The end of my blog.

As some of my regular readers will have noticed, I have not updated this blog since the beginning of February. Over the last few months I have been involved in several projects that have left me little time and opportunity for blogging, and now some additional changes related to my professional life force me to suspend blogging permanently. However, I might still contribute material to other outlets occasionally, so you will no doubt hear more from me in the future. In any case, I want to thank everyone who has read and commented on this blog, and I hope I have spured some of you to new thinking regarding political issues and problems in the Caucasus.

Thank you, and goodbye, for now!

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What 2012 may bring.

We are already writing February in the calendar, and this is my first post of the New Year. Last year was an interesting year as far as both world and Caucasus politics went, and I believe 2012 will be even more so.

In 2012 we will will have many important events to look forward to in the region, first and foremost presidential elections in Russia, parliamentary elections in Georgia, and repeat presidential elections in South Ossetia. The first and the last will be especially interesting to follow, due to the controversy that has surrounded both former Russian president Vladimir Putin’s possible reelection, and the attempts of South Ossetian presidential hopeful Alla Jioeva to confront the power structures left by South Ossetian president Kokoity in the wake of disputed presidential elections last year.

So far in the new year we have had various international organisations, including Freedom House, presenting their take on the general direction of development regarding human rights and democracy in the South Caucasus, and the conflict between the West and Iran has also intensified, with the whole range of repercussions that might have for security, stability and economic development in the region.

Among other developments, Azerbaijan is holding the Eurovision Song Contest among threats of  renewed war with Armenia over Nagorno Karabakh, and there are also some interesting dynamics worth discussing regarding the relationship between Georgia, Russia, the Circassians and the Abkhaz in the aftermath of Georgia’s recognition last year of the Circassian Genocide, as well as the run up to the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

I expect to touch upon these, and many other subjects of interest, in the forthcoming year.

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On Conflict Resolution and Compromise.

I wrote this article for the blog of my friend Giorgi Tskhadaia, Op-ed columnist at Liberali, Georgia’s foremost liberal newspaper. The article basically deals with ways to solve the separatist conflicts in Georgia through a negotiated compromise. The article was not meant as a comprehensive academic paper, but more as an outline of a few possible ways forward when it comes to conflict resolution:

On Conflict Resolution and Compromise (Richard Berge © 2011)

During the last two decades of the conflicts between Georgia and its two breakaway republics Abkhazia and South Ossetia, a few facts have become increasingly clear. Firstly, attempts by the sides to internationalize the conflicts by drawing in outside powers like Russia, the United States and more recently the EU have failed to contribute significantly to conflict resolution. Secondly, attempts to use force to resolve the conflicts have also backfired, and only resulted in making the conflicts more bitter and intractable. Further, the policy of Georgia and the West of isolating Abkhazia and South Ossetia has only driven them further into Russia’s embrace, and the reestablishment of Georgian sovereignty over the two republics looks increasingly impossible. The current status of the “frozen conflicts” remains detrimental to the economic, political and humanitarian situation in the region, and the time is overripe for the sides directly involved to come to the table and work out a negotiated solution to the conflicts based on mutual respect and the common good.

Such a negotiated solution can only be really workable in the form of compromise, where all sides gain some, but also have to make major concession to the other side. For example, a compromise can be agreed on whereby Georgia recognizes the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, while predominantly Georgian populated districts of both statelets remain under Georgian control, and a gradual return of Georgian refugees takes places under neutral, international supervision. For example, the Upper Kodori Gorge and Gali district of Abkhazia would remain with Georgia, as would the Akhalgori district of South Ossetia. Important infrastructure like the Inguri Hydroelectric Station, situated across the boundary between Abkhazia and Georgia, will also in its entirety pass to Georgia.

