Aspects of the Georgian-Abkhazian Conflict

Editors: Paula Garb
Arda Inal-Ipa
Paata Zakareishvili

This publication was made possible by a grant from
The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

Copyright � 2003 University of California, Irvine

Social Science Plaza A 3151
Irvine, California 92697-5100
(949) 824-1227
(949)824-1544 fax


Since 1997 the University of California, Irvine1 , has facilitated nongovernmental dialogues between Georgians and Abkhaz. The project is distinct because the topics are not only focused on conflict issues. Participants also analyze the dialogue process itself, evaluate their participation in this process, and assess the potential for citizen peacebuilding to have a positive influence on the peace process at the political level.

Although we have not seen evidence of a significant impact of the citizen dialogue process on the official negotiations, the participants are convinced that the dialogue has promoted mutual understanding at the citizen level and is a necessary component of the peace process. The Abkhaz-Georgian dialogues have not always gone smoothly. The discussions have sometimes been difficult. But we continue to jointly analyze the conflict because the Georgian and Abkhaz participants understand that peace cannot be achieved unilaterally; it requires the efforts of both parties.

Since 1999 the dialogues have taken the form of research conferences devoted to various aspects of the conflict and related topics. In the early stages the participants were chosen from a pool of the best abstracts that they submitted on a given topic. The participants were academics, politicians, members of nongovernmental organizations, and journalists. Eventually each side identified a number of motivated authors and therefore no longer relied on a competitive selection process.

Each conference resulted in a publication of the proceedings. Participants of the third conference made a decision that was unusual even for unofficial dialogues. They agreed to include their discussions of the papers in all future proceedings. Often these discussions covered a wide range of topics not always directly related to the presentation. This was in order to make the informal dialogue process as transparent as possible. This decision reflected our openness and trust in the readers who could now observe this complex quest for mutual understanding. We hope that the publication of these papers and discussions that reflect the evolution of the dialogue have won the trust of the readers in the process.

The public supports this project and the proceedings are read with great interest and discussed by people on both sides. This interest is largely due to the analytical nature of the project. For instance, many innovative proposals for settling the conflict were discussed and "tested" for the first time in this process. Undoubtedly there are different reactions to discussions on such a complex matter as the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict. Disagreements and criticism are natural. However, some of the criticism has resulted from distortions of the published statements and quotations used out of context. This misinforms the public about the content of the dialogue discussions. Despite these difficulties the project is accomplishing its main task, which is to stimulate creative thinking in Abkhazia and Georgia about what went wrong in the relations between the two peoples and how to build normal and stable relations for the future.

Conference participants have discussed a wide range of issues. Several issues, however, have been consistent topics at all the meetings-(1) the effectiveness of citizen peacebuilding, (2) the role of civil society in transforming the conflict, (3) the roots of the conflict, (4) the political status of Abkhazia, (5) the return of refugees, and (6) the underlying interests of the parties. This ninth volume in the series "Aspects of the Georgian-Abkhaz Conflict" is different from all previous volumes because it traces the evolution of the discussions at the dialogue conferences on all six of these issues, thus summarizing the main points debated since the outset of the project. Another departure from the project's regular publications is that this volume includes articles commissioned from people who did not participate in the project's dialogues. We asked them to share with us their observations of the project and the Georgian-Abkhaz citizen peace process in the past several years.

We hope that readers will find this volume interesting and will also want to look at previous publications of conference proceedings.


Irina Agrba
Evaluation of the UC Irvine project "The Role of Citizen Peacebuilding in the Georgian-Abkhaz Conflict", pp. 235-242

The author, who is not a project participant, was asked to evaluate all the project publications. She stresses that such projects can transform the conflict by promoting civil society and strengthening democratic institutions on both sides of the conflict.
From the outset the project focused on studying the role of citizen peacebuilding in resolving the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict. The very first conference (March 1999, Sochi) was entirely devoted to this subject. In subsequent meetings many other issues were discussed, especially the most important and urgent ones. The nongovernmental organizations participating in the project have accumulated much experience in citizen peacebuilding from the fourteen dialogue conferences.

