green light” for “bright” future and many were able to establish their wellbeing, based on such criminal actions. Unfortunately, a large part of the population remaining in Abkhazia is involved in this process. Therefore, it would be unrealistic if anyone thinks that the Abkhaz side has any sentiment of regret for the tragic fate of the Georgian population expelled from Abkhazia and the state of Georgia in general.

Judging by the real prospects of the future, in recent years, Russia's desire to absorb Abkhazia has clearly increased. To do this at a scale, Russian state-funded investment programs are announced, implementation of which are difficult for the illegal, separatist authorities of Abkhazia from year to year. In addition, there are private investment programs that benefit from the support of the Russian state. Such programs will actually contribute to the growth of Russian interests and the Russian population in Abkhazia, thereby institutionalizing colonization process at an accelerated pace.

Abkhaz separatist authorities cannot confront said processes. On the contrary, it is likely that the signs of the protest, which are now more or less noticeable in Abkhazia, will be suppressed by Russia's local allies.

All these will reveal the truth to Abkhaz separatists and their supporters that they are dependent, and this thirty-year illusion is over, because Russia is the "owner" of this territory and is directly demanding a fee in exchange for all the "good" and the payment is mandatory. The cost is very high, heavy, and, at the end, can be tragic for the ethnic Abkhaz.

Therefore, I would say that the 1992-93 "victory in the war" was presented to the Abkhaz separatists on a platter, but after 30 years, Russia decided to use the results of the victory for its own purposes.

- Although a critical assessment of the events of 1992-193 has started in Georgia long ago, nothing similar has happened or is happening in an Abkhaz society.

Does the current development of the political processes in Abkhazia provide the basis for the Abkhaz political class to openly start discussing mistakes from the side of Abkhaz leadership in then forthcoming military confrontation?

  • I am convinced there is no such willingness. According to the Abkhaz separatists, Georgians

not only lost the war but also the political struggle. This attitude is already firmly established in the thinking of the political class and society in Abkhazia. Partially, I agree with that.

Although, it should also be acknowledged that during the negotiations and agreements at all stages of this process, no matter what the conversations between the sides were, the goal of the separatists was, openly or secretly, to separate Abkhazia from Georgia and expel ethnic Georgians.

In other words, the Abkhaz separatists, even when they were tactically retreating, actually they were winning time to deceive the Georgian side with another trick. Therefore, Abkhaz side never acted in a good faith which makes them not trustworthy.

Moreover, the Abkhaz side has neither regret nor good conscience in relation to Georgians and Georgia. They openly declare that all methods have been used to expel Georgians from Abkhazia and this is a subject of pride of the remaining population.

Therefore, the Georgian public, and especially the political class, needs to properly understand this naked truth and think about the relevant approaches in order to avoid repetition of mistakes and prevent self-deception syndrome.

On another note, the processes that we talked about, and the Russian expansion in Abkhazia, might stimulate certain segments of the Abkhaz society to start thinking about rapprochement with Georgia. However, under current circumstances, when relations with Georgians are considered shameful in any sphere, and this is followed by public “shame” campaigns, such pragmatic moves are hard to imagine.

In general, it should be stated, that we should actually closely observe the situation, and consequently evaluate it based on real developments. This involves pragmatic approaches and rejection of fairy tales. We are dealing with the people who have very unambiguous attitudes, and there is no positive view of Georgians and Georgia in such mindset. We need to get used to this.

At the same time, we must take the right and thoughtful steps to pursue our national interests. This is not easy but necessary and vital for the country.

- The fact that the "independence" of Abkhazia is recognized by Russia, the Kremlin also understands that in reality, Abkhazia is a continuation of the Russian state from a legal point of view, financially, economically, from a military point of view, the sea and airspace and border of Abkhazia is controlled by Russia. As well as law enforcement agencies, the banking system is also tied to the Russian banking system, the sessions of the government and parliament are held in Russian.

Given that Russia's influence in Abkhazia is quite significant - what are the plans and roles determined by Russia in relation to Abkhazia? What are these plans and roles for the ethnic Abkhaz?

- Partly we have already talked about it. What can Russia do, and what needs have appeared in the current difficult international situation?

Russia unambiguously owns Abkhazia, both politically and economically, geographically, militarily, and most importantly, culturally. Today's Abkhazia is completely attached to the Russian orbit.

