Saakashvili’s New Attempt: Strategy on Occupied Territories

Zaur Shiriyev*

Generally dubbed as “frozen conflicts”, the separatist conflicts in the Caucasus are seen by many authors as political and military stalemates. With a specific focus on South Ossetia and Abkhazia, this contribution highlights the different proposals made by Georgian Government since “Rose” revolution for the re-engaging “quasi-states” to the sovereignty of the Georgia. Especially highlighted newly adopted “State Strategy on Occupied Territories: Engagement through Cooperation”, which part of Georgia’s overarching determination to achieve the full de- occupation of Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region/South Ossetia.

Six years ago, Mikhail Saakashvili led protesters through barricades around the Georgian Parliament and launched the fundamental movement of change the world has come to know as the “Rose Revolution”. Since 2004, Saakashvili’s favourite phrase has been “Whatever happens, we will bring this battle to an end”. The initial achievements of Georgia’s ‘Rose Revolution’ were impressive: among other improvements, petty corruption was significantly reduced; power and gas supplies were ensured; many roads rebuilt and buildings repaired; and the corrupt traffic police were dismissed entirely and replaced with a reliable mobile patrol. No less impressive was the agreement signed with Russia regarding the closure of Russian military bases stationed in Georgia since Soviet times. It was announced that EU and NATO memberships were just around the corner, and EU symbols and flags appeared in public places alongside the newly-adopted national ones, as though Georgia was already an EU member. It was only later that the revolutionary leaders’ lack of understanding of democratic ideals and principles, and their disinclination to follow them, became apparent.

When it comes to foreign policy, relations with Russia are a huge problem. But the Russian question is not being addressed rationally: formal appeals for dialogue have traditionally been combined with irritating, counter -productive moves, making the prospect of territorial integrity more unrealistic than ever before. The frozen conflict dynamic changed dramatically after Mikheil Saakashvili came to power in 2003. He viewed the restoration of territorial integrity as a precondition of re-building Georgia’s statehood.

Staunchly pro-Western foreign policy choices were meant to support this process and Georgia’s democratization. They also irritated Moscow. Russia’s support to, and in some cases meddling in, Abkhazia and South Ossetia increased in response. As tensions mounted, the Georgian leadership opted for conflict resolution policies dominated by the threat of the use of force and isolation, which served to further alienate Abkhaz and Ossetian constituencies. The Georgian government described infringed territorial integrity is the main source of a number of other problems that undermine the political, economic and social stability of the country. According to the National Security Concept of Georgia main threat for country was: Georgia’s state borders’ remain undefined; uncontrolled territories host illegal militant groups, create conditions favorable to a variety of terrorist groups and provide fertile ground for contraband and transnational organized crime; and separatist regimes systematically violate human rights.

Adjara success of Georgian Government 

Georgia’s new government has handled its first serious crisis in 2004. The authoritarian leader of the Autonomous republic of Ajaria, Aslan Abashidze, opposed the November 2003 ‘Revolution of Roses’ which brought Mikheil Saakashvili to power. Abashidze stepped up repression against his opponents in the autonomous region, and created obstacles to January 4 presidential elections. In response, Saakashvili announced a partial blockade of Adjara, with Georgia’s marine forces re-routing ships bound for Ajaria’s capital, Batumi, to the port of Poti. Airspace and the border with Turkey were closed off. The bank accounts of Ajarian officials and companies associated with them were frozen. Saakashvili demanded a free political campaign during the run-up to the March 28 elections, the release of the arrested activists, and the re-establishment of central government control over Ajaria’s customs at the border with Turkey and in the port of Batumi. Abashidze, who departed to Moscow before the blockade entered into force, called for Russian “peacekeeping troops” to be stationed on Ajaria’s administrative border. Reports emerged of Ajarian authorities arming civilians and requesting assistance from Russia’s military base stationed in Batumi. Since Abashidze’s departure, Ajara has been firmly reintegrated into Georgia’s fold. Elections to its Supreme Council were held on 20 June 2004, and a constitutional law on the Status of the Autonomous Republic enacted two weeks later. President Saakashvili stood by his pledge to allow Ajara to retain an autonomous status.

Similar situations in the early 1990s led to armed confrontation in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which ended in the factual secession of those provinces. Although the Ajarian leadership has never called for secession from Georgia, a potentially dangerous armed standoff took place for five days on Ajaria’s administrative border.

“The existence of stereotypical attitudes in Georgia toward secessionist Abkhaz and South Ossets highlights the challenge of successfully integrating different ethnic groups into society.”

Stereotypical attitudes toward Abkhazia and South Ossetia

The existence of stereotypical attitudes in Georgia toward secessionist Abkhaz and South Ossets highlights the challenge of successfully integrating different ethnic groups into society. Prior to the revolution, most public discussions of the unresolved conflicts with Abkhazia and South Ossetia degenerated into lengthy and ultimately fruitless debates on how the conflicts should be qualified: as ethnic; ethno-political; ethno territorial; political or something else entirely. The idea of ‘ethnic’ conflict has always been dismissed; the government does not perceive Georgian society as capable of fomenting xenophobia or suppressing minorities. The problem was usually classified as political and Russian- imposed. It was maintained that if Russia ended its battle with Georgia and left the country to its own devices, Abkhaz and Ossets would be able to live harmoniously in the same state.