The author believes that one of the project's accomplishments is that some Georgian dialogue participants are open to the idea of an independent Abkhazia, at least theoretically. Agrba regards this as a breakthrough in Georgian thinking about the conflict, but notes with regret that even these Georgians often prefer discussing various models of coexistence of Abkhazia and Georgia in one state.
She concludes that the project has resulted in very interesting and useful research.

Natella Akaba
Democratic Institutions: Trends and Prospects, pp. 101-114

The authors of project articles have focused much attention on the relationship between building civil society and democratic institutions and resolving the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict. Often they understand differently the concept of civil society. For instance, Manana Gurgulia does not examine the role of political movements in Abkhazia's developments even though she regards them as part of civil society. Levan Geradze, in one of the first articles on the role of civil society in preventing and resolving armed conflicts (an article that set the tone for subsequent Georgian articles on the subject) maintains that the destructive consequences of the conflicts in Georgia have not hindered (and perhaps have even helped) the rapid process of democratization and the building of effective institutions of civil society. His definition of civil society is rather broad, and includes not only nongovernmental organizations, but also political movements and political parties.

In one of her articles Akaba points out that a serious obstacle to promoting civil society is the fear of a foreign enemy that unifies people in a society. She says that in such a society it isn't clear how to ensure individual rights and freedoms and develop political pluralism.

One of the most controversial issues discussed has been the role of Russia and the West in furthering democratic processes in Abkhazia and Georgia. This issue has been examined in the context of the interests of Russia, Georgia and Abkhazia. Paata Zakareishvili and other Georgian participants are certain that the democratic development of Abkhaz and Georgian societies is not in Russia's interests. Akaba, on the other hand, maintains that the West also does not show any tangible interest in supporting democratic processes.

The publications show the evolution of thinking among the participants regarding the role of civil society in resolving the conflict. In the first few dialogue conferences the participants tended to analyze the causes of the conflict in terms of who was to blame. Later their analysis of the conflict was more complex and nuanced and they sought solutions.

It is difficult to disagree with Abesalom Lepsaya who maintains that neither in Abkhazia nor in Georgia has civil society become a serious force that can impact transformation of the conflict. Despite the weakness and vulnerability of civil society it is becoming a factor in public and political affairs, and civil society actors are increasingly ready to take part in the decision-making process.

George Anchabadze
The Impact of Citizen Peacebuilding on the Peace Process, pp. 69-93

Originally the series "Aspects of the Georgian-Abkhaz Conflict" was intended to provide a forum for analyzing the role of citizen peacebuilding in the peace process. Later other subjects were added, but participants continued to discuss the effectiveness of citizen peacebuilding, especially in the meetings of project participants with the Abkhaz and Georgian communities (Sukhumi 1999 and Tbilisi 2000).

As for the goals of citizen peacebuilding, they were both strategic and applied. Those who supported strategic goals believed that the main goal of the project was to find a common language on the most important issues that would help them later agree on a solution to the conflict. For instance, Natella Akaba believed that "middle level leaders (NGO activists, academics, etc.) could and should develop a joint approach to the roots and causes of the Georgian Abkhaz conflict." (The opinions of the project participants regarding the origins of the conflict, as a rule, were representative of their communities. According to Marina Nikuradze, opinions of the Georgian participants in citizen peacebuilding projects regarding the causes of the conflict did not differ much from those of most Georgians, only in terms of the nuances.)

Other participants considered citizen peacebuilding to be primarily a vehicle for initiating specific projects of a practical nature without waiting for a final resolution - for instance, joint environmental projects, considered politically neutral. Shalva Jaoshvili suggested a joint undertaking to monitor the erosion of the Black Sea coastline, beginning with a modest project and eventually expanding it as the political situation improved, involving joint training seminars and fieldwork.

One of the long-term goals of citizen peacebuilding is to win support among broad sections of the public. Thus, the UCI project conducted public opinion surveys from the outset. The goal was to determine the popularity of the ideas of citizen peacebuilding in various sections of the public.

As expected, the people most interested in citizen peacebuilding were those who had suffered the most from the conflict, the refugees. This is reflected in the data collected by Nodar Sarjveladze, who used focus groups to determine the opinions of refugees in their centers in Tbilisi and Zugdidi.

