Gali Violence And Abkhazia’s Future

In early June, a crescendo of violence seemed to wash over the heavily ethnic-Georgian region of Gali in Abkhazia, the separatist republic to the northwest of de facto Georgia. After various reports that cited house burnings, shoot-outs, and killings, the European Monitoring Mission (EUMM) issued a statement on June 7 calling for calm.

“As EUMM has no direct access to the area, it cannot ascertain the exact nature or dynamics of these incidents. Whilst local investigations are underway though, it is very important that all sides refrain from comments that could further increase tension in the area. Restraint is needed to ensure that the confidence of the local population is not harmed and stability not endangered.” [1]

While it seemed that the fighting began to wane by the end of June, reports began to reemerge in July of renewed hostilities. Theories over the origins of the intermittent violence have been varied. Sergey Bagapsh, the de facto president of the separatist republic, was quick to accuse Georgians for fomenting the conflict.

“It should be stated clearly that if the Georgian side does not stop subversive acts, we will have to take adequate measures,” he said on June 4. “The organizers of terrorist acts should understand that local destabilization may cause the aggravation of already uneasy situation in the region where the refugees have returned.” This was a not-so-veiled reference to meddling by Tbilisi in Gali, which is heavily populated with ethnic Georgians. [2]

Besides interference by Georgian operatives, another oft-cited rationale for the violence has been disagreements between Russian forces and Abkhazian militias. According to the Georgian media, fighting broke out between the ostensible allies over the distribution of money seized (sometimes reported as ‘taxes’) from Georgian villages; this disagreement led to the killing of an Abkhazian customs officer and an Abkhazian village headman, Dimitry Katsia. Reportedly, Katsia’s death prompted a reprisal by Sukhumi authorities to arrest, torture, and kill Gogita Anjaparidze, an ethnic Georgian whom many say was taken to corroborate the story of Georgian involvement. [3]

An expert with direct access and experience in Abkhazia spoke to Evolutsia.Net on a condition of anonymity and verified that the violence had indeed been between Abkhazians and Russians, but not necessarily over the issue of money or spoils. Instead, the fighting was the consummation of months of growing antipathy between two sides that have become increasingly wary—and, by some accounts, estranged—from one another since Georgia lost its war with Russia in August 2008 and Abkhazia (and South Ossetia) were subsequently recognized as independent states later that autumn.

This development should not be seen as a great surprise. Russian backing turned out to be something of a mixed bag for Sukhumi, which has sometimes chafed at Russia’s interpretation of Abkhazian ‘independence,’ something that has functionally meant only deeper dependence on and integration with Russia since the war. This increasing trend has been extensively documented by both the Brussels-based International Crisis Group [4] as well as an invigorated the Abkhazian opposition, which framed the previous presidential elections over Moscow’s overeager embrace of Abkhazia. [5]

While most Abkhazians, and certainly those in the political class, understand that Russia’s assistance was and remains crucial to their separation from Georgia, there is also a growing feeling that their arrangement with the Kremlin may have a Faustian feel to it.

“We had a poor understanding of what was going on that day, August 26, when Russia recognized us,” said Inal Khashig, an Abkhazian journalist cited in a 2009 report by RFE/RL.

“It was an emotional wave. Only later did we figure out that we were not getting what we wanted. Earlier, even though nobody recognized us, we were truly independent. Now, after recognizing Abkhazia, Russia is swallowing us. This is happening economically, politically, militarily, and socially. Every day we are becoming more and more dependent.” [6]

This realization by an Abkhazian journalist, over a year ago, was almost certainly elevated in the run-up to Abkhazia’s December elections, as the opposition played heavily on the theme of Bagapsh’s concessions to the Russians. And with Russians in control of their budget, their borders, and primary transportation links, there is sure to be a substantial well of resentment among average Abkhazians about the veracity of their supposed ‘independence’ and the impunity by which Russians have assumed the commanding heights in Abkhazian economic and political affairs.

Such a sense of resentment, combined with more prosaic disagreements—such as dividing money—can be a recipe for combustion. Heated attitudes and disagreements may have led to the violence, which may be headed towards something more significant unless the Abkhazian, or Russian, authorities can keep things under better control. Without a doubt, they will be keen to use Georgia as a bogeyman for scapegoating, but this will do little except perhaps deflect harder questions for a short time.

It’s no great secret that the regions north of Abkhazia and Georgia, in the North Caucasus, have gone from open war in Chechnya to a blood-won fragile calm and back again into a low-level state of guerilla war by Islamists, nationalists, and village clans. The various groups have fought against each other and, increasingly, against Russian forces and their badly corrupt proxies. It is not inconceivable that should violence in Abkhazia continue to escalate, particularly when the sheen of ‘victory’ over Georgia has worn off, that Russia will become the target of their nationalist passions. Of course, this is hardly a foregone conclusion, but if Russia’s management style in its Caucasus territories is any indication, a real danger does exist. In the North Caucasus, Russia has usually ignored problems until the region became engulfed in violence, prompting intervention by Russian federal forces, who have generally had an extremely poor track-record at counterinsurgency. Instead of winning over the population, Russian tactics in the North Caucasus have often been brutal and further fanned flames of resentment.

Georgia may see this possibility as an opportunity, but the situation is not very clear cut, black and white, Georgia or Russia. If Abkhazia were to arrive to a point where they seek to distance themselves from Russia, it is unlikely that it would be because of a newfound fraternity with Georgia, but rather because of still-burning fires of nationalism against Russia. At that point, Georgia’s position towards Abkhazia will have to be sufficiently nuanced and flexible for them to even entertain the notion of closer relations, much less any talk of reunification.

Instead, Georgia would be better off simply aiming for pulling Abkhazia out of Russia’s orbit and place less of a priority on political integration. That’s not to say that reunification will be forever impossible, but it’s not a first step. In many ways, a genuinely independent and liberal Abkhazia may be the best that Georgia can hope for in the short to medium term, with the chance at reunification only coming later, once the wounds of war have long healed.

Footnotes

[1] http://www.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=22399
[2] http://www.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=22392
[3] http://www.messenger.com.ge/issues/2122_june_8_2010/2122_mzia.html
[4] See: http://www.crisisgroup.org/~/media/Files/europe/202_abkhazia___deepening_dependence.ashx (PDF)
[5] See: http://www.iwpr.net/report-news/abkhaz-opposition-fear-growing-russian-influence
[6] http://www.rferl.org/content/Abkhazia_The_Perils_Of_Independence/1758008.html


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Michael Cecire

Michael Hikari Cecire is an associate scholar at the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Project on Democratic Transitions.

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