The vocabulary used during political debates, as well as exemplary and merciless criticism of the West, completely derives from the Russian propaganda narratives. Under such circumstances, the process of political and cultural assimilation and "dilution" in Russia is developing at an accelerated pace, and we are witnessing this process.

Russia needs Abkhazia, primarily because of its 214 kilometers coastline, an attractive geographical location, although the most important factor is that Abkhazia is used as a leverage to influence Georgia. This latter aspect has become clearly evident along all these years, although since Russia's military invasion of Ukraine, especially in the light of imposed economic sanctions by the West, this can be seen in a whole different dimension.

It is well known that the South Caucasus is generally considered one of the most important transport routes to supply Russian market with consumer goods, as Russian ports and land borders in the country’s European part are practically closed and cannot carry cargo.

The looted and highly outdated transport infrastructure of Abkhazia, in isolation, does not represent any significance in this regard. It can play a certain and quite limited role only in linking with the rest of Georgia. That is why discussions at different levels and from different actors about the restoration of railway and automobile transit through Abkhazia, the operation of the Sokhumi airport and other initiatives have recently intensified. However, this too is highly problematic and even impossible given the existing international rules, and existing public opinion in Georgia.

In all the truth, the Abkhaz have little if any influence regarding said infrastructural projects, since Russia’s influence and power over separatist regime and population of Abkhazia is more than enough to fulfill these intentions without anybody’s involvement. I don't think that the Abkhaz can allow themselves fantasizing of being able to act as real partners in such processes.

Another issue is to look at this very situation in terms of Russia-Georgia relations. This applies to a large and multifaceted issue. All the gravest mistakes and harmful policies that Russia has hard-pressed against Georgia in the past 30 years are very much evident now.

Therefore, until these mistakes are corrected and Georgia does not heal the damage caused by these actions, it is really difficult to have any constructive relationship between these two countries. This is a reality that, of course, leads to difficulties, although we are all living under these conditions and on top of it trying to develop our country. All of these goes through Georgia's vital interests and therefore no one can bargain with these interests so easily.

Looking at the general trends according to which the events are developing, one can possibly imagine a time when the existence of the so-called "independent" Abkhazia will become a very heavy and unbearable burden for Russia, which it can dispose sooner or later. The main issue for Georgia is to be prepared for the right moment to take responsibility for the territory, as the processes can take a quick span developing an unexpected course of action.

- The Georgian political class has been discussing the problem of Abkhazia before and since the hostilities in 1992. However, as time passes, more incomprehensible contours are gaining superficial and unfounded conversations and discussions on the subject. Consequently, it is often unclear on the Georgian side what it wants, what it is trying to achieve, and so on. There could be more to say about this, but here I will stop and ask the question – in your opinion how Georgia's national state interest in Abkhazia should look like? And, how achievable are they?

- Abkhazia is an essential part of Georgia! This is not a slogan, it is enshrined in the Constitution of Georgia. Our country, like the whole world, officially recognizes Abkhazia, and Tskhinvali region, as an occupied territories by Russia. Therefore, the main and most important national interest of the Georgian state is the restoration of its territorial integrity and de-occupation. No one and nothing can change this ever.

Everything is achievable if one takes consistent, properly measured and firm steps to achieve the set goal. In 30 years, no progress has been made primarily due to Russia's "mediation", that was followed by its open military aggression and finalized by Russia's recognition of the "independence" of Abkhazia and Tskhinvali region.

At first glance, the current state of affairs suggests that this is long term status quo. Although, in my opinion, it is not. Abkhazia has become the object of discussions between the international community and there is a kind of consensus of what we are dealing with. Therefore, the change in attitude towards Russia from the side of influential members of international community will in turn affect the issue of Abkhazia, and thus the status quo will be prone to changes. Of course, this is not very noticeable as of yet, although for those who have been engaged on the matter for years and have a good understanding of the ongoing processes in and around Abkhazia, said changes have started to show off.

Therefore, as was already noted, the situation is changing. These at first glance superficial changes can provoke certain internal processes that we need to monitor, analyze and draw the right conclusions.

It is also worth emphasizing that Georgia as a state has not taken any drastic steps in the past 30 years against the illegal separatist regime in Abkhazia, despite the fact that it has plenty of leverage to influence the current situation. Unfortunately, such a position was not valued enough by the separatist side, or was even perceived as a weakness. Although, the situational development of events demonstrates the need for Georgia to start using its powerful, legitimate, non-military leverage to achieve these national interests and objectives.

