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Georgia: A Place of Ethnic Unrest and Civil Strife

The Caucasus region of the former Soviet Union has experienced several conflicts that have been provoked by ethnic hatred and land disputes. One country, Georgia, finds itself in two different conflicts:  one with Abkhazia, the other with South Ossetia.  The Georgia-Abkhazia conflict stems from ethnic hatred:  in a twist from what often happens in such situations, the minority, with the help of the Russians, brutally ethnically cleansed the Georgian majority.

The Georgia-South Ossetia conflict has been far less extreme, but still has been a source of tension with Russia, which has supported the South Ossetians. South Ossetia flared up again in August 2008, when Georgia launched a large-scale military offensive against South Ossetia, in an attempt to reclaim the territory. Georgia claimed it was responding to attacks on its peacekeepers and villages in South Ossetia. Despite years of negotiations, both conflicts remain unresolved. 

Ambassador Rudolph Perina served as the Special Negotiator for Eurasian Conflicts from 2001 to 2004 and worked to keep the peace and find a lasting peaceful resolution.

Read his background on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Go here to read about Georgia’s 2003 Rose Revolution.


Abkhazia — A Long History of Ethnic Hatred

PERINA:  Abkhazia [is] a region on the Black Sea within Georgia that seceded from Georgia when the Soviet Union came apart. The reasons also stemmed from ethnic hatred with a very long history. There was a war between Georgians and Abkhaz in 1992, and it was a very cruel and bloody war. Probably twenty to thirty thousand people were killed, with atrocities committed on both sides.

I recognized the minute I started working on this that it would be the most difficult of the four conflicts in my portfolio to resolve. The hatred between Abkhaz and Georgians was the worst I had ever seen in either the Balkans or the Caucasus. It was even greater than that between Serbs and Albanians. This was for historic reasons but also because of the cruelty and nature of the war.

It was an unusual war. In most ethnic conflicts of this sort a majority ethnically cleanses a minority. In Abkhazia, however, the reverse was true. The Abkhaz had been an ethnic minority of about 100,000 people out of half a million but with Russian and Chechen help they ethnically cleansed several hundred thousand Georgians. The entire region after the war had a population of about 175,000, which is fewer than the number of displaced Georgians. This meant that the Abkhaz were dead set against any settlement that would allow even a portion of the Georgians to return, which was the prime demand of the Georgians. So there was very little common ground to work with for a settlement.

I always believed that another reason for the difficulty of resolving this conflict was that Abkhazia was really worth fighting over. It is gorgeous, with mountains coming right down to the Black Sea. Since I was the negotiator, I had opportunity to visit all of these secessionist regions, even though American diplomats were normally restricted from travel there because we did not recognize the regimes. I never found Transnistria or Nagorno-Karabakh or for that matter Kosovo particularly attractive, and South Ossetia least of all.

But Abkhazia is prime real estate, potentially a big Club Med. I visited during tangerine season, and there were these orchards of tangerine trees right by the seacoast with a Mediterranean climate and beautiful scenery. It was also fascinating because driving from Georgia proper to Sukhumi, the capital of Abkhazia, there were all these abandoned houses and villas along the road. This was because after 200,000 Georgians were expelled, the Abkhaz could not fully populate the area. There were some groups that started coming, particularly Russians and Armenians, but it was not enough to repopulate the region and fill all those abandoned homes.

There were a growing number of Russian tourists and also Russian investors and businessmen who saw the potential of the area. There were several Russian bases in Georgia, including in Abkhazia, that were a holdover from Soviet days but still held by the Russians. But most importantly, there was a peacekeeping force in Abkhazia of several thousand Russian troops.

This had been part of the ceasefire arrangements in 1994. The peacekeeping force was supposed to be a CIS [Confederation of Independent States] force but in practice it was all Russian, and it was one of the big political problems. The Georgians agreed to the force in 1994 but thereafter recognized that it was really functioning as a protective force for Abkhazia. In my time, the Georgians were always demanding that the Russians pull out but then backed away after the Abkhaz said this would lead to a renewed war. This was a lot of discussion of finding a substitute force from other countries but no agreement was ever reached on one, and not many countries volunteered to be peacekeepers. So there was always a crisis when the time came for the annual renewal of the CIS peacekeeping mandate but in fact it was always renewed.

Q: So how did the negotiations work? 

