Analysis

Outrage at Lukashenka’s Visit to Abkhazia

Belarussian leader Aleksandr Lukashenka’s visit to occupied Abkhazia on 28 September has been met by widespread outrage and condemnation from members of the public, Georgian leaders, opposition parties, and the international community, Belarussian opposition leaders among them.

What’s Happening?

Criticism emerged and soon multiplied after media reports revealed Lukashenka’s unexpected visit to the occupied region, where he met with Kremlin-backed Abkhaz leader Aslan Bzhania.

During their meeting, the two sides discussed bilateral cooperation, as well as international security, and current challenges. Lukashenka expressed support for the occupied region and denoted that he recently discussed issues related to Abkhazia with Russian President Vladimir Putin, during which they “came to the same conclusion that Abkhazia should not be abandoned.”

For his part, Bzhania recalled Lukashenka’s past support for Abkhazia and expressed hope that the visit would “give a new impetus to relations between the two peoples.”

Anger from the Georgian and international community alike has been compounded by several factors. For one, the meeting occurred after the occupied region’s top diplomat, Inal Ardzinba signed a dual citizenship agreement with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on 27 September, as Georgia marked 29 years since the fall of Sokhumi and the end of the 1992-1993 Abkhazia conflict.

Furthermore, while Belarus does not recognize the independence of occupied Abkhazia or of the Tskhinvali region/South Ossetia, it traditionally votes against the UN General Assembly resolution which reiterates the right of return for all displaced persons and refugees to Georgia’s occupied regions.

Also, Lukashenka has discussed the possibility of recognition in the past and this visit, which is his first to the occupied region since he has been in office, has reignited speculation and ire about the issue. Notably, the Belarussian leader’s last official visit to Tbilisi took place in March 2018.

Georgian Government Reacts

Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili was the first to express condemnation regarding Lukashenka’s visit in a tweet published soon after media reports first emerged. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs was quick to follow with a similar statement, after which they summoned the Belarussian Ambassador to Georgia, Anatoli Lis, as a sign of protest.

Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili also addressed the visit in a tweet on the evening of 28 September in a tweet which emphasized, “I strongly condemn Aleksandr Lukashenka’s “visit” to the Abkhazia region of Georgia occupied by Russia and meetings with the Russian occupation regime. This step violates Georgia’s law on occupied territories and contradicts international law as well as bilateral relations between our countries.”

Tea Tsulukiani, the Minister of Culture and Vice Prime Minister stated yesterday that an “adequate assessment” of the visit must be made but underlined that the visit is “an unacceptable and intolerable fact because it is not only illegal, it is something that our state simply will not tolerate.”

In that context, she confirmed that a reaction would follow Lukashenka’s visit. While highlighting that Lukashenka “always maintained a firm position” of non-recognition of Georgia’s occupied territories, the Minister noted that this visit could mark a new stage in Belarus-Georgia relations.

“Even if it turns out to be a one-time act, it is inadmissible,” she said.

Speaking during a PosTV interview, Minister of Defense Juansher Burchuladze deplored the visit and said the government will have “the strictest response regarding the visit and, even more so, if a drastic step is taken by any state.” “I would not advise the leader of any country to make a mistake that would either cost his country dearly to correct or be impossible to correct at all,” he said.

Parliament Speaker Shalva Papuashvili meanwhile emphasized, “it is absolutely unacceptable when the leader of another country enters the territory of Georgia without the agreement of the Georgian authorities.”

“That is why a very strict, diplomatic step was taken – the Ministry of Foreign Affairs summoned the Belarussian Ambassador, demanded an explanation from him, and now the Ministry is waiting for this explanation,” he said.

Speaker Papuashvili highlighted that “in itself, this step […] violates both international law and our Law on Occupied Territories, and contradicts the relations between Georgia and Belarus.”

The Georgian government has yet to announce any further steps that it plans to take against Belarus, besides summoning the Ambassador, in retaliation for Lukashenka’s visit.

Opposition Reacts

Roman Gotsiridze, a United National Movement MP, said “The result of this flattering policy [of the Georgian Dream] was that the president of an independent country arrived in Abkhazia for the first time in history.”

He emphasized that the visit confirmed once again that “Russia will always do what is in its interests and will never account for the flattery and submissive position of the Georgian government. That is why it was always necessary to take a principled position and ensure international support.”

