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RubricheIntervisteThe protracted conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia: interview...

The protracted conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia: interview to Elene Mindiashvili

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As Geopolitica.info, we have met Elene Mindiashvili. She is a young researcher in a Tbilisi-based Research Centre on security and international affairs in Georgia. Her professional focus is directed to the occupied territories of Georgia. She observes political, social, military links and relationships between Abkhazia and Russia as well as the Tskhinvali Region and Russia. We asked her to clarify how is the current situation in these regions, their relations both with Russia and with Georgia, and what impacts the war in Ukraine has on these two so-called frozen conflicts. 

You are one of the main contributors of a project that, using open-source monitoring, collects and disseminates information and analyses on various aspects of the relationship between Abkhazia, the Tskhinvali region, and Russia. It also highlights the chronological sequence of significant events in bilateral relations and the agreements signed between the parties after Russia recognized the independence of Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region. Additionally, it provides details about Russian public officials and agencies responsible for formulating and implementing the Kremlin’s policy towards these regions and includes information about the visits made by high-ranking Russian officials to these regions. Can you elaborate more on the reasons and level of influence that Russia exerts over these two regions?

Occupation of Georgia’s provinces is a part of Russia’s aggressive foreign policy driven by Eurasianist vision. What I mean by this is that Russia’s “near abroad” policy is driven by, I would say, two major fears. First, multiplying democracies in its immediate neighbourhood, since it views democratic ideology as a threat that can penetrate within its borders and end up with upheaval and further undermining the legitimacy of authoritarian regime. Second, multiplying states with strong institutional order, defensive capabilities and economy. Of course, such states are relatively difficult to influence and utilize either satellite and apply the Belarusian model or non-formally keep as a buffer from Western civilization. Their partnership with the EU and NATO is undoubtedly the source of such changes for Russia’s neighboring states such as Georgia or Ukraine. Therefore, for Russia, the direct incentive is to drift those states apart from their Euro-Atlantic integration path as effectively as possible. In the case of Georgia – one of the evident tools utilized by Russia to achieve its objective is occupation. As it is broadly acknowledged and internationally recognized – Georgia’s two provinces – Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali regions are under illegal occupation by Russia and are constantly used as coercion leverage against the state of Georgia.

As regards the level of influence, it is definitely high, especially when it comes to political, economic and security dimensions. In terms of political influence, de facto regimes are usually positioned as disseminators of Kremlin narratives within their communities or used as means of manipulating the central authority of Georgia by Russia. It usually disseminates and propagates distorted information about key events from history, most prominently, information about 1992-92 and the August War of 2008. For instance, the narrative of “Bombing sleeping Tskhinvali by Georgia” circulates every anniversary of the war and even is a part of school curricula. Related to the topic, I encountered very interesting and mal-prepared disinformation several months ago in the Ossetian telegram channel БОНВ[А]РНОН stating “Western experts are increasingly pointing out that Ossetians have every reason not to want to live under the umbrella of the Georgian state, given the tragic events of the past, especially 1920 genocide. Most importantly, not pro-Russia, but pro-Western experts say this and explain how the USA made a mistake in betting on Georgia in 2008”. 

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The statement was accompanied by the fragment of a podcast and of course, I double-checked the relevancy of this, I would say, illogical statement. 

The podcast belongs to the series “Reimagining Soviet Georgia”. In the 16th episode of this series, Professor Gerard Toal talks about the war in Ukraine and the war of 2008 as one of the causal events on a timeline. In the fragment cut out and disseminated in Telegram canal, he really verbalizes cited text, however Ossetian media outlet intentionally cut the introductory part Toal saying that with his words he demonstrates what Russian narrative is and the concluding part, where he assesses this narrative as pure disinformation having no factual base. This is the classic example of how Kremlin-lead disinformation works for contributing to its foreign policy goals. 

As regards to the economic dimension, Russia’s influence is high here as well. Budgets of both regions are assisted financially each year under the “Socio-economic Development Program” framework and direct foreign investments.

7 087 231 Rubles out of 8 781 483 Rubles, that is the total volume of the 2023 budget of the Tskhinvali Region is received from Russia, which is nearly 81 % of the total budget and needless to mention that is a very high rate for the entity claiming self-sufficiency. 

In terms of Abkhazia, its 2023 budget includes 9 billion 600 million Rubles, out of which 3.5 billion (about 37%) is financial aid from Russia

Despite that there is a considerable difference between the mentioned percentages, it does not mean that Abkhazia has a great deal of economic independence from Russia. The case here is that Abkhazia (unlike Tskhinvali Region) has several other sources of income – tourism sector, railway, export of citrus, other fruit, and wine, but the primary source for tourism and chief export destination is still Russia. 

As regards the security sphere, since April 2009, the Border Division of the Federal Security Service of Russia has ensured the protection of the so-called border. 

After presidents of the Russian Federation and the de facto republic of the Tskhinvali region signed an agreement on “Joint Measures for the Protection of the State Border of the Republic of the Tskhinvali Region”, the Division took responsibility to protect the land and maritime “border” of the occupied region and implementation the “borderization” process which means that occupation forces are moving artificially established so-called border further in depth of the territory controlled by Georgian central authorities, create “fear zones” in order to prevent or restrain movement of locals in the vicinity of it and then draw barbed wire. Illegal detentions of citizens is also a common practice for occupation forces. The majority of cases occur near that occupation line while ordinary villagers cultivate lands, collect woods or feed livestock and militaries, having already crossed the occupation line, catch them, took to Tskhinvali prison and accuse them of violating the so-called border under the article of 322 of the criminal code of the Russian Federation. Why the criminal code of the Russian Federation? Because the de facto Republic of South Ossetia simply does not have its own criminal code. 