In Abkhazia citizen diplomacy was not popular even in the civil society sector. According to data collected by Arda Inal-Ipa, when NGO activists were asked to list in order of importance various activities, such as research, small business, medicine, human rights, and citizen peacebuilding, they put citizen peacebuilding at the end of the list for hypothetical funding.

Oleg Damenia
From Monologues to Dialogues: The Experience of Abkhaz-Georgian Conflict Resolution, pp. 157-170

In the early phase of the negotiations the two sides adopted a number of important documents, including the "Declaration of Measures for Political Settlement of the Abkhaz-Georgian Conflict." Unfortunately, no progress has been made since that time. Many observers and analysts agree that there is no progress in the talks and a constructive approach is lacking. In this context it was necessary to involve nongovernmental forces in the peace process. In the framework of the UC Irvine project these forces have produced rich information, unlike any other project, and have thus created a broad analytical foundation for modeling mutually acceptable approaches to resolving the conflict.

The author maintains that the main strategic goal of both sides in the conflict, as socio-cultural communities, is the reproduction of their own lifestyle and guarantee of safety. He believes the Georgian side does not need Abkhazia to achieve these goals.
Both sides have, however, many shared interests. The fact that the economy of Abkhazia and Georgia are in a state of "stable stagnation" is evidence that neither country is self sufficient in many spheres, including the economy. If they interacted with each other they could become self sufficient without waiting for a comprehensive settlement. For instance, it is in the interests of both sides to develop and run joint recreational projects.

In the realm of cultural and information interests, Georgia must reconcile itself to the fact that Abkhazia wants to remain within the Russian cultural space. Georgia will also have to reckon with the fact that the Abkhaz have another interest in Russia, and that is to maintain their ties with related peoples of the North Caucasus.

Marina Elbakidze
The Interests of the Parties, pp. 195-234

One of the main goals of the conferences has been to identify the shared interests of the two sides. Project participants began systematically working on this issue only after the 7th volume when Arda Inal-Ipa wrote an article introducing an approach to this problem. As a result they decided to devote the whole 8th volume to the issue of interests. This first article on the subject presented a list of the individual interests of each side (for instance, one of the interests of Georgia cited was the development of federalism and local self-government), and a list of shared interests, one of which was resolution of the conflict and the establishment of stability in the region. Later in the discussions most of the participants frequently named security as the main shared interest. This prompted John Paul Lederach, a guest presenter at the conference from the United States, to cite stability and security in the region as one of the main shared interests of both sides.

In Nodar Sarjveladze's opening presentation for the 8th volume he suggested defining interests based on the theory of basic human needs - security, identity, freedom, recognition and understanding, participation in society, creativity, recreation, etc. Most of the discussion after the presentation, however, was about the presence of Russian peacekeepers in the conflict zone in the context of the interests of Russia, Georgia and Abkhazia. This led to discussion of a more general topic - whether a political orientation toward Russia or the West is in the best interests of the parties. The Georgian participants (with some exceptions) were in favor of a pro-Western orientation. The Abkhaz participants rejected the West's categorical support for the principle of Georgian territorial integrity.

The eighth volume also contained discussions about shared economic interests. David Berdzenishvili even proposed a joint venture project that he believed would satisfy the interests not only of Georgia and Abkhazia, but also other Black Sea countries, as well as other countries outside the Black Sea area, such as Armenia. He said this would represent the "de facto and de jure legalization of Abkhaz economic structures, not only in Georgia, but also in other countries."

Elbakidze summarizes in detail all the discussions on the topic of interests, including those that took place on Georgian TV programs. However, she refrains from analyzing those "spontaneous" discussions that did not take place on "neutral ground," because they were not part of a systematic effort to determine interests.

Elbakidze reminds the readers of the terminology used to classify interests (declared and hidden, long-term and short-term, pseudo and genuine interests). Although the participants do not always use the accepted terminology, an attentive reader can easily see that the discussion of issues and values is really about the interests and positions of the parties.

Archil Gegeshidze
Evaluating the Effectiveness of the UC Irvine project "The Role of Citizen Peacebuilding in the Georgian-Abkhaz Conflict", pp. 242-248

The goal of the article is to determine to what extent the project participants have reached their goals and to assess whether they should continue their efforts. The series of conference proceedings shows how the subject matter and positions of the Georgian and Abkhaz participants changed over time and gives a clear picture of the trends in the project.