The Georgian refugees returning to the rest of Abkhazia and South Ossetia must refrain from raising any demands for regional autonomy or direction from Tbilisi, and in return the Abkhazian government must guarantee the security and safety of all returnees, including their right to life, dignity, property, linguistic and cultural expression. The returnees should also be given full democratic rights equal with all other citizens of independent Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and towards this goal the citizenship law of Abkhazia should be amended, including the abolishment of the article of the law restricting the right to dual citizenship. In addition, a truth and reconciliation commission should be set up, which aim should not be to prosecute war criminals or ascertain blame for the conflicts, but contribute to acknowledgement of human suffering and loss on all sides.

Unfortunately, negotiated solutions such as the one described above, have so far found few supporters. The political atmosphere in both Georgia and the breakaway republics almost exclusively promotes an “all or nothing” approach to conflict resolution, and there is a general lack of public support, and political will among key politicians, to make the sacrifices necessary for any kind of compromise. There is also the question of how the respective international partners and allies of the parties involved will react to their clients’ moving forward with such a deal. Some critics would argue that Russia and the Western allies between them exert too much influence over the de jure and de facto governments in the region for such a compromise to ever become a reality.

On the other hand, the fact remains that in the South Caucasus, the “puppets” often play the “puppeteers” just as much as the reverse, and that local elites and political forces on the ground in reality have a lot of space for maneuver. Both the Abkhazians and South Ossetians have shown themselves in recent times to be able to act against the will of Moscow, and US and European plans for Georgia have likewise often been frustrated and ignored by Tbilisi. Still, the hope remains that all sides involved will eventually see the benefit of such compromises, and that a political course correction will take place that leaves the road open to real conflict resolution.

Posted in Abkhazia, Gali Region, Georgia, South Ossetia | 2 Comments

The Myth of Mingrelian Separatism – a reply to Guram Sharia.

On the 4th of November an article by Guram Sharia, a news correspondent based in Tbilisi, Georgia, was published on the site of the Russian news agency Regnum and various other outlets. In his article Sharia argues that the threat of separatism in Georgia has increased since the 2008 August War, especially in areas populated by Mingrelians and Svans. Sharia calls the north western provinces of Samegrelo and Svaneti, where Mingrelians and Svans are compactly settled “charged springs of separatism in Georgia”, and places much of the blame for the increased danger of separatism on the alleged efforts of the government of Georgia to marginalise and assimilate Mingrelian and Svan language and culture. In Sharia’s opinion, the deteriorating condition of the Mingrelian and Svan languages and their eventual substitution for Georgian could eventually become a catalyst for separatist rebellion similar to those seen in the breakaway republics Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Having spent considerable time studying Mingrelian and Svan language issues, including conducting research among Mingrelian language activist and interacting with ordinary Mingrelians and Svans in both Western Georgia and Tbilisi, I can confirm most of the claims made by Sharia with regards to these issues. First off, it is a fact that that the influence of Mingrelian and Svan is continually declining in today’s Georgia. Although there are few reliable statistics on Mingrelian and Svan language usage, anecdotal evidence suggest that a large portion, perhaps a majority of Mingrelians and Svans maintain only partial retention of their respective languages at best, and prefer Georgian as their language for everyday use. The use of Mingrelian and Svan in everyday situations also appears to be rapidly declining. Research I have myself carried out in Samegrelo suggests that this is particularly true among young people, for whom Georgian is particularly important as a language for social and economic advancement in the current political climate.

It is also generally true that Mingrelian and Svan languages enjoy low status both socially and in an official sense in present day Georgia. By virtue of not being literary languages, Mingrelian and Svan are widely seen in Georgian society as provincial and somewhat vulgar vernaculars, not suitable for general use in public or in situations of high social importance. There is also a lack of special protection for these languages from the point of view of Georgian law, underpinned by the assertion among a majority of Georgian academics that Mingrelian and Svan are not languages in their own right, but merely occupy somewhat remote positions on the Georgian dialect continuum. Hence, the Georgian government has so far declined to extend any level of official status to either Svan or Mingrelian, including refusing to sign the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages, one of the cornerstones of protection for language communities in Europe.

