In April, the Georgian government made a new attempt to formulate a policy towards the disputed territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, publishing a peace initiative intended to help improve economic and educational opportunities for their residents. It has been welcomed by several European capitals for its commitment to peaceful means of conflict resolution and its pragmatic approach, but has attracted little interest and much scorn from its supposed main target audiences in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
The economic component of the initiative is related to new trade links between Abkhazia and South Ossetia with Georgia, as well as with the wider European Market through the existing Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement between the EU and Georgia. It is envisioned that these proposals would help diversify, enhance and support the growth of economic markets within Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
The education component outlines opportunities for residents of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, granting them access to Georgian state education programmes. This includes activities related to formal and informal education in and outside of Georgia.
But the plan has numerous problems. To begin with, it seems misguidedly inspired by the case of Transnistria in Moldova, where trade and economic ties have long been the foundation for people-to-people cooperation. In short, Moldova needs Transnistria. Even during Soviet times, it was the most industrialized part of the country, and thus had a strong incentive to restore trade links after the war in the early 1990s.
Abkhazia is different. It has no such incentive to maintain trade links with Georgia. Its economy was built around tourism, niche agriculture (like wines and tangerines) and the production of raw materials primarily used in local construction work. The war of 1992–93 and the economic blockade of Abkhazia that followed damaged infrastructure and the economy. Abkhazia is slowly reviving and growing, but it is still far from the scale it was at before the 1990s.
The Georgian peace initiative only offers the possibility of selling goods originated in Abkhazia in Georgian and European markets. This means that Abkhaz products would have to comply with the regulations and standards of the European Single Market, which is not realistic for Abkhaz producers. Abkhaz production is very limited in quantity and variety and has never been exposed to the regulated business culture of the EU. But it does have well-established trade links with Russia.
The trade element of the proposal might have been more appealing to Abkhazia if it had included the two areas that are most important for its economy: tourism and unrestricted transit of through Abkhazia. However, the initiative does not address these.
The second half of the proposal, education, also has fundamental flaws, for Abkhazia in particular. It outlines educational opportunities for Abkhaz students, but they are all processed through Georgia, which is unlikely to be acceptable to residents of Abkhazia. Even the electronic processing of Abkhaz diplomas by Georgian state institutions is a sticking point. Although the initiative covers freedom of educational movement, it refers to ‘neutral travel documents’. These documents contain no overt reference to the Georgian state, but do contain the Georgian country code. This seems petty to outsiders, but it is an unacceptable deference to Georgian dominance for most Abkhaz.
Unlike the Transnistrian conflict, the questions of citizenship and national identity are key in Abkhazia. No matter how big the promised prospects and development opportunities are, they will never appeal to the population if they are seen to undermine Abkhaz identity and their political goal to be recognized as an independent republic.
Such a conviction from Abkhazia suggests that even if the limitations above were addressed and there had been consultations prior to the proposals publication, it still would not have been accepted. Indeed, a popular narrative is that the whole proposal is PR aimed at currying favour from Georgia’s western allies, rather than a plan for Abkhaz and South Ossetian citizens.
Georgia’s initiative has no political element and uses relatively neutral language, but it is seriously detached from the reality on the ground. It would, at least, be more effective if the proposals were not labelled a ‘peace initiative’ – since Abkhazia now considers itself to be at peace. The plan calls for the need for alteration of the Law on the Occupied Territories, but that law is seen by most Abkhaz as one of the main obstacles to its economic development, and many want it abolished.
A set of unilateral steps that supported the development and access of Abkhaz residents to the wider world without being packaged into a political proposal would create incentives for Abkhazia, which could eventually lead to both parties addressing the even more difficult issue of statehood. But this is not Georgian policy, and with the current approach, there will never be a conflict resolution.