The negotiating structure was totally different from the one in Nagorno- Karabakh. The United Nations was in charge of this conflict and not the OSCE. There was in fact a United Nations Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG) that was responsible for overseeing the ceasefire and the work of the peacekeepers. This did not work very well because the Russian general in charge of the peacekeepers did not feel at all responsible to a civilian UN diplomat who was in charge of the Mission. UNOMIG had a presence of several hundred people in Sukhumi but this was no match to several thousand Russian troops.

The UN role did determine that the political negotiations regarding Abkhazia took place in UN contexts, on many different levels. There was a formal negotiating process of which we were not members and that involved the United Nations, Russia, the Georgians and the Abkhaz.

This very soon got bogged down and was not going anywhere. Then there were negotiations in New York, in the Security Council, within a group called the Friends of the Secretary General on Georgia. This Friends Group was basically a number of countries that had expressed interest in this conflict and met periodically to discuss it and give recommendations to the [UN] Secretary General. The Friends Group included the United States, Russia, France, the UK and Germany, among a few others. So a lot of negotiating was done in this context.

But then in addition, a Special Mechanism was set up in my time to try to activate discussions between the Georgians and the Abkhaz. This effort was undertaken by the UN Undersecretary for Peacekeeping, a Frenchman named Jean Marie Guéhenno. He organized a series of meetings at UN headquarters in Geneva to discuss the Abkhaz issue among the key members of the Friends Group and with the Georgians and Abkhaz. I was the U.S. representative to these meetings, and the first three were held in my time — in February and July of 2003 and then in February of 2004. The first one involved just the UN, U.S., UK, Russia, France and Germany, and the following two included the Georgians and the Abkhaz.

Q: Anything come of these? 

Unfortunately, I can’t say it did. Within the Friends Group, the Russians were clearly protective of the Abkhaz, and when we did get an Abkhaz representative to Geneva, he was absolutely unrelenting in refusal to engage in any discussion that would imply the slightest Georgian sovereignty over Abkhazia. And this was supposedly one of the more moderate Abkhaz leaders, their so-called Foreign Minister Sergey Shamba.

So the effort was made and a lot of opportunity for talks existed but the process never took off. I think perhaps the only function of it — and this is something of value — was again that the existence of the process reduced the pressure on the Georgian side for military action against Abkhazia. The Georgian government was under a lot of pressure from the 200,000 refugees to do something about Abkhazia. If a negotiating process had not existed, the calls for war would have been even greater.

As I was leaving the Special Negotiator job, I felt that this was the most dangerous of the conflicts I had worked on, and that a definite danger existed that it could erupt into a hot war. It became even more dangerous and unstable after Saakashvili became President of Georgia. During my tenure, the President was still Shevardnadze….

“The Russians could have helped force a settlement if they wanted to”

Q: What was Shevardnadze’s attitude? 

I met with him a couple of times during my visits to Tbilisi. Frankly, he was a bit past his prime. There was a lot of unhappiness with him among Georgians, and his popularity ratings had fallen to single digits in some polls. He said all the right things about resolving the Abkhaz conflict but there wasn’t much energy behind the words. He was confused on how to go forward and seemed just to be coasting in his presidency. Our meetings were pleasant but never very productive….

He was critical of the Russians, though certainly not as much as his successor Saakashvili. The Russians were playing a dirty game in Abkhazia. Formally they said they were against secession but in practice they did everything to help Abkhazia stay independent of Georgia. This was similar to what they were doing in Transnistria and South Ossetia. The Russians could have helped force a settlement if they wanted to.

Abkhazia is not really viable as an independent state. It has less than 200,000 people since the end of the fighting. It would have a very difficult time remaining independent. Probably, it would sooner or later join Russia, and that may be exactly what the Russians are hoping. During my time, I had the suspicion that the Russians and Abkhaz were working toward an eventual partition of the region in which a strip in the south would go to Georgia and the rest join Russia. There is a region in the south of Abkhazia called Gali where in fact the Abkhaz had a very different policy than in the rest of Abkhazia. They were allowing Georgian refugees to return and so on. They may have been working toward an eventual partition as a compromise with Georgia to end the conflict. But this is just a suspicion based on what was happening in Gali. I have no real evidence for it.

I visited Moscow frequently during this time and worked closely with our Embassy. But it was equally difficult for them to analyze Russian intentions. I also think that perhaps Russian policy was not always consistent or coordinated. It may have been much more haphazard and based on conflicting interests than we assume. The Foreign Ministry in Moscow was not a particularly strong institution at this time and probably not in a position to call all the shorts. There were business interests, political considerations, pressures from Russian nationalists in the Duma and so on that may have influenced aspects of Russian policy. I think we sometimes give them too much credit in assuming their policy is a coherent whole….

