Georgian initiatives for Abkhazians and South Ossetians should comply with declared goals
31 July 2019. PenzaNews. The Ministry of Education, Science, Culture and Sports of Georgia decided to enroll students from Abkhazia who didn’t attend the entrance tests due to the closure of the border checkpoint at Engur River introduced by the authorities of a partially recognized republic. The relevant information appeared on the official website of the department on July 24.
Photo: Armineaghayan, Wikipedia.org
Georgian Education Minister Mikheil Batiashvili promised that the country’s budget will cover the tuition fees for these students if they perform well in the coming year.
The possibility of education for Abkhaz and South Ossetian students in Georgia is part of a Step to a Better Future strategy, developed with the active support of the United States and the European Union and aimed at “improving the humanitarian and socio-economic situation of the residents of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.” The program presented by Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili in April 2018, also envisages development of trade along dividing lines, provision of tax incentives to entrepreneurs, development of grant projects and creation of a mechanism to allow Abkhazians and South Ossetians to use the benefits received by Tbilisi as a result of rapprochement with the EU, including visa-free entry into the Schengen zone and free trade with European countries.
However, many observers are skeptical about the results of the practical implementation of this initiative, comparing it with the failed attempt of reintegration undertaken by Georgia in 2010, when the Strategy on Occupied Territories: Engagement Through Cooperation was launched in the country. Thus, according to them, the majority of students from Abkhazia and South Ossetia will not be able to get an education in Georgia due to the fact that they do not speak Georgian, while free trade with the EU is even a more vague prospect since this issue is not fully worked out in relation to Tbilisi itself.
In addition, some experts point out that the implementation of ambitious projects, for example, in the field of education or health care, provides for giving residents of partially recognized republics substantial preferences to the detriment of social support for Georgian citizens.
Today the situation between the conflicting parties continues to be tense. According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Abkhazia, the decision to impose restrictions on border crossing will not be canceled in the near future.
Commenting on the difficult situation in the region, George Hewitt, professor of Caucasian languages at the School of Oriental and African Studies, a fellow of the British Academy and the honorary consul for Abkhazia to the UK, stressed that before entering into arrangements with Tbilisi “the Abkhazians want as the bare minimum to sign a peace-agreement that includes an undertaking not to re-ignite hostilities.”
“Georgia has refused to do this, as it asserts that it will only sign such a document with Russia. Tbilisi simply has to acknowledge that the parties to the conflicts were the Abkhazians, in one conflict, and the South Ossetians, in the other. Ideally, of course, Georgia should offer full recognition, as this step would be in the best interests of each of the parties to the conflicts and allow for all kinds of agreements one would expect between neighbours,” George Hewitt told PenzaNews.
In his opinion, some people in Georgia already realize the need to take such a step.
“In fact, there was a tweet from an Irakli Kavtaradze stating that ‘We [Georgians] need to recognise Abkhazia ASAP’. This is what all sentient Georgians should be realising and saying, and the best way to normalise relations is, as I have maintained for 30 years – my first contribution to the debate about Georgian-Abkhazian relations was made in July 1989 – for all those countries and organisations, including the UN, PACE, and NATO, that claim to be the ‘friends’ of Georgia to do everything in their power to persuade their contacts in Tbilisi that it is in Georgia’s own interests to recognise Abkhazia and South Ossetia,” the honorary consul for Abkhazia to the UK said.
“Simply issuing statements on a regular basis that they support Georgia’s ‘territorial integrity’ along with holding out the illusory promise of NATO membership is only serving to prolong the status quo – Soviet Georgia’s ‘territorial integrity’ disintegrated decades ago — it will not be restored,” he added.
In turn, Secretary of the Public Chamber of Abkhazia Natella Akaba expressed the opinion that the above-mentioned Georgian initiatives “were initially doomed to failure.”
“The main reason is that they were based on ‘the principles of territorial integrity, inviolability of borders and sovereignty of the Georgian state, a policy of non-recognition of the occupied territories and, ultimately, their complete de-occupation.’ In fact, there is nothing new in such approaches, and they are absolutely unacceptable for the citizens of Abkhazia, because we do not view our country as an occupied territory,” she explained her vision of the situation.
“Moreover, the majority of Abkhazian residents believe that Georgia contributes to the isolation of our country, thinking that all our contacts and interaction with other countries should be carried out exclusively through Georgia, but this does not correspond to the interests of Abkhazia as a sovereign state. Personally, I perceive these initiatives as Georgia’s attempt to demonstrate to the world community its “peacemaking aspirations,” Natella Akaba added.
She also noted that the majority of Abkhazians are not ready to participate in these programs until the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict is resolved.
