As the leaders of the Russian and Georgian governments prepare to meet one another for the first time since 2008, a historic opportunity awaits them to pave the way for not only mutual reconciliation but also a peaceful settlement to Georgia’s protracted territorial conflicts. Below is my recommended 8-point resolution to the Georgian-Abkhaz-South Ossetian conflict, a resolution that I believe could potentially pave the way for a more united Caucasus and for a more united post-Soviet space:1. A non-use-of-force agreement should be adopted by all sides, especially Georgia vis-a-vis Abkhazia and South Ossetia and Russia vis-a-vis Georgia. An agreement like this will serve to build confidence on all sides leading to a peaceful resolution. This is especially true in the case of Russia. Even though Moscow claims that it is not a party to the dispute, a non-use-of-force agreement regarding Georgia would go a long way toward building trust with Tbilisi.
2. Official Tbilisi should agree to end its ambitions to join NATO and the EU, thus providing Russia with a sense of security and enhancing the conditions for mutual trust.
3. Borders between Russia and Georgia and between Georgia and Abkhazia and Georgia and South Ossetia should be reopened. The Abkhazian railway should also be reopened and should resume traffic immediately.
4. An arrangement whereby Abkhazia and South Ossetia become co-equal members with Georgia in a united Georgian federal republic should be agreed upon. This would make Abkhazia and South Ossetia to Georgia proper like what Scotland and Wales are to England in the United Kingdom. The Georgians would ideally favor making the two regions autonomous within a unitary Georgia state, while the Abkhaz would favor outright independence, and the South Ossetians would favor unifying with the Russian republic of North Ossetia–Alania. However, none of these scenarios are realistic nor do they constitute a lasting peaceful resolution. Consequently, a federal solution would serve as a compromise and thus works best.5. Refugees. In Abkhazia, over 40,000 Georgian refugees have already returned. Georgia must recognize this and both sides must agree on the return of an additional, though very limited, number of Georgian refugees, with the rest being settled in government-funded housing in Georgia proper. Again, it should be stressed that the number of returnees must be very limited and should not dramatically shift the demographic balance of Abkhazia which in turn would create conflict and instability. Sukhumi would never accept the return of all Georgian refugees, especially if it meant making the Abkhaz a minority in their own republic again. For their part, Tbilisi must see and understand the Abkhaz ethnic sensitivities if they are serious about achieving Georgian unity. As for South Ossetia, all Georgian refugees should return, especially those expelled after the hostilities in 2008.
6. The accession of the united Georgian federal state to the Eurasian Customs Union. This would ensure the economic viability of the new state. By contrast, membership in the economically tenuous EU would threaten and seriously undermine its stability. Another benefit of the Customs Union is that it would ensure Russian protection of the Abkhaz and the Ossetes and guarantee the South Ossetians free access to the brethren in North Ossetia, while simultaneously remaining a formal part of Georgia.
7. Switch all Abkhaz, South Ossetian, and Georgian passports to passports of the new Georgian federal state. All Abkhaz, Ossetes, Georgians, and others holding Russian citizenship and passports should relinquish these to the new state as well. The Russian passports were largely issued (a) to enable residents of Abkhazia and South Ossetia to travel internationally and (b) for Russia to protect the Abkhaz and the Ossetes from a potential attack by Mikheil Saakashvili’s Georgia. A new passport for a federal Georgia would enable the citizens of these regions to travel internationally without any problems. Meanwhile, Russia would feel no need to protect the residents of these regions as long as it was secure in the knowledge that Tbilisi had no aggressive intentions against them. Guarantees for an equal say for the Abkhaz and Ossetes in a new federal Georgia combined with a non-use-of-force agreement by Tbilisi, Tbilisi renouncing its intention to join NATO, and potential membership in the Eurasian Customs Union would mitigate any need for the people of these regions to have Russian passports.8. A “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” (like the kind in South Africa) should be formed to promote justice and reconciliation among all those affected by the ethnic conflicts in Georgia.
On a separate note, official Tbilisi must make an effort to address and condemn the situation in Abkhazia during the Stalin and Beria years, especially the assassination of the charismatic Abkhaz leader Nestor Lakoba and his family by Beria and the efforts by Beria to increase the number of Kartvelians in Abkhazia. The legacy of this horrible time casts a long shadow over the present-day conflict. Consequently, such condemnations would go far in rebuilding and forging trust and friendship between the Georgians and the Abkhaz. After all, the Georgian and Abkhaz people share much in common in terms of both history and culture. Though they speak two different languages, both share a love for polyphonic singing and traditional Caucasian feasts. Further, the Abkhaz were part of the ancient kingdom of Colchis and it was King Bagrat II of Abkhazia (himself of mixed Abkhaz-Georgian descent) who unified the first Georgian state in medieval times. These two fraternal peoples should not let the heavy burden of the Stalin-Beria years weigh on them forever. Such concerns need to be addressed.
Further, any rhetoric or discourse attempting to cast the Abkhaz and Ossetes as “new arrivals” to Georgia must be vigorously discouraged. The “Georgia for Georgians” philosophy has done more to undermine the cause of Georgian unity than anything else (even arguably among the Georgians themselves!).