This unrealistic and counterproductive assessment of the situation is indicative of the Georgian tendency to relieve itself of responsibility for a problem by shifting this responsibility to a powerful external party. This approach removes the need for uncomfortable dialogue with persistent minority communities. Shevardnadze had to reject ‘Georgian–Abkhaz’ and ‘Georgian–Osset’ as potential labels for the conflicts. Aware of the likely consequences, he avoided the label ‘Georgian–Russian’, and instead the situation became known in official domestic and foreign channels as the rather unwieldy ‘Conflict in Abkhazia, Georgia’. Saakashvili went through the same process, although his policy was much more proactive (and self-fulfilling) in illustrating the chilling reality of the Georgian–Russian conflict.

Saakashvili’s “Sanakoev Project”

In 2007, the Georgian Parliament passed this month a law paving the way for the creation of a provisional administrative entity, which apparently will be led by Tbilisi-loyal South Ossetian alternative leader Dimitri Sanakoev. The fact that Sanakoev’s administration was funded by the Georgia’s central authorities. 2006 de facto presidential elections in Tskhinvali, Tbilisi supported the ‘alternative’ de facto election of Dmitri Sanakoev, a former Ossetian separatist, to become an alternative to the South Ossetian leader, Eduard Kokoity.

Sanakoev however only operated in Georgian-controlled areas of the conflict zone and had no influence among the South Ossetian constituency. The Tbilisi government gave Sanakoev significant financial and political backing, and incorporated his structure into the central government in May 2007. Tbilisi wanted to have in Sanakoev a negotiating partner with whom status negotiations on South Ossetia’s future within Georgia would be possible.

Tbilisi’s strategy backfired. Because South Ossetians widely considered Sanakoev to be a traitor, he failed to convince them that he could credibly represent their interests. What became known as the ‘Sanakoev project’ was a political priority of the Georgian government, and it allocated more than 30 million GEL (14 million euros or 19 million U.S. dollars) for the development of those areas that it controlled in the conflict zone since 2007. Ethnic Georgians and the handful of Ossetians who lived there finally saw their villages rehabilitated. But this one sided focus and the attempt to portray Sanakoev as a representative of the Ossetian community in fact deepened the ethnic divide.

August 2008 war

The Georgian-Ossetian-Russian war broke out in August 2008 amid political hostility, volatile security, militarization and a physical separation of conflicted communities. Russia’s response to Georgia’s misguided military offensive against Tskhinvali has clearly been disproportionate and gone far beyond the boundaries of South Ossetia that, according to Moscow, urged for protection. The Russian military invaded deep into Georgia, destroying military and civilian targets. Georgia lost control of territories it had previously controlled in and around the zones of conflict (Kodori Gorge in Abkhazia, and the Didi Liakhvi, Patara Liakhvi and Prone gorges in South Ossetia, as well as the Akhalgori district). More than 20,000 Georgians from these areas remain displaced. The August 2008 war divided Georgia’s political situation into a ‘before’ and ‘after’.
After August war,
• Russia unilaterally recognized Abkhaz and South Ossetian independence in August 2008, garnering severe criticism from Tbilisi and the West.

• The war has had profoundly negative impact on inter-ethnic relations and prospects for conflict resolution. Relations between Abkhaz and Ossetians on the one hand, and Georgians on the other hand, are beyond short-term repair. Old and new fears and grievances overshadow potential opportunities for reconciliation. Russia’s recognition of the territories added political complexity.

• Ossetians find themselves fully dependent on Russia in practical terms. The first postwar winter provided tangible proof of this: with links to Georgia proper sealed, humanitarian, construction and energy supplies have to come from the north.
• Abkhazia focus is on building a state and its institutions, and on securing meaningful links to the world beyond Russia. Interest in the Georgian side is minimal though many realize that Russian recognition does not mean that the conflict is resolved.

Although the details of the August war on South Ossetia are subject to debate, one thing is already clear: President Saakashvili’s attempt to bring the breakaway region under control of the central government with military force shook the Georgian army to its foundations. The advancing Georgian troops were defeated by Russia within days.

The French and Russian presidents agreed after four hours of talks in Moscow on September 8 2008 that Russia would pull out its troops from Georgian territories outside Abkhazia and South Ossetia within a month. Since August 2008, Russia has consolidated its position in Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the face of relatively little international criticism. It has not returned its military presence to pre-war levels and locations, as called for in the 12 August six-point plan.

Rather than reduce its military presence in South Ossetia and Abkhazia as called for in the August and September 2008 agreements, it has continued to boost its military presence there, citing its recognition of them as independent states. When Georgian opposition parties mounted street protests in April 2009, demanding the president’s resignation, Russia acknowledged it mobilised additional troops along its border with Georgia due to what it called a “high probability of provocative actions” by Tbilisi.