“The problem is that after 2008, the Georgian leaders no longer recognize Abkhazia as a party to the conflict and stubbornly refuse to sign an agreement with Sukhum on the non-resumption of hostilities. An attempt to convince the world community that Abkhazia is a territory occupied by Russia only postpones the prospect of a peaceful settlement. Until Georgian politicians and Georgian society as a whole, do not give an honest and objective assessment of what happened between Abkhazia and Georgia in 1992–1993 and do not recognize their responsibility for initiating a war against Abkhazia, we cannot talk about restoring confidence and building good-neighborly relations,” Natella Akaba stressed.
Meanwhile, Rustam Anshba, Russia and Eurasia Program, Chatham House, drew attention to the fact that most of the initiatives proposed by Tbilisi have little impact on the people they are designed for.
“These initiatives are usually seen as a political one, rather than actually addressing and speaking to the needs of the residents of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Most of the benefits are available and linked to the Abkhaz residents traveling to Georgia or getting Georhian documents and papers. The economy revenue creating spheres are actually excluded from the Plan a Step to a Better Future, for example, tourism, investment into Abkhaz economy, transport and so on. The plan in Abkhazia is seen as the one that is not addressing the country, but is created for the Western aspirations of Georgia,” the expert said.
According to him, the only thing that works is the access of Abkhaz residents to the Georgian medical services, because it is low-profile and is more of a “life and death situation.”
“There is an understanding in Abkhazia that it would be important to normalize relations with neighbouring Georgia, however, not at all cost. Even under [Mikhail] Saakashvili Georgia did propose a number of rather good initiatives, however, they all come with strings attached and are seen as Tbilisi’s attempt to take Abkhazia and South Ossetia over. Therefore, they have little interest,” Rustam Anshba reminded.
From his point of view, Tbilisi has yet to come up with something bold and concrete enough for Abkhazia to have a substantial gain, for example, opening an airport, transport links, access to external loans and funding.
“The key to any successful project is the feeling of equality, developmental interest on Abkhazian side, capacity development, not directly linked to conflict resolution, but more addressing the needs of the populations on the ground. It is also very important to have an individual approach to all conflicts: Georgian-Abkhazian, Georgian-South Ossetian and Georgian-Russian. They are all very different,” he stressed.
“The best thing Georgia can do for Abkhazia at this point is to give a chance to develop and get more integrated in the Black Sea economy and transport in a status-neutral way; allow Abkhazia's population to have access to education and development perspectives. It will create more interest and make Abkhazia feel more secure to address sensitive conflict resolution issues.” Rustam Anshba explained.
In turn, Kakha Kukava, Chairman of Free Georgia party, appreciated positive results of providing free medical care to residents of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, saying that this project contributed to the establishment of relationships at the level of ordinary citizens. He also paid particular attention to the fact that now Georgia with the help of the EU is “trying to create a new form of cooperation with these regions in business and small entrepreneurship.”
Speaking about settlement of the Georgian-Abkhazian and Georgian-South Ossetian conflicts, the politician explained that he supports the line that “would rely not on military force, as Saakashvili insisted, but on peaceful coexistence.”
“I think we should show the Abkhaz and Ossetians, including within this project [a Step to a Better Future], that Abkhazia should not live in the poverty in which it lives today. This period have already passed in Georgia 20–25 years ago. If Abkhazia has legal status, it can become one of the richest seaside resorts,” Kakha Kukava said, citing Adjara in the south-west of the country as an example.
At the same time, according to him, the question that “Abkhazia and South Ossetia are part of united Georgia”, “should be set aside” for the coming years, since “in the current situation it is impossible to find the right solution to this problem”, and all the efforts should now focus mainly on humanitarian and economic aspects.
He also expressed the idea that the complicated relations between Tbilisi and Moscow are negatively affecting the settlement of the existing conflict.
“My personal opinion and position of our party – though not everyone in Georgia agrees with it – is that the Kremlin actually has no claim to the territorial integrity of Georgia. I often communicate with politicians, diplomats and experts from Russia and I can definitely say that the problem is not in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but in the expansion of NATO to the territory of Georgia, which was supported by Saakashvili. It was a blunder on the part of Saakashvili, which caused the problem with South Ossetia and Abkhazia,” Kakha Kukava said.
“I hope that after the parliamentary elections, when there is a sovereign government that forms a sovereign foreign policy in the country, we will very easily find points of contact with Moscow. I know Russian geopolitics, the history of Russia and Georgia, and therefore I can say with confidence that Russia and Georgia should be allies – this is indicated by the history and geography of our countries. I hope that we will bring this situation to a logical resolution. An increasing part of the Georgian population understands that the foreign policy of the country, which is conventionally called pro-NATO, has no perspective. Georgia should build its new foreign policy on the basis of its own national interests, and not some mythical global or international interests,” the politician concluded.