Whilst the ineffectiveness of the CIS-imposed sanctions in achieving their goals is indisputable, Abkhazia's development remains constrained by its isolation. Notwithstanding the increasing number of seasonal tourists from Russia and the revitalisation of certain economic sectors, Abkhazia remains largely underdeveloped. De facto 'independence' does not provide a basis for the real economic growth or cultural development that, among other things, would ensure long-term demographic security. Abkhazia remains ineligible for appropriate investment or institutional capacity building assistance. Georgian-sanctioned de-isolation is a must, which gives Tbilisi leverage at the bargaining table.
Although it is unanimously acknowledged that sooner or later the policies of isolation will have to be changed, no one in Georgia holds that this change should be instant and unconditional. Moreover, it is argued that current trends in Russia's policy – as well as the obedience the Abkhaz de facto leadership shows to Russia – suggest that de-isolation would draw Russia and Abkhazia closer together, rather than motivate the Abkhaz side to reconcile with Tbilisi. Only gradual and conditional lifting of sanctions, therefore, could avoid damage to Georgia's national interests. In the absence of a clear grand strategy, however, no specific plans for lifting the sanctions have hitherto been discussed in the Georgian policy community. Georgia's planned withdrawal from the CIS, the necessity of renewed dialogue with the Abkhaz side, and the possible implications of the 2014 Winter Olympics in the Russian city Sochi, less than 50 km from the conflict zone, each establish contexts in which different strategies for lifting sanctions ought to be applied. While the costs and benefits of each policy alternative remain unexplored, this general school of thought is now widespread in Georgia's decision-making elite.
The best way out of the current limbo would be direct and constructive dialogue in relation to the gradual elimination of the elements of Abkhazia's isolation combined with counter-proposals of equal weight. These proposals could range from the return of IDPs, to IDP property rights, to changing existing peacekeeping arrangements. Potentially, agreement upon issues of such magnitude could encourage the conflicting sides to truly engage in peaceful dialogue, thereby broadening prospects for a compromise solution.
However, given existing levels of mutual mistrust and resentment, additional reciprocal incentives might be needed in order to promote and sustain the mentioned dialogue. In this respect, the Government of Georgia, on its part, should first of all abandon the zero-sum approach to the conflict resolution process which implies as an ultimate goal the restoration of the country's territorial integrity by any means. Whilst this approach is seen as legitimate by its advocates, it contributes little to the dialogue between the sides and/or the overall efficiency of the mediating efforts of third parties. Also, the policies of coercion must give way to policies of attraction through Georgia becoming a truly democratic country with sustained economic growth and a good record of protecting basic human rights. Within this new paradigm, guarantees around the non-resumption of hostilities should also be discussed.
In the meantime, third-party facilitation must also change. European institutions, whose credibility and resources have not been fully exploited so far, must become more actively engaged. As a benchmark of this engagement, Abkhazia should be offered an alternative vision for development, establishing European political, legal and administrative institutions. This could provide a basis for convergence of the development agendas of Tbilisi and Sukhumi, thus contributing to building much needed trust and confidence.