Russia argued that it had to send troops to Georgia to protect its citizens there. This argument is reflected in Russia’s new foreign policy principles, which state that Moscow’s “unquestionable priority” is to protect the life and interests of Russian citizens in every country. The Russian- Georgian war has created a precedent for such Russian intervention in any post-Soviet country with ethnic Russian enclaves.

New Strategy: Engagement through Cooperation

On 28 January 2010, the Georgian government has approved a document –“State Strategy on Occupied Territories: Engagement through Cooperation”– laying out Tbilisi’s vision towards two breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

When Georgian opposition parties mounted street protests in April 2009, demanding the president’s resignation, Russia acknowledged it mobilised additional troops along its border with Georgia due to what it called a “high probability of provocative actions” by Tbilisi.

The preamble to the strategy affirms that “Georgia is building toward [sic] a future in which all its citizens will enjoy the benefits of democratic governance.” The objectives of strategy described as ,

• Promoting economic interaction between communities across the dividing lines, improving socio-economic conditions of the populations on the both sides of the dividing lines, and including Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region/South Ossetia in Georgia’s international economic relations;
• Rehabilitating and developing infrastructure that will enable the movement of goods and people across the dividing lines;
• Enhancing existing mechanisms and developing new means for promoting basic human rights in Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region/South Ossetia, including the freedom to exercise religious rights and the right to receive education in one’s native language;
• Improving the quality of, and access to, health care for war-affected populations, as well as promoting their ability to receive education;
• Promoting freedom of movement—as well as people-to-people interaction and contacts across the dividing lines through identifying areas of common interest and supporting joint inter-community projects and activities in all spheres of mutual interest;

• Supporting the preservation of cultural heritage and identity, and advancing their promotion and exposure both domestically and internationally;
• Promoting the free flow of information across the dividing lines, with the purpose of strengthening understanding and cooperation;
• Exploring legal avenues to ensure that activities in pursuit of the above-mentioned goals can be accomplished without compromising the basic principles of this Strategy—notably the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Georgia and the objective of nonrecognition and eventual de-occupation;

The section entitled “Basic Principles” affirmsthat the strategy is based on the Georgian Constitution. That statement is misleading, and arguably even dishonest, since a new constitution has been drafted in recent months, intended to replace that adopted in 1995 and amended on several subsequent occasions.

Instead, the strategy affirms that “security in Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region/South Ossetia should be ensured through international security arrangements, including impartial monitoring, police, and/or peacekeeping forces, as well as by engaging local recourses. Georgia’s commitment is positive and sounds convincing, but will the occupiers and the separatist regimes commit themselves to these proposals instead of trying to frustrate them? Indeed, the very designation of the two regions as “occupied territories” is likely to trigger anger and resentment insofar as it implicitly denies that the local populations have any say whatsoever over how, and by whom, the regions are administered. For that very reason, the strategy is hardly conducive t o p r o m o t i n g “engagement through cooperation” with “populations that have differing perceptions of the conflict” in any sphere of activity, whether economy, health, education, promoting freedom of movement, or “preserving cultural heritage and identity.”

“Saakashvili was referring to a theory described by Harvard University professor Joseph Nye as “the ability to get what you want by attracting and persuading others to adopt your goals.” 

The Abkhaz leadership has strongly criticized the Georgian government’s new document laying out strategy towards its two breakaway regions and described it as “a guideline of what Abkhazia should not do.” Sergey Shamba, the breakaway region’s foreign minister said that “We are not an occupied territory and we are not going to even talk about this issue. We regard this document as a plan of return of Abkhazia back to Georgia. For us this document is a guideline of what we should not do,”

Like successive draft peace proposals that Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili presented since his election in 2004, it is phrased in such a way as to impress the international community, rather than to address the existential fears, and win the trust of, the population of the regions in question.


The “State Strategy on Occupied Territories: Engagement through Cooperation” is part of Georgia’s overarching determination to achieve the full de-occupation of Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region/South Ossetia, reverse the process of annexation of these territories by the Russian Federation, and peacefully reintegrate these territories and their populations into Georgia’s constitutional ambit. Georgia seeks to achieve these objectives only through peaceful means and diplomatic efforts, and rejects the pursuit of a military solution. The strategy has already been adopted by the Government and presented at the Council of Europe on February 3. It will also be submitted to the OSCE, UN and EU. Gaining the support of the international community is one of the principal targets of the strategy; this should be followed by appropriate legislative changes and other details.

Saakashvili was referring to a theory described by Harvard University professor Joseph Nye as “the ability to get what you want by attracting and persuading others to adopt your goals.” But the August 2008 war and its political fallout have transformed the dynamic in and around the protracted conflict. Besides adding a new layer of abuse and infringement to the region’s history, the war has reawakened conflict-related traumas and memories of the 1990s and further removed prospects for political resolution. Opportunities to address past justice claims seem even more remote now that chances of a political breakthrough have diminished. This made the resolution of the Abkhaz and South-Osset issues a rather unrealistic outcome for the near future.

* Zaur Shiriyev is a Foreign Policy Analyst from Azerbaijan.

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