In Georgia, the appointment of new President, Salomé Zourabichvili, in December 2018 is unlikely to bring any substantial changes to the unresolved conflicts in the two breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. This is despite her personal diplomatic experience and the foreign policy competences vested in the Georgian president (primarily, commander-in-chief of the armed forces and a power of representation on the international stage). Georgia has very limited leverage over the separatist territories, where Russia’s stranglehold has only been increasing over time.
Since the early 1990s, Georgia has lost control over the two territories, whose independence was recognised by Russia in the wake of the 2008 Russian-Georgian conflict. Over the past decade, Moscow has substantially tightened its grip over the two Georgian breakaway regions by increasing its military and economic presence there. Since 2008, Russia has constructed a new naval base in Abkhazia and a military base in South Ossetia; it has deployed some 7,000 troops in the two regions, as well as command and control systems, tanks and rocket-propelled artillery1, and S-300 anti-aircraft systems enabling her to control the eastern Black Sea from Abkhazia. Despite attempts by the Abkhazian elite to resist it, Russia’s economic domination over the two secessionist entities is massive. Moscow funds infrastructure developments and covers up to two-thirds of the Abkhazian government budget. It is important to note that Russia has also sought to integratethe two breakaway regions with its own military and economic arrangements. The treaties of Alliance and Strategic Partnership, and Alliance and Integration (signed in late 2014 and early 2015 with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, respectively), provide for a “coordinated foreign policy” and a “single space of defence and security” with Russia. In the economic area, they also envisage an alignment of the secessionist territories with the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union through the creation of a common social and economic space with Russia. In particular, Abkhazia is due to adapt its customs regulatory framework to that of the Eurasian Union within three years from the entry into force of the treaty signed with Russia. In the security realm, Russia has incorporated law enforcement agencies of both regions, as well as the South Ossetian armed formations in the structures of the Russian army. In addition, the process of “borderisation” around South Ossetia (the construction of barbed wire fences moving into the Tbilisi-controlled territory) has developed as a new pressure point for the Georgian authorities. Given these factors, the strong and multifaceted links which have developed between Russia and the two entities since 2008 have only contributed to alienating them further from Tbilisi. Crucially, Russia’s stranglehold over the breakaway region is not only a violation of Georgia’s territorial integrity, but also a major security threat for the country.
Existing negotiation formats (primarily the Geneva International Discussions) have done little to foster the return of refugees and prevent the use of force in the breakaway regions, let alone their growing integration with Russia, and isolation from Georgia. This is despite the fact that some progress has been achieved to prevent incidents and further conflict escalation along the administrative border lines, by setting up a dedicated hotline as well as other methods. Georgia’s Western partners have only limited influence on the unresolved conflicts; for instance, the observers deployed by the European Union as part of the EU Monitoring Mission (EUMM) cannot access the territory of the breakaway entities. However, the new Georgian President has made it clear that she would seek to engage the country’s European partners as well as the US in efforts for conflict resolution.
In fact, Georgia’s direct contacts with Russia have yielded limited results when it comes to the two secessionist entities. Since gaining power in 2013, the Georgian Dream coalition (a six-party coalition created by the businessman Bidzina Ivanishvili, that successfully challenged the ruling United National Movement in the 2012 parliamentary election) has attempted to normalise relations with Russia by restoring economic, cultural and humanitarian ties. As a result, trade and investment flows, as well as people-to-people contacts between Georgia and Russia have substantially grown over the past five years. Importantly, in 2017-18 Georgia and Russia moved forward regarding the creation of trade corridors between the two countries through the breakaway region of South Ossetia. Yet Russia’s policy in these regions is still a major impediment between the two countries’ relations. Recently, the Georgian authorities have also tried to reach out directly to the secessionist entities. In 2018, they offered a new peace initiative aimed at engaging with the breakaway regions through trade and education. Among other measures, the “Step towards a Better Future” initiative allows products originating in the two territories to access the Georgian market and tap some of the benefits introduced by the deep and comprehensive free-trade agreement signed between Georgia and the EU in 2014. It also enables citizens from the separatist regions to create their own businesses in Georgia through the use of status-neutral identification numbers. In the education area, it offers easier access to the Georgian system, while also ensuring education in the native language. However, the initiative was rejected by the de facto authorities of both Abkhazia and South Ossetia, who regarded the plan as yet another example of Tbilisi’s pressure over their “sovereignty”.
Ten years after the war between Georgia and Russia, prospects for conflict resolution in the breakaway regions remain extremely limited. As was illustrated in recent years, developments in and around Georgia (for instance the 2013 shift of power in Tbilisi and closer integration between with the EU since 2014) have had little influence (if any) on the separatist entities. It is Russia that holds the key to any substantial progress towards resolving this conflict.