Does Tbilisi’s Peace Step have a Future?
Civil Georgia, Tbilisi / 27 Apr.'18 / 10:21
Régis Genté

Reconciliation Minister Ketevan Tsikhelashvili presenting the details of the new peace initiative, April 4, 2018. Photo: smr.gov.ge

On April 4, the Georgian government presented a new peace initiative under the title of “A step to a better future.” The document was mostly received positively in Georgia, but what future does it have?

This happens rarely enough to be noticed: almost everyone in Georgia agrees that the government’s new peace initiative aimed at Abkhazia and South Ossetia, announced on April 4, is a good document.

The State Minister for Reconciliation and Civic Equality, Ketevan Tsikhelashvili, has been leading its preparation for over a year in consultation with many branches of the government and the supportive international community. Some meetings with representatives of the Abkhaz and the South Ossetian civil society also contributed.

“We did everything that the Georgian government could do from its side,” Minister Tsikhelashvili told us. “We have depoliticized this peace initiative. It is a part of the government’s peace policy that creates conditions for peace-building. The two conflicts we have are far from frozen, contrary to what many may be thinking. So, we thought that it was necessary to take proactive steps,” she adds.

The initiative sets three main objectives: to facilitate trade across the dividing lines; to enhance educational opportunities for young people from Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia and abroad; and to simplify access to Georgia’s EU integration benefits (visa waiver, free trade, etc.). To make these proposals effective, the Parliament must discuss the bill and amend nine laws.

“We are more or less satisfied with the content of the document. We, of course, support the idea of building bridges with the residents of the occupied regions. The current government concretized the ideas that the previous government started to lay down with the engagement strategy adopted in 2009,” says Sergi Kapanadze, a lawmaker from the opposition European Georgia party.

“But that is just an engagement policy. It should not turn into a conflict resolution policy, because for that, it is with Russia that we have to talk to. The recent open letter by Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili articulates policy towards Russia that we disagree with, it is a disgrace, and raises many questions and concerns. Without a robust policy with Russia, this initiative is just an engagement step and an overall conflict resolution strategy stands no chance to succeed. Otherwise, of course, we support the content of the initiative,” adds Kapanadze.

Minister Tsikhelashvili seems to share the opinion that the proposal is not primarily about conflict resolution: “This is precisely why we designed [the initiative] without addressing the status issue, and without changing the Law on the Occupied Territories. That required a lot of work and discussions.”

There are some who argue that the authorities in Sokhumi and Tskhinvali will never agree to the offer from Tbilisi. On one hand, because the gap of disagreement between the sides is now extremely big, and on the other - because Moscow will not allow any movement towards Georgia.

Four days ahead of the announcement of the peace initiative, Moscow has banned the import of fruits, nuts, and vegetables from Abkhazia, under the pretext that the brown marmorated stink bug (BMSB), a parasite that did considerable damage to the agriculture of Georgia would thus spread to Russia. Many took it as a sign of Moscow signaling its ability to wreck Abkhazia’s economy whenever it feels like.

During the last year, Russia seems to have also been at work to erase the reasons for Abkhazia and South Ossetia residents to travel to Georgia proper. Provision of subsidized hospital care has been one of the initiatives from Tbilisi that was relatively widely used. To counterweigh it, Moscow started providing medical equipment to local hospitals and clinics in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

As expected, both Sokhumi and Tskhinvali have immediately rejected the initiative. But this does not seem to faze Tbilisi much. “On the economic side of the initiative, we do not expect that it will produce results within two months. But if we do not do anything, nothing will ever happen,” insists Tsikhelashvili.

Natalia Mirimanova of the International Alert, a recognized expert on cross-boundary trade, agrees: “the first answers from Abkhazia and South Ossetia are the official ones, [they are negative] partly because the initiative comes from the Georgian government and there is little trust between the sides.” Still, in her informed opinion, business communities, on both sides, may be ready to engage in exchanges, based on the needs of people, who want a better offer of less pricey products, but do not have a legal possibility to get them.

“Although business community is looking first at their own profits, legality and national interest are the “red lines” [they cannot cross]. At the same time, they can build bridges, because the middle-class is more flexible than politicians and officials, is more cosmopolitan, and needs peace. They might at some point convince their rulers of the necessity to let the business go [its own way],” Mirimanova explains.

In her mind, the best feature of the new proposal is that it provides a space for dialogue. “The real discussion on the specifics of the initiative should start now. Abkhazians and South Ossetians, can, if they want or need, come up with a proposal now, to create a mutually acceptable framework,” says Mirimanova.

This framework can be underpinned by pragmatic interests, argues Olesya Vartanyan, from the International Crisis Group (ICG). “For our new upcoming report, we took a look at the Abkhazian trade. One of the things we found, is that at the moment there are two reasons driving possible discussions with Tbilisi. One has to do with devaluation of the [Russian] Ruble, which made all imports to Abkhazia more expensive. Russia is the main country of origin of Abkhaz imports. The other reason is the decreased budget support coming from Russia after the annexation of Crimea. Abkhazia is mainly interested in imports, which are not necessarily related to the Tbilisi-controlled territory. With devalued Ruble, the trends of trade with the EU countries and Turkey have been increasing.” 

In this context, talks over trade could help develop links and open new business channels. But they can easily get politicized. “There is still space to find the middle ground for the sides, especially if they find a way to discuss trade technicalities without politicizing the issues. But for this, they need talks - official or non-official - that would have to address proposals and interests of the sides,” remarks Vartanyan.

Whether for facilitating trade with the two regions or enhancing educational opportunities for young Abkhazians and South Ossetians, “creativity was required, to come to the solution of the electronic registrations, for example, that could make things more easy and acceptable for people from the other side. It also required a lot of persuasiveness to overcome the resistance within the Georgian political scene and state apparatus,” underlines Natalia Mirimanova.

This resistance will probably prevent the Government of Georgia to go any further. A pity, argues Dennis Sammut, the executive director of LINKS, analytical and consultancy platform. “Tbilisi needs to be even more flexible. This initiative is a very positive step, but the focus remains on talking to the Abkhaz and the Ossetians above the heads of the ruling elites in Sukhumi and Tskhinvali. Tbilisi needs to be talking to these elites too, in different formats and through different channels. Georgia is now a well-respected country on the international stage, and it can allow itself more flexibility on this issue without abandoning its principled position on territorial integrity.”

That is important he says, because “the geopolitical map is changing. Russia is making a very strong push to the South. Crimea, consolidation in Syria and the Mediterranean Sea, and closer relations with Turkey, are examples of this. The Abkhazians realize they are pawns in a bigger strategy, and may themselves feel the need for some room for maneuver. So timing-wise there may be a window of opportunity, and the Georgians need to be clever and reach out.”

For now, however, Tbilisi prefers to take one small step after another, hoping that the engagement from the other side will create space for more daring moves.

Régis Genté is a French journalist, working for le Figaro or Radio France Internationale, based in Tbilisi and covering the post-soviet region since 2002.

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