- What is likely the reason that Sokhumi and Moscow's positions on the future of Abkhazia are contradicting the position of international community?

Why there is a lack of understanding in Sokhumi, whose stated goal is to make Abkhazia a fully-fledged member of international community?

- This is a fairly extensive topic. I will try to put some basic emphasis. In my opinion, there is no complete coherence between the separatists of Sokhumi and their patrons in Moscow. Moscow wants Abkhazia to completely be integrated, turning it into its province. Abkhaz separatists have the illusion of independence and are eager to become full members of the international community. I hope neither of the said goals will be fulfilled.

The only “achievement” that the Abkhaz separatists actually "managed" is to expel the Georgian population and thus temporarily withdraw territory of Abkhazia from Georgia’s constitutional control. The Russians provided guidance, support and assistance to the separatists in this criminal act, after which they established the so-called effective control over Abkhazia, i.e. the occupation regime. In terms of international law, both of these are the harsh and punishable crimes.

Moreover, the mentioned crimes are recognized in many important international documents. As a result, the international community uses such terms as "ethnic cleansing of the Georgian population", "occupied territories", "effective control of Russia" towards Abkhazia and Tskhinvali region.

All these makes it impossible to recognize the territory of Abkhazia as a full-fledged international entity in the light of gravest crimes that took place on the mentioned territory. Just like its 'Anschluss' or Russia's incorporation of Abkhazia can never be recognized internationally.

Russia knows this very well and that is why it is not forcing this process under current circumstances. Moreover, it seems that Moscow really hopes and believes that it is able to settle problems with Georgia sooner or later, as it recognizes its importance. This is undoubtedly in Russia's vital interests. In the light of this, Russia’s relationship with Abkhazia and for that matter with Tskhinvali region can be somewhat downgraded and presented as a first step for normalization of the relationship with Georgia. Although, for the Georgian side and society in general half measures will not be acceptable, especially as the memories of extremely unjust, very harsh and unprovoked armed invasions of the country with all its consequences are still very much fresh in the memory of Georgians and are not going to fade away anytime soon.

But, it is also highly likely that Abkhazia is not of great importance to Russia today. In any event, in the regional context, the importance of Georgia is hard to contest, duly representing in many ways key regional player.

Abkhazia, under separatist regime is directly violating numerous international conventions, agreements and other existing universal documents. If we take the Universal Human Rights Declaration and assess it against the situation in today's occupied Abkhazia, I am sure we will find some serious violations against all the points given in the document. Therefore, the Abkhaz separatist movement has put the remaining society beyond all legitimate frameworks, and realistically speaking only reintegration in the state of Georgia can restore legitimacy and legitimate rights of the population that today is residing in Abkhazia.

When I mentioned the levers that Georgia possesses, one of the most powerful levers in this regard is international law and related institutions.

The formula is simple – attempt to sell ethnic cleansing, ethnically motivated mass killings, changing demographic situations by brutal force, and gross violations of human rights and freedoms, as a legitimate process of freedom-loving people, to create an "independent" and "democratic" society is a nonsense. The willingness of acknowledgment of such a nonsense, objectively cannot be found among the responsible members of the civilized world.

Why don't they want to understand this in Sokhumi? The answer is easy. All politics first and foremost are very personal and include particular interests. Therefore, according to all existing international law documents, currently we have criminal situation in Abkhazia. People, or a group of people who are involved in the creation of this situation, are the law breakers.

This is bare truth, and that is what we are dealing with. As I mentioned earlier, the remaining population there exists in totally criminal environment. That is why the situation there indicates how "dangerous" it is for the separatist regime to even think about any changes in status quo. Although it is clear, following global trends, changes to the status quo will willfully or inadvertently bring the need to resolve the issue of Abkhazia.

It is also important for all participants in the process to understand that the problem of Abkhazia will not be solved in any way on the condition of one or the other party, or even more so on third-party conditions. It must be settled on the basis of international law, in full accordance with the international mechanisms of human rights protection and full respect of the Georgia’s statehood.

There is no other way for solution. This is what those living in Abkhazia should understand. The time for deception and throwing dust in the eyes is over. The time has come to take pragmatic, conscientious and responsible steps. Therefore, if we want to solve the problem of Abkhazia, let us "Give therefore Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s."


Koba Bendeliani

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