Tbilisi Blues

Charles King has been doing some good essays on the problems in Georgia for Foreign Affairs. Elections in the breakaway region of Abkhazia have brought Georgia back into the news recently. It should be noted that the Kremlin’s man is likely to win in what Georgia sees as illegitamate elections.

Raul Khadzhimba is seen as Moscow’s man in a region where Russian influence and investment is increasing steadily, despite an official economic blockade. For this unrecognised strip of land, Russia’s support has provided a lifeline. “Abkhazia will continue in the same direction it’s been heading, for full independence”, Mr Khadzhimba declared, emerging from the polling booth. “Unity with Georgia is a thing of the past, now we look to Russia for economic integration, but as an independent state.”

But as King notes in an update in a Foreign Affairs entry, the situation is far from clear cut:

Tensions have also been rising in Abkhazia, the region along the northwestern coast which, like South Ossetia, has been functionally independent for more than ten years. President Saakashvili has vowed to block any ships from docking at Abkhazia’s ports and to try to prevent Russian tourists from visiting the attractive beaches (a mainstay of the secessionist republic’s economy). The Georgian government has repeatedly argued that it is seeking a peaceful solution to these crises and that any violence has been solely the result of provocation by Russia and the secessionists. Yet it was in precisely these conditions that the disastrous wars of the early 1990s began: as attempts by the central government to push its case for reintegrating regions that had already de facto seceded.

President Saakashvili has often argued that these unrecognized states are little more than Russia’s stooges — levers that Moscow can use to keep Georgia weak at a time when the country has become a solid partner of the United States. That understates the complexity of the situation, however. Especially in Abkhazia, local citizens are united in their desire not to be part of Georgia. They won a war for independence in the early 1990s, and they have spent more than a decade building something that looks like a real state. Georgia’s territorial woes are thus not simply about rebuilding a single country. They are about trying to unite several independent ones. So far, however, neither Georgia nor the international community has been able to offer anything attractive enough to woo the South Ossetians and Abkhaz into a unified country. As recent events have shown, when Georgia flexes its muscles, the secessionists are simply reminded of why they fought — and, with Russia’s help, won — the civil wars of the early 1990s.

While many might support the right to self-determination of the Abkhaz people, it should be noted that up until the war in the early 90’s, most of the region were Georgians. As this BBC entry notes:

At the time of the collapse of the USSR in 1991, less than a fifth of the people of Abkhazia were ethnic Abkhaz while the rest of the population was made up largely of Georgians.

When Georgia became independent, supporters of a break with Tbilisi in favour of independence and closer ties with Russia became more vociferous. Tension rose and in 1992 Georgia sent troops to enforce the status quo.

In late 1993, they were driven out amidst fierce fighting. Several thousand people were killed. About 250,000 Georgians became refugees and are still unable to return. Most of those who remained have since left too.

I can see why Georgians might be pretty pissed off.

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