The policy towards Russian occupation and the Moscow-backed regions of Tskhinvali and Abkhazia has been a burden for Georgian governments for decades, considering many blocks and impasses the question entails. It did barely make any headlines in the context of October 31 parliamentary elections, however. Civil.ge has asked six questions to some of the major political parties to reflect on the current policy towards Abkhazia and Tskhinvali regions and offer their views on how to address some of the pressing issues.
Speakers: Sergi Kapanadze from European Georgia, Giorgi Kanashvili from Lelo for Georgia, Teona Akubardia from Strategy Agmashenebeli, Mikheil Kumsishvili from Labor Party, and Zurab Japaridze from Girchi. We have also contacted to the ruling Georgian Dream and the United National Movement, largest opposition party, but have not received their answers so far.
Name one or two components from the current policy on occupied regions that needs to be kept. What needs to change?
European Georgia: Engagement policy with Abkhazia and Tskhinvali that was designed in 2009 and supported by current authorities has to continue, however, more proactively and by more intensively engaging international partners. Georgia has to work more proactively with the international community to make Russia-related issues a discussion topic among our partners; the country also needs to avail itself to international dispute mechanisms, including international courts and World Trade Organization, which has been completely abandoned by Georgian authorities;
Lelo for Georgia: The country has to stick with the non-recognition policy; however, the engagement policy with people living in occupied territories has to be intensified, including together with international partners;
Strategy Agmashenebeli: Georgia has to press on with the non-recognition policy as well as its position on the non-use of force, and intensify confidence-building and reconciliation policies, including the “Step for a better future” program. Economic relations between Abkhazia and the rest of Georgia need to build up, including helping the products from Abkhazia to access the EU market under the free trade agreement with the EU. However, Georgia needs to launch and pursue anti-occupation/anti-annexation strategies, including by engaging the wider public and working more proactively with the international community in various frameworks to change the attitude towards occupation-related issues both locally and internationally.
Girchi: Some of the policies that were launched by the previous government, including the non-recognition policy and the framework of Geneva International Discussions (GID) need to continue, however, the main problem is that current [Georgian Dream] authorities limit themselves to pro forma procedures and statements, pursuing a “non-irritation policy” towards Russia since 2012. Georgia has to fight more actively with its partners and in international institutions to contain Russia.
Labor Party: We need to hold on to the policies aimed at integration, including health assistance, however, nothing else is done in this regard. More direct communication is necessary, including through introducing innovative frameworks to prevent the spread of anti-Georgian propaganda [in Abkhazia and Tskhinvali regions]. In addition, Sokhumi has to be declared as the capital city of Georgia and Tskhinvali – as the parliamentary capital, which would make Georgian claims more vocal and eventually result in success similar to Israel’s example with Jerusalem.
How is your party going to ensure security on the ground at the dividing (occupation) lines and address problems such as “borderization” and arbitrary detentions of Georgian citizens?
European Georgia: One of the crucial components of working with international institutions is strengthening the sanctions regime against Russia with respect to this problem, including putting the sanctions under the Otkhozoria-Tatunashvili list into effect; as for the security on the ground, a security regime that would ensure better protection of our citizens needs to be designed, it may include the increased presence of security forces on-site, increased police presence.
Lelo for Georgia: Georgia needs to try to draw the attention of the international community towards this problem more proactively, and pursue a more proactive policy towards people living in the vicinity of dividing lines on Tbilisi-controlled territories, including providing better socioeconomic conditions and arranging regular visits by high-ranking politicians, even symbolically, to show them that they have support from the state and assure them that they live in strategically important areas.
Strategy Agmashenebeli: Within the scope of the anti-occupation/anti-annexation strategy, the party plans to develop specific mechanisms to ensure the security of people living at the occupation line, including by expanding the functions of the Ministry of Interior and raising the issue of installing surveillance cameras in the respective areas. Besides, the country has to introduce social, legislative and policy initiatives to boost the resilience of the population living in villages adjacent to the dividing line, and proactively engage in international frameworks, including by building up strategic communications;
Girchi: The only real lever available is to maximally engage international partners and ask for help more sincerely – doing this only pro forma makes it clear for international friends that you are not yourself motivated enough for the solution.
Labor Party: Strict control has to be exercised at the dividing line, including through permanent patrolling of special forces to ensure prompt prevention of kidnappings. Also, every effort has to be directed to deploy U.S. military bases in Georgia, which would guarantee a secure environment in Georgia and reverse the ‘borderization’ process.
Should the EU and international organizations be able to work more actively in Abkhazia, even if this should involve closer cooperation with Kremlin-backed rulers? Under what conditions?
European Georgia: The more they will engage – upon coordination with Tbilisi – the better for us.
Lelo for Georgia: We have to support international organizations to be better represented in Abkhazia to counterbalance Russian influence. We need as more of Europe and the West there as possible, and local authorities there are also somewhat interested. In the long run, western soft power can wield a significant influence on local elites, including in Abkhazia.
Strategy Aghmashenebeli: Yes, by enabling access for the EU Monitoring Mission (EUMM) to occupied territories in accordance with their full mandate.
Girchi: It would be good to expand the EUMM coverage in accordance with their full mandate, but it is hardly feasible in the current reality. We would welcome more engagement of international organizations, including with local elites – should this happen upon agreement with Tbilisi. The problem here however, is that Russia will not allow this.
