Can war-torn areas such as Abkhazia finally recover after a decade-long period of neglect?


Russian soldiers atop their armoured personnel carrier roll through the South Ossetian settlement of Dzhava on August 10, 2008. Photo: Reuters

A single incident – the tragic shooting down of a UN helicopter over Abkhazia in October 2001 – symbolizes in many ways the cauldron of mistrust that has characterized the South Caucasus region for more than a decade.

As Georgian TV showed the burned, twisted metal debris of a U.N. helicopter at a crash site in Abkhazia, there was a frenzied burst of activity at the United Nations Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG) in Tbilisi, as we worked to sort out the details of this tragedy. The phone in my office rang almost without interruption: U.S., European, Russian and Georgian editors and journalists deluged me with questions.

Was it true that the UNOMIG helicopter was shot down by a rocket fired by Chechen rebel fighters, killing all 9 UN personnel aboard? How did the Chechen rebels end up in western Georgia’s Kodori Valley? And why was the helicopter flying over a no-fly zone?

It said much about the situation in the breakaway region of Abkhazia that no one ever assigned responsibility for this tragic shooting that cost 9 human lives despite an official U.N. investigation and repeated U.N. Security Council requests for answers. Each side -- Georgia, Abkhazia, Russia -- had its own reasons for undertaking such a nefarious act.

The Georgians blamed the Abkhazians for wanting to scuttle UN attempts to broker a peace that kept Abkhazia within Georgia. Tbilisi accused Russia of fostering instability as an excuse to maintain its military bases in Georgia.

The Abkhaz de facto authorities blamed nationalist Georgian paramilitaries, operating outside Georgian government control, and working alongside Chechens in the area. For its part, Moscow was keen to stress the Chechen factor given the 7,000 Chechen refugees in the Pankisi Valley bordering Chechnya, a few hundred kilometers east of the Kodori Valley.

Abkhazia – a place abandoned in time

In 2001, Abkhazia was really an isolated and depressing place. Nearly a decade after the war of 1992-93, much of the housing and physical infrastructure of Abkhazia remained in tatters. There was a feeling of abandonment and destruction. Tbilisi kept Abkhazia -- a thriving tourist destination in Soviet times -- in political and economic isolation to prevent the breakaway region from gaining international recognition.

There were victims on both sides. I remember joining our UN Military Observers during one of their daily patrols in an armored vehicle inside the Security Zone. In our meetings with the local mayors and villagers near the ceasefire line, many asked us for humanitarian aid. Such requests were frequent reflecting families’ indigence and need.

The shadows of the war also lingered. A UK NGO, the HALO Trust, was still removing landmines left over from the conflict. On one official visit to Gali, in connection with plans to establish an international police force, I met one woman outside her home, a returnee who had tragically lost her leg stepping on a landmine nearby. A strong law enforcement presence was needed to fight the criminal activity in Gali, including kidnappings, which often had a political connection.

But the majority of internally displaced persons (IDPs) remained in exile. Their continuous, massive presence in Tbilisi and all over Georgia represented a huge political and economic problem for Shevardnadze's government. Every time I passed the then-dilapidated Holiday Inn high-rise building in downtown Tbilisi overcrowded with families, their presence advertised by tattered clothes on ubiquitous washing lines, I was reminded of their plight.

International community accords low precedence to Georgia

The low priority accorded to Georgia by the international community was a key factor in the failure to settle the conflict. The Group of Friends of the United Nations Secretary General – comprising France, Germany, Russia, UK and the U.S. – was led by UNOMIG.

The Group, which met regularly, typically in Geneva, was to help UNOMIG fulfill its mandate: firstly, to resolve the political status of Abkhazia within Georgia and secondly, to ensure the return of all refugees. However, no progress was made on either issue as Russia, the leading power, deemed its interests better served by the status quo and Abkhazia repeatedly refused to discuss its political status.

The international community’s lack of interest was reflected in the small size of the international missions: UNOMIG had only around 130 peacekeepers, the OSCE Mission in Georgia, which dealt with the Georgia-South Ossetia conflict settlement of the 1991-92 war, had 8 unarmed military monitors (primarily based in Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia), who continuously monitored the conflict zone.

All this changed with the George W. Bush Administration, which began to push for NATO membership for Georgia and increased the U.S. military aid program to Georgia. In the 2003 elections, President Mikheil Saakashvili replaced Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze and, as part of his pro-Western “Rose Revolution,” began pushing for NATO membership.

In response to this “infringement” into Russia’s longstanding traditional sphere of influence, Thomas E. Graham, former Senior Director for Russia, U.S. National Security Council (2004–07), wrote: “And in the most visible case of all, the Bush Administration pressed for Ukraine's and Georgia's membership in NATO against Russia's vehement opposition — and it insisted Russia did not have a veto over NATO decisions, until Russia demonstrated that it did: see the Russia-Georgia War, 2008.”

Russian-Georgian war changes the disposition of power in favor of Moscow

The Russian-Georgian five-day war of 2008 changed the dynamics in favor of Russia. Following Russia’s incursion into South Ossetia, the OSCE Tskhinvali field office, indeed, the entire mission, closed down. Russia vetoed the extension of UNOMIG at the UN Security Council and the mission closed in June 2009.

The European Union Monitoring Mission (EUMM), which replaced the OSCE Mission to Georgia, does not have a mandate to monitor or patrol inside South Ossetia or Abkhazia, only areas adjacent to the South Ossetian and Abkhazian Administrative Boundary Lines.

After occupying Abkhazia during the 2008 war, Russia poured in half a billion dollars into Russian air, naval and border defense bases there, an entity almost the size of Kosovo. From 2010-2012, Moscow gave Abkhazia $334 million, and it finances pensions and salaries. Abkhazia is also included in the Kremlin’s transport infrastructure investment plan for Russia’s southern region in connection with the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics.

For Abkhazia, its isolation has ended, notwithstanding the fact that only four countries, apart from Russia, have recognized its independence. Tourism is making a comeback: in 2012, at least one million Russian tourists visited Abkhazia, contributing to its economic revival. However, the Abkhaz government has some qualms about Russia’s presence.

According to Sergey Markedonov, Visiting Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies: “The Abkhaz leadership, especially its opposition, fear the penetration of Russian big business in the republic and its possible engagement in property redistribution or oil explorations in the Black Sea.”

The new Georgian president, Bidzina Ivanishvili, is also giving priority to normalizing relations with Moscow and improving relations with the Abkhaz leadership. (To the latter end, the Ministry of Reintegration has been renamed the Ministry of Reconciliation.) The Obama administration has neglected the South Caucasus, leaving Georgia with a weak hand to play vis-à-vis Moscow.

Abkhazia, with the protection of Moscow, feels more confident in dealing with Tbilisi and five new border crossings at the Administrative Border Line are to open by the end of 2013. The normal order of business should be the return of the 275,000 IDPs. But this seemingly intractable issue is off the table, a mark of perennial mistrust between the two sides.

But how much has really changed over the past decade? In March 2012, when I was attending a UN Women conference in Tbilisi (“Women Connect across Conflicts”), focusing in part on the South Caucasus, I recognized many of the same heads of NGOs dealing with Georgian IDPs that our human rights office in Sukhumi worked with a decade ago.

Following the 2008 war, some had relocated to Georgia. Yet, the same issues of unemployment, insecurity and poverty still plague them today. This begs the obvious question: Why isn’t more being done at the national and international level to allow everyone in the South Caucasus a safe journey home?