South Ossetia — A Different Dynamic

South Ossetia [is] a small region in the north of Georgia on the Russian border. It is only about two and a half hours by car from Tbilisi. It is called South Ossetia because there is a North Ossetia within Russia proper, right across the border. This is another case of secession by an ethnic group that did not want to be part of an independent Georgia.

The story is similar to that of Abkhazia but on a smaller and far more muted scale. There was also a hot war between South Ossetians and Georgians in 1991 and a ceasefire imposed on Georgia by Russia in 1992. Probably about a thousand people died in the fighting, and tens of thousands of Ossetians fled to the north, into Russia. South Ossetia had a population of about 100,000 before the war, divided roughly into two-thirds Ossetians and one-third Georgians. The population now is probably not more than 70,000, in roughly the same proportion. You can see that this was a smaller war, and the stakes are smaller than in Abkhazia. It also was not as brutal. But still it remains an unresolved conflict because the region does not accept Georgian sovereignty and is protected in this by Russia.

This is what many people believed, and I believed as well. There was a different dynamic to this conflict. The hatreds were not as deep as in Abkhazia or Nagorno-Karabakh. In fact, most of the history of the region had been peaceful. Intermarriages between Georgians and Ossetians were not unusual. The outburst of Georgian nationalism after independence had sparked the conflict but there seemed to be hope of bringing the ethnic groups together again. There was no more violence underway by the time I got involved, and a peacekeeping force of Russian, Georgian and Ossetian forces, plus an OSCE monitoring mission, were keeping things fairly quiet.

The conventional wisdom about South Ossetia was that it was not a dangerous conflict and that the Ossetians were waiting to see how the Abkhaz conflict would be resolved and then try to piggy-back on it in cutting a deal with the Georgians….

At one point I had the notion that perhaps we should try reversing this — rather than waiting for South Ossetia to copy Abkhazia, we should start by resolving South Ossetia and seeing if that might help promote an Abkhazia settlement. So I made a trip by car to the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali to meet with the leadership. Unfortunately, however, there was a power struggle underway within this leadership. A rather moderate President, or so-called President, who many thought would be willing to find a resolution of the conflict had just been replaced with strong Russian backing by a hardliner named Eduard Kokoity.

Kokoity was in Moscow when I visited and so I was told I could only meet with one of his deputies, a person so unremarkable that I honestly do not remember his name, though it will be in the reporting cable. He was also pretty hard-line in not willing to even discuss any compromise to South Ossetia’s so-called independence. The one thing he did want to discuss was any possibility of American economic assistance to the region. This was not surprising given the incredible poverty of the region, which was the most salient thing that I remember about it.

Tskhinvali was this dusty little town with empty streets and hardly any people that I could see. It was a very depressing place. There was more life to be seen on the road to and from Tbilisi but it consisted largely of open air markets where things like old automobiles and machinery appeared to be on sale. I was later told that this was indeed part of the basically black-market economy of South Ossetia, where stolen and custom-free goods were sold and smuggled into Georgia proper. Like Transnistria except on a smaller and poorer scale, South Ossetia basically found a niche in black-market dealings. One person facetiously called it a big parking lot for stolen cars.

Q: So the black market kept it going? 

I think it was a big part of the reason. I would say two things kept it going:  the economic interests that stemmed from the black market and then Russia. There was probably a lot of overlap between these two. The Russians had both economic and political interests to keep it going.

My impression, and everything I heard from other observers, was that most of the population would have been ready for a settlement. There was in particular a real desire for Western economic assistance. The region was terribly poor. One Westerner in Georgia who had been watching the situation for a long time told me that basically South Ossetia could be bought for $100 million. Not literally bought, of course. He meant that an offer of such an assistance program would convince most South Ossetians to re-join Georgia.

I think that the European Union tried the approach of offering a large amount of assistance. The European Union in fact took a special interest in this conflict, perhaps also thinking that it was the one most likely to be solved. The EU was looking for projects to enhance its international profile and would very much have wanted itself to be seen as the main force in resolving one of the frozen conflicts in the Caucasus.

The EU did a lot in South Ossetia but the main reason it all failed was, in my view, Russian resistance. Moscow was just not ready to give up the region, particularly after Saakashvili came to office and Russian–Georgian relations plummeted. The Russians wanted to hold South Ossetia, if only as additional leverage against Georgia.