Apart from that, In Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region, two military bases of Southern Military Districts are located respectively 7th and 4th. Abkhazia owns its “armed forces” whereas that of Tskhinvali Region’s, according to the decree of de facto President, is merged with the Russian division based locally.

What has been the approach of the Georgian government towards Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region? Has it changed over time? 

The approach of the Georgian government toward occupied territories is reflected in the “State Strategy on Occupied Territories: Engagement Through Cooperation” which was established in 2010, under the rule of the United National Movement and updated in 2012, by the Georgian Dream ruling party. Although the Georgian Dream formally criticizes the UNM’s policy on conflict resolution, it follows the UNM’s vision, which is based on the mentioned strategy without any hesitation. There is only one difference – the previous government pursued this policy more assertively, while the Georgian Dream – much more passively and cautiously. The central point of the state strategy is the simultaneous implementation of two policies – de-occupation and reconciliation and confidence-building policies, that are completely viable and counterproductive. However, the problem is that the strategy is superficial and merely formal – in practice, it has been replaced by a policy of non-recognition, successfully pursued by our Western partners, primarily the United States, the European Union, and large regional states. Another problem to consider in this respect is the practical implementation of the strategy: whereas mentioned two processes should support and fulfill each other, in practice, the reconciliation and confidence-building process is dominated by de-occupation, which directs the greatest deal of efforts towards elimination of “Russia’s Factor” from the conflict. From my perspective, orienting solely on Russia’s factor is harmful to the conflict transformation process and makes the strategy less effective. 

Seeking the solution to the alienation problem between Geo-Ossetian and Geo-Abkhazian communities and contributing trust-building as well as P2P approximation is vital. 

The official negotiations over the peace process are the Geneva International Discussions (GID).  Co-chaired by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the European Union (EU), and the United Nations (UN), they bring together the representatives of Georgia, Russia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In 2009, one of the results of the GID was the creation of the Incident Prevention and Response Mechanism (IPRM) with the aim of discussing and elaborating rapid responses on potential risks and concrete and specific incidents. What are the current status and future prospects of the peace negotiations? What accomplishments have been made thus far, and what challenges have arisen?

Among Georgia, Abkhazia, Tskhinvali Region and Russia only a few negotiation platforms exist – as you already mentioned GID & IPRM, and I would add periodic meetings of the Coordination Mechanism seeking to clarify the fate and whereabouts of people missing in relation to the armed conflicts of the 1990s and August 2008 and their aftermath facilitated by the International Committee of Red Cross gathering representatives of Georgia, Abkhazia, Tskhinvali Region and Russia. 

Among them, GID directly orients on the red lines of the states and de facto entities involved in the conflict, more precisely the ceasefire agreement of August 12, 2008, whereas IPRM and Coordination mechanism focus on more humanitarian aspects of the conflict. 

For instance, logistical issues related to the irrigation season, the fate of illegally detained prisoners by the occupation forces, the opening and closure of the checkpoints and every concern related to such topics by each side are voiced and discussed here. 

Under the framework of GID, two locations were detected for IPRM meetings at first – Gali, Abkhazia for discussing matters with the Abkhazian side and Dvani (then Ergneti), Gori Municipality – for the Ossetian side. 

Nowadays only Ergneti meetings are still on the go. However, IPRM platform in Gali was suspended in 2018 after the Russian and Abkhaz participants left the meeting due to a disagreement with the Georgian representatives, who had requested that the case of Giga Otkhozoria, allegedly murdered by Abkhaz officer Rashid Kanji-Ogli, be included on the agenda. As regards the Ergneti, the dynamics of the meetings is mostly static. While some issues are easily negotiable – for instance, technical preparation for irrigation season, some issues are still unresolved and being circulated over and over again – for example the request by the Ossetian side to get block-post demolished from the territory of Chorchana-Tsnelisi forest. 

The major and principal challenge in the case of negotiations and the general peace process is of course the general opposing position of parties. The existing situation is far from either transformation or even more – resolution. 

What is the current situation for those residing in Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali Region, and what are the challenges faced by people in these regions?

In a general sense, the most alarming challenge Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali Region faces is what it is called depopulation. 2023 is already the third year in a swathe, mortality rate exceeds the birth rate. Apart from this, the situation gets more severe due to participation in the Russo-Ukrainian war. On the other hand, we witness a serious energy crisis in Abkhazia mainly caused by excessive usage of electricity; serious problems with gas, internet, medical and public transport infrastructure.

As regards the current situation for those who keep connection with the territory controlled by central authorities of Georgia, mainly residents of Gali District from Abkhazia and Akhalgori and Java Districts of the Tskhinvali region face many other challenges as well regarding property ownership, security and relations with Law Enforcement, right to education, access to services and state programs in territory controlled by central authorities of Georgia and relations with central government and many more. The only improvement in this respect is the practice of periodically opening the Odzisi-Mosabruni and Kardzmani-Perevi checkpoints established in July last year. According to this practice, both checkpoints start functioning from the 20th till the 30th of every month.

How has the war in Ukraine affected the security and geopolitical dynamics in Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali Region?

Russia’s war in Ukraine mostly affected the occupied territories of Georgia economically due to the wide range of sanction packages imposed on Russia by the West, but besides the economic harm, sanctions will remain regions totally isolated from the civilized world. Russia’s unsuccessful military performance undermined its own image as a guarantor of security and sovereignty before the eyes of mentioned regions. Preparatory part of the war in Ukraine – recognition of Donetsk and Luhansk regions assured the West that in Georgia’s case back in 2008, recognition of the sovereignty of Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali Region has nothing in common with the real support of the right of self-determination of a state by Russian Federation but was merely a part of its aggressive foreign policy.

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