For over half a century, the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict has persisted. War in the early 1990s left in its wake trauma, insecurity, displacement and obstacles to development. A peace process, initially mediated by the UN, and since 2008 co-mediated by the EU, UN and OSCE, has not resulted in any serious progress towards a negotiated peace.
Tensions between different ethnic groups living in Abkhazia, on the Black Sea coast, erupted in violent conflict in 1992-93. These tensions centred around competing historical claims by Georgians and Abkhaz on the territory of Abkhazia, fuelled in part by different interpretations of the Soviet past.
When Georgia declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 it saw Abkhazia as an inextricable part of its territory. The Abkhaz held deep-rooted fears that their language, culture and national identity were under threat. Their demands for greater political power and autonomy increased as the Soviet Union unravelled. Nationalism was rife, tensions flared, and a 13-month war broke out in 1992.
By the time a ceasefire was signed, at least 12,000 people had been killed, nearly a quarter of a million ethnic Georgians were forced to leave their homes and Abkhazia had broken away from Georgian control. It declared its independence in 1999, though it remained unrecognised. Georgia claimed that its territorial integrity had been violated and that Abkhazia, though de facto independent, was an integral part of the Georgian state. There was very limited exchange across the conflict divide, and low-level violence was concentrated along the dividing line.
War in 2008
In 2008, war broke out involving Georgian and Russian forces in South Ossetia, which had also experienced armed conflict in the early 1990s. The legacy of this short war has had a profound impact. The Russian Federation, along with a handful of other states, has officially recognised the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and stationed military bases there. For many in Georgia, the conflicts have been viewed since 2008 through the prism of Russian military occupation. The Abkhaz and South Ossetians contest this, viewing increased military, economic and infrastructural support from Russia as a guarantee of their security.
Ties between Russia and Abkhazia have been strengthening, culminating in the signing in November 2014 of a treaty on ‘alliance and strategic partnership’, which foresees closer coordination in the areas of defence, foreign policy, customs and border control, law enforcement, education and social welfare. Many in Georgia have interpreted the signing of the treaty as proof of Russia’s expansionist policy in the former Soviet space. Heated debate, and changes made to initial drafts of the treaty are evidence of differing views within Abkhazia regarding the degree and nature of partnership there should be with Russia, but Russian security guarantees are seen as essential.
Deadlock in the negotiations
The Geneva International Discussions co-chaired by EU/UN/OSCE, to which Georgian, Abkhaz, South Ossetian, Russian and US representatives are invited on a quarterly basis, are the only official platform to discuss the conflicts. Thus far, progress towards concrete results has been very slow, and ordinary people continue to suffer the consequences of unresolved conflict.