Labor party: Working directly with authorities of occupied territories has to be prevented, as it would equal the recognition. However, if the EU’s policy will involve more youth- and integration-oriented projects without a direct dialogue with local authorities, we would only welcome this.
How would you respond to the recent statements by Abkhaz leaders implying their readiness for a dialogue with Tbilisi? In what frameworks and on what topics do you see an opportunity for dialogue? Do you find direct dialogue with Sokhumi admissible?
European Georgia: Dialogue and engagement are necessary in any case, however, we do not have to give in to an illusion that this is a conflict resolution framework – such illusions created many problems for the incumbent [Georgian] authorities. The engagement has to be one of the directions that need to be actively developed, but not at the expense of, and by damaging the existing international frameworks as intended by Russia for years.
Lelo for Georgia: Lelo wants to be bolder in this regard, however, recent developments over Nagorno-Karabakh have raised the question that Pashinyan [Prime Minister of Armenia] is punished for his vision in the western direction – this may demotivate and scare Abkhaz leaders. However, there are many issues among the points proposed by Sergey Shamba [Abkhaz security council head], where opening discussions are even necessary. There are practices of non-official frameworks, including in our history such as the Schlaining Process in 2006-2007, as well as in case of other countries and in even more hostile environments, which may prove effective if there is a will.
Strategy Agmashenebeli: It is important to respond to such initiatives, and it is possible to discuss such initiatives under informal frameworks or as part of Geneva Discussions.
Girchi: Generally, deepening economic and trade relations is right, and it will foster rebuilding contacts among people, however, no step should be taken that would imply recognition of the authorities of occupied territories. This is how a direct dialogue would be sold by Russians. That’s why there is a GID framework and it needs to be used as effectively as possible.
Labor party: we exclude the possibility of a direct dialogue as it would mean recognition, we need to talk to Russia instead by engaging partner states, including through existing or new frameworks, and by putting the issue of de-occupation on the agenda.
Russia-backed Tskhinvali authorities have closed crossing points for a year, including in Odzisi that connects occupied Akhalgori to Georgia proper. According to official numbers provided by Tbilisi, at least 15 patients from the region have died due to the closures, as they were denied by Tskhinvali rulers to access the Tbilisi-controlled territory for healthcare. What can the Georgian Government do – independently or by engaging the international community – to ensure the freedom of movement for Abkhazia/Tskhinvali residents with Georgia proper?
European Georgia: This issue is discussed under GID and elsewhere with our international partners, as this creates a humanitarian crisis. Ensuring freedom of movement at the occupation line needs to be one of our key demands and directions in working with our partners.
Lelo for Georgia: The government needs to be more creative here, it may use various non-traditional ways, including applying pressure through international media by exposing inhumane moves – this is something that has so far proved to be effective. Authorities can also better employ human resources and human contacts for such purposes.
Strategy Agmashenebeli: Although the current situation is complex, with the right policies, the state can address the problem independently and, at the same time, through engaging the international community.
Girchi: Again, the only lever is to intensify our calls on the international community to show them that there is a humanitarian crisis and how the local “puppet” authorities are behaving.
Labor Party: This is why dialogue with Russia involving international partners is important, the talks should begin with such issues, with a final objective being the de-occupation.
How successful and promising are the projects aimed at building contacts and confidence with people living in occupied territories? What is your party’s vision in this respect and how do you assess the practices so far?
European Georgia: International practice shows that, even under a frozen situation or occupation, such steps are possible, if there is the right strategy, goodwill, finances, and political readiness. European Georgia is going to continue the policy that has been declared since 2009, albeit, more intensively, by employing more resources and making bolder steps – something this government has failed to do.
Lelo for Georgia: Such steps are crucial, conflicts are not resolved otherwise. We see the examples, as in the case of Nagorno-Karabakh, what happens where states prepare their societies for war rather than for peace. There is a consensus among the majority of Georgian political parties that conflicts do not have military solutions, and contacts among people are one of the ways to prepare ourselves for peace. Such programs, however, are often limited to smaller groups and elites – thus, failing to bring about major changes. We need to make it more public and wide. Secondly, the party is going to create communication platforms with residents of occupied territories, including less propagandistic social and media platforms that would offer the right image of Georgia we are striving to build. We need to launch an “informational dialogue.”
Strategy Agmashenebeli: Projects involving confidence building are an important part of the de-occupation policy. In this regard, the state has to ensure maximum openness, including implementing initiatives such as opening tele-medicine spots, ensuring joint academic work for Georgian, Abkhaz, and Ossetian people, developing cultural, economic, and agricultural relations, and using modern technologies.
Girchi: The steps so far did not prove much effective and if they work, Russian special services would hamper it anyways. Girchi’s vision is that we need rapid economic prosperity to show the people out there after a while that it is better for their children to live in a country such as Georgia rather than in a Russian province like, say, Chechnya. Just as people would flee from East Germany to the West risking their lives in Soviet times, similarly, we want people from these territories wanting to flee to the unoccupied parts of Georgia.
Labor Party: Here, building up a virtual space will be crucial to combat local and Russian propaganda presenting Georgians as enemies and to spread correct information about Georgia. Internet and technologies need to be used to bring the youth closer together and not to rely on fake historical facts. We also have to encourage youth to arrive in Georgia proper for education, cultural integration, and return with correct impressions on Georgians.