Giorgi Gakharia, former ruling party PM and For Georgia party leader, emphasized in a tweet, “I strongly condemn President Lukashenka’s visit to Russian occupied Abkhazia. It is an obvious violation of Georgia’s territorial integrity and sovereignty which needs a strong response from the Government and International community. We all should be firm in addressing such violations!”

Meanwhile, the Lelo for Georgia party said the visit “indicates that the danger that Belarus will consider revising its non-recognition policy in the near future is real” and presented a 5-point plan in response.

Lelo for Georgia's 5-point Plan

  1. Georgia should recall the acting Ambassador of Georgia to Belarus for consultations.
  2. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs should submit an official note to Belarus, requesting that the Belarussian side make an official statement to recognize the sovereignty of Georgia, within its internationally recognized borders. 
  3. In case of non-fulfillment of the mentioned request, the Belarussian Ambassador to Georgia should be instructed to go back to Belarus for consultations. 
  4. The Georgian authorities should immediately start consultations with the EU and the U.S. on tightening the regime of international sanctions imposed on Belarus, in case they recognize Georgia’s occupied regions.
  5. Ask relevant UN and OSCE formats and the Political and Security Committee of the EU to hold a discussion on the matter and to call on relevant Belarussian ambassadors within those organizations to provide explanations for the visit. 

Teona Akubardia, a member of Strategy Aghmashenebeli, stated, “The so-called Georgian Dream’s policy of non-provocation ended in a complete collapse and despite the efforts of the Georgian Dream, Russia, continues to pursue its interests.”

“The Georgian Dream must take a position not only in relation to Lukashenka but also in relation to Russia…,” she emphasized and called on the Chairperson of the Parliamentary Defense Committee and on the ruling party to invite representatives of intelligence and security services, as well as relevant officials from the MFA, to discuss this development in a committee.

Alexander (Aleko) Elisashvili of the Citizens’ Party remarked, “Our state structures, state intelligence, [and] the Ministry of Foreign Affairs should sit down and weigh exactly what kind of economic, political, [and] diplomatic weapons are in our arsenal, with which we will respond sharply and make this an expensive visit for Lukashenka.”

“This is a very big insult to the Georgian state, something like this has never happened before,” he underscored. “I don’t remember the leader of another state coming to our occupied territory and slapping the Georgian state [in the face] on such a scale.”

International Community Reacts

Asked about Lukashenka’s visit to Abkhazia during a 28 September briefing, U.S. State Department Spokesperson Ned Price reiterated the U.S.’ steadfast support for Georgia and its territorial integrity.

“We believe that Russia must be held accountable for the commitments it made under the 2008 ceasefire,” he emphasized. “Russia must withdraw its forces to pre-conflict positions and reverse its recognition of Georgia’s Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions.”

Within Georgia, United Kingdom Ambassador Mark Clayton tweeted, “Lukashenka’s visit to Abkhazia shows total disregard for UN charter and principles of Helsinki final act regarding respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty of Georgia. The UK stands firm in its support for Georgia in the face of this further provocation.”

The Lithuanian Ambassador to Georgia, Andrius Kalindra, also responded to the development in a tweet which stressed, “Belarus regime leader’s Lukashenka visit today to Georgia’s Abkhazia region proved Belarussian and Russian joined disrespect to the UN Charter and the principle of territorial integrity and sovereignty. Lithuania stays committed to fully supporting Georgia.”

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the exiled opposition leader who was Lukashenka’s key challenger in the 2020 Belarus Elections, said, “United Transitional Cabinet of Belarus expresses full support for the territorial integrity of Georgia.”

“Lukashenka’s visit to Abkhazia is outrageous and unacceptable,” she underscored. “He represents Putin, not the Belarusian people. We stand by Georgia and seek deeper collaboration between our countries.”

In a critical tweet regarding the visit, MEP Viola von Cramon said, “Lukashenka is a terrorist, Putin’s puppet and illegitimate ruler not recognized by the EU. His visit or recognition of Abkhazia doesn’t mean much.”

She denoted, however, that the visit, “is a reminder for all Russia-appeasers in Georgia that appeasing evil always backfires. Lukashenka will end with Putin!”

Note: This article was updated on 29 September at 15:00 to reflect the reactions of the opposition.

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This post is also available in: ქართული (Georgian) Русский (Russian)

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