Friday, 22 August 2008

Abkhazia and South Ossetia: heart of conflict, key to solution

by George Hewitt (George Hewitt is professor of Caucasian languages at London's School of Oriental & African Studies (SOAS). Among his many works are "Peoples of the Caucasus" (in F. Fernández-Armesto, ed.), Guide to the Peoples of Europe (Times Books, 1994) and (as editor) The Abkhazians, a handbook (Curzon Press, 1999).

The Georgia-Russia war of August 2008 carries a vital lesson: the small territories that broke from Georgia's control in the early 1990s have their own voice, identity, and interest. They must be active participants in deciding their own future, says George Hewitt, the leading scholar of Abkhazian linguistics and history.

(This article was first published on 18 August 2008) - Open Democracy

On the second full day of the Georgia-Russia war of 8-12 August 2008, Russian patrol-boats operating off the Black Sea shore of Abkhazia sank four Georgian vessels apparently intent on landing in the territory. The identity of these vessels is not yet clear, but it is interesting to note that a published list of military equipment in the possession of the Georgian government - equipment largely supplied over many years by Tbilisi's western friends - includes a ship called the General Mazniashvili.

Why interesting? Because General Mazniashvili (aka Mazniev) is best known for his role in spreading "fire and sword" through Abkhazia and South Ossetia on behalf of Georgia's Menshevik government of 1918-21. The naming of the ship is a revealing indicator of current official Georgian sentiment about a figure central to the pitiless effort ninety years ago to establish control over these two areas. It is also a reminder to Abkhazians and South Ossetians that their hard-won freedom from Georgian rule in the brutal wars of the early 1990s is part of a longer history of defence of their integrity that deserves the world's attention, understanding and respect.

These peoples, and not just the Georgians - or Russians, or Americans, or anyone else involved in the latest war in the region - have their own history, many of whose artefacts have been deliberately pulverised in this generation (see Thomas de Waal, "Abkhazia's archive: fire of war, ashes of history [20 October 2006]). The lesson of the short war of August 2008 is that their Abkhazian and South Ossetian voices must be heard and their own choices must be included in any decisions about their future if the cycle of conflict - of which 1918-21 and 1991-93 are but two episodes - is going to be broken rather than repeated.

A political boomerang

The torrent of media commentary on the Georgia-Russia war has been characterised by near-obsessive geopolitical calculation, which - as so often where Georgia and the region is concerned - tends by default to view Georgia's "lost" territories (if they are viewed at all) as nothing more than inconsiderate and irritating pawns on a global chessboard. For this reason - but mainly because Abkhazia and South Ossetia matter in themselves and are central to any resolution of the issues underlying the August 2008 war - it is useful to consider the arguments for taking them and their claims seriously.

A striking feature of the Georgian political landscape even in these desperate days of Mikheil Saakashvili's humiliation is that there is very little recognition in the country of how deep are the scars inflicted by Georgia's invasions of South Ossetia (1990-92) and Abkhazia (1992-93). It is only when Georgia can at an official level come to take responsibility for its own role in this period that progress in resolving these now so-called "frozen conflicts" can be made.

One vital ingredient of this rethinking is to recognise the longstanding residency-claims of South Ossetians and Abkhazians to their respective territories. During the heady days of nationalism that exploded in Tbilisi in 1989, the man who was to become the first post-Soviet president of Georgia - Zviad Gamsakhurdia - even charged that the Ossetians only appeared in Georgia on the coat-tails of the Red Army's invasion in 1921.

It was and is a myth" (see "The North-west Caucasus and Great Britain", Autumn 1992). The late specialist on Iranian languages, Ilya Gershevitch, once told me that in his view the language of the South Ossetians differs so radically from that spoken in North Ossetia that the split must have occurred in pre-Christian times. Moreover, Queen Tamar (ruled 1184-1213), the sovereign under whom Georgia attained its "golden age", was at least half-Ossetian and also took one husband who was Ossetian. But such myths - which are also circulated to deny that the Abkhazians are the indigenous population of Abkhazia - can become truly dangerous in times of tension.

Amid Georgia's late-Soviet disintegration, intellectuals and nascent civil society in both South Ossetia and Abkhazia realised the perils that the chauvinistic rhetoric aimed against them from Tbilisi posed. They formed national forums (Adamon Nykhas in South Ossetia, Aydgylara in Abkhazia) to defend their respective collective and political interests, and created links between the regions that continue to this day.

Zviad Gamsakhurdia - believing his own myths, a self-harming flaw shared by his successor-but-one Mikheil Saakashvili - thought it would be an easy matter to dislodge the South Ossetians from the territory (which Georgians decided to rename Samachablo). The result was war that started in 1990, escalated in 1991, and expired in spring 1992. By this latter date Gamsakhurdia had been overthrown, and a military junta had assumed control in Tbilisi; in March 1992 this junta invited Eduard Shevardnadze - the former boss of Georgia's Soviet-era Communist Party, and later Soviet foreign minister under Mikhail Gorbachev - to lead it.

Gamsakhurdia and his armed supporters resisted the new authorities from his base in the west Georgian province of Mingrelia. Shevardnadze chose to compromise with the South Ossetians, and the two sides (with the involvement of the then Russian president, Boris Yeltsin) signed the Dagomys accords. The provisions of the agreement included a tripartite (Georgian, Ossetian, Russian) peacekeeping force to monitor the ceasefire.

As a result, South Ossetia after 1992 - typified by its quiet capital Tskhinval (Tskhinvali) - became a neglected backwater with little to offer its citizens other than to travel by the Roki tunnel into the Russia Federation's republic of North Ossetia in search of work. This situation continued through the decade of Eduard Shevardnadze's rule in Georgia; it began to change after Mikhail Saakashvili came to power in 2004, with a pledge to restore South Ossetia and Abkhazia to Georgian control (and within two years) high on his nationalistic agenda.

Also on Abkhazia in openDemocracy: Thomas de Waal & Zeyno Baran, "Abkhazia-Georgia, Kosovo-Serbia: parallel worlds?" (2 August 2006), Thomas de Waal, "Abkhazia's archive: fire of war, ashes of history" (20 October 2006), Nikolaj Nielsen, "A small bomb in Gali" (8 July 2008).

The effects of his active - or meddlesome - stance were soon felt. A local market on the border with the disputed territory, where the two sides had no problems cooperating for purposes of trade, was closed down on the grounds that it was part of the "black economy". Then a pliable Ossetian was found to head a pro-Georgian "government" for South Ossetia, based in villages on the Georgian side of the border.

None of this "worked" even in its own terms. A singular aspect of the August 2008 war is that it confounds the long-held expectation the South Ossetian "problem" would prove easier for Tbilisi to manage and solve than that of Abkhazia - the larger, more prosperous and better defended of the two disputed regions. Instead, Saakashvili's reclamation project has come to grief in South Ossetia, which is now more distant from Tbilisi's rule than ever (see Donald Rayfield, "The Georgia-Russia conflict: lost territory, found nation", 13 August 2008). Read more...

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