Despite senior-level negotiations and civil society engagement in initiatives that have promoted frank and at times creative dialogue for more than a decade, there has been little constructive debate about the deleterious impact of sanctions on the preparedness of the parties to engage with one another. In 2005 the parties commenced negotiations about opening the railway through Abkhazia. Yet neither this measure nor the occasional references to opening sea traffic or promoting trade have progressed.
In many ways the existence of the regime of restrictions has become a comfortable excuse for the parties not to engage. The Abkhaz view it as a means to sustain alienation from Georgia and thereby bolster their aspiration of separateness. The Georgians see the failure of sanctions as exemplifying Russian perfidy and Abkhaz intransigence. Georgia has veered between exerting pressure and making attempts to convince the Abkhaz that Georgia could be an attractive and secure option for them. Sanctions continue to serve as a mirage of applying pressure for change. The Abkhaz doubt that they can achieve their goals in a negotiations process that they see as operating along a Georgian agenda. Neither party has offered or identified meaningful incentives to recalibrate strategies and positions and address deeper interests. International actors have provided modest support for initiatives designed to overcome isolation, build confidence or promote development without adequately addressing underlining concerns regarding identity and security. Indeed far more significant support has gone into the state-building projects of the respective parties – openly on the part of the US and EU in regard to Georgia and covertly on the part of Russia in regard to Abkhazia.
As a result, the conflict is often seen as 'frozen'. The people most affected – the inhabitants of Abkhazia and those displaced from there by war – are left in limbo. It is the peace process rather than the conflict itself that is frozen. Isolation has enabled the Abkhaz to consolidate their political identity and the sanctions have perversely provided a security blanket against Georgian influence. In 2006-07 Georgian frustrations with the process and concerns about external engagement in Abkhazia reduced the space for international development and civil society initiatives. A February 2008 interview by the newly appointed Georgian Minister for Reintegration for the first time articulated a view that there should be no "taboo issues" on the negotiating table and a "full or partial" lifting of the economic embargo could become part of negotiations. It remains to be seen if this soft rhetoric can herald a substantive change.
Despite many technical complexities, addressing the embargo could open new avenues. Yet the decade-long existence of sanctions has left a psychological legacy of Abkhaz alienation and self-reliance that few in Georgia understand. Policy changes in the restrictions regime are unlikely on their own to win confidence. When Georgian-Russian relations plummeted to new depths in 2006 and a severe embargo was imposed on staple Georgian products, there was little recognition in Georgia of parallels with the Abkhaz experience of sanctions – or of the ways in which embargos have not just an economic but a psychological and symbolic impact.
In the face of much evidence that sanctions have hemmed the parties into a mutually destructive relationship, neither they nor the international players have been able to shift the debate. Incentives that do exist either focus on potential futures ('Europeanisation') or compromises that could put at risk security and identity and hence appear far from attractive. The most damaging legacy of sanctions is thus a mentality that undermines respect and patience, seeks to impose solutions and entrenches the separation of communities.