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Abkhazia and South Ossetia, a year on, by George Hewitt

Abkhazia and South Ossetia, a year on, by George Hewitt

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Published by circassianworld
Abkhazia and South Ossetia, a year on

by George Hewitt, OpenDemocracy
11 August 2009
Abkhazia and South Ossetia, a year on

by George Hewitt, OpenDemocracy
11 August 2009

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Published by: circassianworld on Sep 05, 2009
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Abkhazia and South Ossetia, a year on
by George Hewitt, OpenDemocracy
11 August 2009The Georgia-Russia war of August 2008 has altered calculations about the future of the two territoriesthat were central to the conflict. The scholar of Abkhazian linguistics and history, George Hewitt, offersan assessment from Sukhum.A little over a year, on the morning of 8 August 2008, those of us in Abkhazia who had not stayed up towatch the late-night news awoke to reports of the Georgian militaryassaulton the centre and theenvirons of Tskhinval (Tskhinvali), the capital of South Osssetia. It was not entirely unexpected: therehad been reports of Georgian plans to attack Abkhazia itself in spring 2009, and overall tensions hadbeen high. But it was still a shock, and we speculated on the consequences for Abkhazia and theregion if Russia did not swiftly move to repel the Georgian advance across the demilitarised zonearound South Ossetia.The sense of Abkhazia's potential vulnerability was increased by awareness that the Georgianpresident, Mikheil Saakashvili, had in 2006 broken the terms of the Moscow accords of 1994, whichformalised the ceasefire in Abkhazia after the brutal war of 1992-93 that had ended in a shatteredAbkhazia securing its freedom from Georgian rule. Saakashvili had done this by introducing acontingent of military personnel into the one part of Abkhazia (the upper Kodor [Kodori]valley) that hadremained under Georgian control after the war. This illegal act - which Georgia's western partners alltoo typically chose to ignore - was accompanied and followed by frequent boasts that Tbilisi wouldsoon "recover" South Ossetia and Abkhazia.The outcome, in what turned out to be five days of intense combat on 8-12 August 2008, was verydifferent. The Russian military responded to the Georgians' initial assault with overwhelming force of its own, including the destruction of Saakashvili's arsenal stored at the military base in Gori (thusensuring no further Georgian military advances in that area for the foreseeable future).InAbkhaziaitself, the authorities both forestalled any possible action from Georgia and tookadvantage of the situation by launching anoperationin the Kodor valley; this was retaken over twodays, with no loss of life on the Georgian side or amongst the localSvanpopulation. The Georgiantroops stationed there duly fled without offering any resistance, abandoning their equipment in theprocess. Indeed, a staggering amount of weaponry and munitions were uncovered in the aftermath;Mikheil Saakashvili's hubris was reflected in the presence in the Kodor of a "NATO InformationCentre". The operation extended to military stores in Senaki and the port of Poti (both inneighbouring Mingrelia), thus protecting Abkhazia from future land-incursion or seaborne-assault.
The cost of misreading
 The decision byMikheil Saakasvhilito activate his battle-plans against South Ossetia on the night of 7-8 August 2008 was extraordinarily stupid - so much so, that it is hardly surprising if many in the westinstantly embraced Tbilisi's charge that Russia must have made the firstmove. This rush to judgment
 