It is hard to exaggerate the value of such projects. In the context of the polarization of public opinion on both sides of the conflict, maintaining consistent dialogue between representatives of the Georgian and Abkhaz public is the only cause for hope. The testing of different ideas during the dialogues has provided important experience that can be useful in resolving other problems. One of the project's main goals articulated in the first volume of the series was to disseminate the results in the region and among international organizations and conflict resolution experts. Therefore the project has practical and theoretical applications.

The participants are extremely interesting. Many of them have vast experience in politics and academia. Their voices are heard not only during the dialogues. In between meetings they discuss many of the issues in the media, including in the most influential of media, television.

The project is still young, more people need to be reached, and the Abkhaz participants could be less rigid in their positions, but undoubtedly the project is worthy of all possible support and should continue.

Abesalom Lepsaya
Conference Proceedings on the Roots of the Georgian-Abkhaz Conflict, pp. 46-58

The roots and causes of the conflict are discussed mainly in the 2nd and 5th volumes of the conference proceedings, although some mention is made of the subject in the 1st volume, which is devoted to another topic. In that volume Georgi Anchabadze said that one of the most important factors that fueled the conflict was the politicization of academics, for instance, the proponents of the theory of non-indigenous Abkhaz that was originated by P. Ingorokva. In this same volume Manana Gurgulia listed a number of factors that led to conflict-the unfair Soviet ethnic-territorial structure with its hierarchical classification of ethnic groups, and the desire for control over resources.

She also believes that an important factor was the fear of losing ethnic identity. This fear increased after the rise in Georgia of openly nationalistic political movements and the publication of anti-Abkhaz articles in the Georgian press.

According to Marina Nikuradze, most Georgian citizen peacebuilders she surveyed traced the roots of the conflict back to the 19th century when because of the exodus of Abkhaz from Abkhazia the demographics changed. The huge numbers of Georgian migrants who settled on the land that was abandoned struck in the Abkhaz the fear of assimilation and created negative attitudes toward Georgians, even though they were not responsible for the exodus of the Abkhaz.

According to Arda Inal-Ipa, aspirations for recognition of an independent state are motivated by a desire to assert the inalienable right of the Abkhaz people to control their own territory, which is based on Abkhaz traditional emotional attachment to the land.

Tamara Shakryl believes that the cause of the conflict is the hypocritical policy of major powers and the international organizations that they control. These forces may declare the right of nations to self-determination, but in practice they deny this right to numerically small nations. She also criticizes applying the term ethnic minority to the Abkhaz, referring to the definition of the term inorodets (the obsolete name for non-ethnic Russians) in an old Russian dictionary by V. Dal.

Irakly Surguladze and Oleg Damenia blame Soviet government for alienating the Abkhaz from the Georgians. According to Surguladze, during the Soviet period Abkhaz intellectuals and youth were subject to continual Russification and had no regard for the Georgian government. Damenia points out that although Abkhaz and Georgians consider themselves part of the Caucasus socio-cultural space, a factor that impacted the conflict was the Soviet political practice of categorizing ethnic groups according to their loyalty to Soviet government.

Most authors who wrote about the roots of the conflict deal with moral, ideological and historical issues. They hardly ever discuss the social, economic and political aspects of the conflict. It is not always clear what they think are the causes and consequences of the conflict.

Daur Nachkebia
Abkhazia's Political Status from the Perspective of the UC Irvine Project Participants, pp. 133-155

The issue of Abkhazia's status was first discussed in detail at the March 2000 conference held in Moscow.  The Georgian participants proposed a federal state.  Other participants suggested different solutions.  Sergei Arutyunov, head of the Caucasus Department in the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology, proposed the Andorra model, which could be a dual protectorate of Russia and Georgia.  Stanislav Lakoba, an academic and political leader in Abkhazia, suggested that the conference participants develop several models, including (1) a neutral state in the Caucasus, (2) a state like Andorra, and (3) a state under the protectorate of international organizations, and have them evaluated by the international community.

