Whatever the strengths and weaknesses of the official Georgian position, it is often asked how strong Georgia’s commitment is to Abkhazia. With the war lost and the chances of regaining the territory by political or military means at best uncertain, why does Georgia not simply accept secession or a face-saving deal providing for a legal fiction of a ‘common state’ without any effective Georgian sovereignty? There are several reasons for Georgian persistence.
Probably the most basic reason for Georgian persistence is the way Georgians imagine themselves as a nation. A nation defines itself, against a backdrop of historical experiences and political opportunities, by the idea of ‘country’ which individuals collectively hold and by the kind of recognition they expect from the ‘world’.
Once constructed and translated into political action, such ‘national projects’ display amazing persistence: they may be negotiated on the margins, but rarely changed in essence. The way Georgians and Abkhaz constructed their national projects in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries clashed. On the demise of the Soviet Union this made conflict, though not necessarily bloodshed, inevitable. Georgians overwhelmingly consider Abkhazia to be a legitimate part of their country and attempts to cut it off are linked to a (neo-) imperial Russian conspiracy, just as Abkhaz consider this Georgian position an expression of ‘Georgian imperialism’.
The Abkhaz are not the only, or even the largest, ethnic minority in Georgia. At the fall of the Soviet Union there were more Armenians, Azeris, Russians and Ossetians in Georgia than Abkhaz. Compact pockets of mainly Armenians and Azeris live on the borders with Armenia and Azerbaijan respectively, while in Adjaria the majority of the population is ethnic Georgian of Muslim background. If the Georgian state were to accept the legitimacy of Abkhazia’s secession on ethnic grounds the precedent might lead to further disintegration, jeopardising the viability of the Georgian state, which has already proved weak and vulnerable in its first years of independence.
Many Georgians consider the launching of the war in Abkhazia in 1992 to have been a mistake, and some of them are ashamed of the way Georgian troops (or the unruly militias which fought in the name of the Georgian state) behaved there. But few Georgians, however liberal minded, believe that the Abkhaz cause per se is more just; that the Abkhaz strategy of changing the ethnic demography of Abkhazia by purging Georgians is acceptable; or that Georgians do not have the right to defend what they believe to be their territory. Even those prepared to accept the secession of Abkhazia would do so on pragmatic grounds (‘we have lost the war and should accept the consequences’) rather than on moral grounds (‘the Abkhaz are right and we have to accept this’).
There are strong pragmatic reasons for continuing the status quo. Far-reaching and humiliating concessions to the Abkhaz would be extremely unpopular and endanger political stability in Georgia. Opinion polls show that although giving up Abkhazia would be unpopular, and the vast majority of refugees insist on returning, most people consider the economy to be the most urgent issue. This may suggest that the commitment to Abkhazia is not strong, but also that it is possible to live without a final settlement of the Abkhaz issue.
Georgians will only accept fundamental concessions if the alternative is demonstrably disastrous. But it is not absolutely clear in whose favour time is working. On the one hand, the longer Abkhazia stays effectively independent, the more the current status quo will become entrenched and the more Georgian refugees will die, settle elsewhere in Georgia, or give up hope of return. On the other hand, the government can argue that its ‘no peace, no war’ strategy is working. Owing to international isolation and uncertain prospects for the future, the situation in Abkhazia is steadily deteriorating, and will continue to do so, while Georgia recovers and continues to develop, as political stabilisation and economic growth rates appear to confirm. Western influence is growing in the region at the expense of Russian domination. This suggests that the balance of forces will change in Georgia’s favour. If this trend is realised the trauma of the war could lose its psychological power, and being part of Georgia again instead of an isolated territory with no prospects could be increasingly attractive to the Abkhaz public. At some point, according to this reasoning, the Abkhaz leadership will have to accept a compromise.
International experience confirms both parties in their current tactics. The lesson of Yugoslavia is that nothing happens until the USA becomes involved. At this point the leaders on both sides will realise that the political costs of failure to reach a settlement are greater than those of making unpopular concessions. Until then, it pays to persist with current policy, not to take premature steps towards the other party, to improve your negotiating position (also by military means if it is opportune), to look for more allies and to promote your cause in the West. The final settlement will depend less on ideas of fairness or on international law than on the durability of the ceasefire line and the midway-point between the demands of the parties.