regrettably skewed reporting of the entire war by many western news-media outlets, including the BBC(thus continuing a long record of journalistic failure in the region).This is far more than a jibe, for the misreading of events in and around Abkhazia and South Ossetia -by western media, but more widely by the west's diplomats and politicians - has played and continuesto play a role in clouding the actual circumstances of the region. The implication is that to understandthe conflicts surrounding these territories (in theearly 1990s, as well as 2008) and to draw relevantlessons involves also criticising how these conflicts have been misconstrued at the highest policylevels.After all, the outcome of the west's policy choices over these years has been to produce the directoppositeof what its consistent support for Georgia has been meant to achieve: namely, the ever-closer ties of Abkhazia and South Ossetia with Russia. This process culminated in Moscow'srecognitionof them as independent states on 26 August 2008, and all that will flow from thesubsequent agreements being signed with Russia in terms of security, transport, trade and investment.
The realistic option
 The most important conclusion of the August 2008 war, now shared even by hawkish commentators inthe United States who have been vocal advocates for a hardline Georgian stance, is that both SouthOssetia and Abkhazia are permanently lost to Georgia (see "Abkhazia and South Ossetia: heart of conflict, key to solution", 18 August 2008). This conclusion seemed obvious to informed observers atthe end of their wars (in, respectively, June 1992 and September 1993); but the cataclysmic events of August 2008 seems at last to have convinced many who had been in denial.But even many of those who have come round to this view resist its self-evident consequence:namely, that the two republics should be promptly and universally recognised
de jure
as well as
defacto
. If this policy was followed, it would have at least three positive consequences.First, it would be good for Georgia. The country would be faced with a realistic if doubtless difficultoption: to discard any remaining fantasy of Tbilisi's re-establishing its control, and to focus on buildingnormal, good-neighbourly relations with these political entities.Second, it would be good for the republics. They would be opened to all the regular advantagesenjoyed by fully recognised states; among them unrestricted and universal travel-rights for theicitizens, inward investment, and the free flow of ideas that accompanies contacts between nations. Allof these would balance the dominant influence of Russia, which otherwise - under conditions of continuing western boycotts - can only strengthen. At the same time, it is unrealistic to expect Russiato withdraw altogether, for two reasons: Russia has legitimate interests of her own in the region, andthe Abkhazians (in view of the west's longstanding support for Georgia) would not wish this tohappen.Third, it would be good for the inhabitants of the region, on all sides. The guarantee of the security of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and the improving economy and infrastructure that would follow, wouldhave beneficial knock-on effects. The eastern part of Abkhazia around Ochamchira is an example:here, the war damage from 1992-93 is still everywhere visible, with residents left to survive as bestthey can amid the ruined houses (only in 2007 was theHalo Trustable to finishclearing the regionof 
 
thousands of mines that had rendered whole tracts of fertile land too dangerous to risk being farmed).A process of reconstruction could revivify the area, and make it possible that in time more of therefugees who fled from Abkhazia to Georgia in autumn 1993 will finally be able to resume life in their former homeland.
The wasted support
 Some analysts offer a very different set of recommendations. Spencer B Meredith advocates severingall links with the "separatists"; he suggests that, if Russia does not make the necessary investments inAbkkhazia and South Ossetia, the result will be two failed states (see "Restoring Georgia'sSovereignty, Redux",
Foreign Policy Journal 
, 5 August 2009).This is wrong. Russians' affection for Abkhazia's Black Sea coast, and the fact that most Ossetianslive in Russia's north Caucasus (where for centuries they have been Russia's closest allies), ensureMoscow's continual engagement. In questioning where the two republics would be without Moscow'ssupport, Meredith neglects Georgia's dependence since 2003 on hugesubventionsfrom Washington;in lamenting Georgia's lack of funds to spend on the thousands of refugees living within its reducedfrontiers, he overlooks that much more could have been done if funds spent on Georgia's military hadbeen devoted to humanitarian projects (Tbilisi's defence budget increased from $36 million to $990million in 2003-08).Such "support" for Georgia is part of the same pattern that led to the disaster of 2008 (see VickenCheterian, "Georgia's arms race", 4 July 2007). It is a long way from the true support that Georgianeeds, which would enable it to accept what happened in the war and begin to move on.There is a danger that without a decisive step forward, there will be merely a continuation of more of the samefailedpolicies that since the early 1990s have led to the present impasse.Indeed, after almost two decades of wasted and counterproductive efforts, it is time for a radicalreassessment. If this is to happen, it will do well to look again at the events of the early 1990s; inparticular at the way that high political calculation in the west reacted to and helped to shape eventson the ground in this period, with disastrous results.
The rush to judgment
 The west could probably have done little to prevent the Georgian-South Ossetian war of 1990-92,imposed by Georgia's firstpost-communistleader Zviad Gamsakhurdia on the then autonomousdistrict of South Ossetia. This is because at the start of the war both parties to the conflict wereintegral parts of the still-existing Soviet Union. But the same most assuredly cannot be said of theGeorgian-Abkhazian conflict (see "Sakartvelo, roots of turmoil", 27 November 2003).Zviad Gamsakhurdiawas ousted in a coup in January 1992. The war in South Ossetia was still inprogress, and a new (truly civil) war broke out in Gamsakhurdia's home province of Mingrelia (westernGeorgia) between his supporters and those of the
 junta
that ousted him. Amid this chaos, the coup-leaders invited the Soviet Union's former foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze out of his Moscowretirement to provide still-unrecognised Georgia with a standard-bearer who wouldappealto the west.

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