At the next conference, in August 2000, the Georgian participants made basically the same proposal:  "Georgia and Abkhazia face the task of building a shared state" (Nodar Sarjveladze).  But at the March 2001 conference David Berdzenishvili proposed a new approach - a future model could be the coexistence of Georgia and Abkhazia as "a single state or another form of shared space, time will tell."

At the next conference, Nodar Sarjveladze talked about the futility of trying to interest the Abkhaz in a shared state:  "In this deadlock it makes sense to put a moratorium on a whole set of issues related to the status of Abkhazia" and shift efforts to study the needs and interests of the conflicting societies.

Nachkebia stresses that the relaxed and friendly atmosphere of the meetings has helped the parties understand each other better.  For instance, some Georgian participants already think it's necessary to recognize Abkhazia's independence.  Such statements were also made at the conference in Moscow in July 2002.  He assumes Zurab Chiaberashvili's statement (Sochi, 2001), "Georgians and Abkhaz are in the process of building their states," also implies that the Abkhaz have a right to their own state. lthough the project participants have not yet developed a roadmap to resolving the conflict, they have come up with a number of interesting proposals that await serious and competent analysis. The proposal made in Sochi {August 2001) to further study the needs and interests of the two sides is promising.

In his appendix Nachkebia quotes several of the conference participants.  For instance, Ghia Nodia pessimistically predicts that Georgia will not recognize Abkhazia in the foreseeable future; David Silagadze criticizes the Abkhaz for not making any compromises on the issue of status and regards that as lack of desire to resolve the conflict; Oleg Damenia maintains that Georgia does not stand to lose anything by recognizing Abkhazia's independence because Georgian ethnic identity does not depend on Abkhazia, but the recognition of Abkhazia could improve Abkhazia's attitude toward Georgia.

Nodar Sarjveladze
The Refugee Issue, pp. 121-132

Compared to other subjects, very little can be found in the conference transcripts on the subject of Georgian refugees from Abkhazia. It seems that this issue has been drowned out by the abundance of issues raised in the presentations. Apparently the conference participants were cautious about choosing such a controversial subject for their contributions, preferring to deal with it later.

The author of this article raised the issue several times, starting with the first conference proceedings where he published his survey data collected in Zugdidi, where the largest number of refugees from the Gali district of Abkhazia reside.

One of the most tragic issues is that of refugees' return. Participants talk about this issue not only in their presentations but also in discussions. All the refugees want to return to Abkhazia, but what kind of Abkhazia? To the former Abkhazia? That Abkhazia no longer exists. To an independent Republic of Abkhazia? But do they want to take Abkhaz citizenship? To an Abkhazia within Georgia? The Abkhaz don't want that. And certainly not to an Abkhazia that is part of Russia or is a protectorate of Russia. As Roman Dbar said, neither the Georgians nor the Abkhaz want this. How will they live together with the Abkhaz? Back in January 2000, Sarjveladze and his co-authors wrote about the fundamental and irreconcilable differences between the Abkhaz and Georgian perspectives on the most critical issues. These differences are still irreconcilable. Under such circumstances it is hard to imagine how Georgian refugees could get along with the Abkhaz.

That's why the current effort is to integrate the refugees in those provinces or towns where they reside. The problem is that their relations with the local populations have deteriorated from the time of their arrival when people were sympathetic to their plight. Today the tense relations do not make integration easy.

Sergei Shamba,  Foreign Minister of Abkhazia
The Peace Process in the Context of Citizen Peacebuilding, pp. 248-261

The author notes the long history of traditions in citizen peacebuilding in the Caucasus, including Abkhazia. He mentions various existing peacebuilding projects and maintains that the project sponsored by the University of California, Irvine, is the most significant. He reviews every volume in the project's series of conference proceedings.
Shamba maintains that the Abkhaz public has serious concerns about the advisability and effectiveness of citizen peacebuilding projects. However, he says that recently attitudes toward these activities have been improving.  This is because of a general change in attitudes as people become more optimistic due to the society's transition from a state of emergency to a civil society and market economy.


Arda Inal-Ipa,
Center for Humanitarian Programs

Paata Zakareishvili,
Caucasian Institute for Peace, Democracy and Development

Paula Garb,
University of California, Irvine,
The Citizen Peacebuilding Program and International Studies

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