However, even if we suppose that there is a conscious policy to suppress Mingrelian and Svan language on the part of the Georgian government, or at least a policy of deliberate negligence; it is not likely that this will result in any greater chance for separatism in the affected areas of Georgia. I would argue that the chances of Mingrelian and Svan separatism are very low, and that this has to do with the following factors:

1. The weakness of Mingrelian and Svan nationalism:

If nationalism is defined as an ideology with the goal of creating an independent homeland for a particular ethnic group, it is quite clear that such a sentiment is virtually non-existent among Mingrelians and Svans today. This is primarily because the vast majority of Mingrelians and Svans in Georgia self-identify not only as Mingrelians and Svans, but also as Georgians, and consequently do not question the national cohesion or territorial integrity of Georgia. In the course of interviewing dozens of Mingrelian language activist both in Samegrelo and Tbilisi as part of my work, and also interacting with countless Mingrelians and Svans on an everyday basis in Georgia for many years, not even once have I heard them express any desire for political autonomy, much less an independent state.

Granted, there is still considerable concern among some Mingrelians and Svans regarding the status and the condition of their respective languages, often expressing the wish that Mingrelian and Svan would at least have the status of regional languages, and also enjoy equal value and respect compared to Georgian. In fact, an interesting duality presents itself among many Svans and Mingrelians especially who consider themselves to be “The most Georgian of Georgians”, while at the same see themselves as distinct ethnic entities within the Georgian nation as whole.

This duality is also evident regarding the individuals Zviad Gamsakhurdia and the Emzar Kvitsiani, which Sharia in his article tries to portray as Mingrelian and Svan separatists. Looking at the life and career of Gamsakhurdia, it is quite clear however that he never entertained any Mingrelian nationalist aspirations, but was actually the prototype of a Georgian ultranationalist whose politics, although ultimately contra-productive, were in large part directed at preserving the unity of Georgia. Not even when he established his “government in exile” in his regional power base of Samegrelo in 1993, following the coup d’état against him and prolonged civil war in Georgia, did Gamsakhurdia argue along Mingrelian nationalist lines or seek the separation of Samegrelo from the rest of Georgia. Regarding Kvitsiani, he no doubt considered himself more as an outlaw of traditional Svanetian extraction rather than a Svan nationalist and political leader. It is also uncertain if he ever harbored any political ambitions past protecting his criminal dealings from Georgian the government crackdown.

2. The weakness of institutions and internal structures in Samegrelo and Svaneti:

One factor often overlooked when discussing the potential for separatism is the factor of institutions. If we have a look at the various separatist movements that were successful in the aftermath of the breakup of the USSR it is becomes clear that all of them were federal autonomies with a relatively high administrative status. It appears that the existence of such state-like autonomous political structures provided the respective elites of these entities with sufficient experience and organisation to mount a serious separatist challenge to the state which they were then a part of. In Georgia this was particularly true for Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which during Soviet times had the status of autonomous republic and autonomous oblast respectively. The same is not true for Samegrelo and Svaneti, which are both regions with no special status separating them from other Georgian provinces. Svaneti in particular also has the additional disadvantages of being a tiny and remote mountain enclave, with a population that is even smaller than that of South Ossetia, which is in a similar situation.

3. The absence of foreign support:

Again, if looking at the separatist movements in the former Soviet space it is clear that foreign support also played an important role in their success. In fact, both Abkhazia and South Ossetia received considerable foreign support, mainly from Russia, which arguably has proved decisive for their political existence and longevity. However, the same was also true in the Georgian autonomous republic of Adjara, which separatist bid ultimately proved unsuccessful. Even though Adjara enjoyed quasi-state institutions and considerable foreign support, unlike the ethno-nationalist conflict in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, there was not the factor of Adjaran nationalism to contend with. Although the population of Adjara is nominally Muslim as opposed to Orthodox Christian like the rest of Georgia, this fact does not seem to have constituted a sufficient enough difference to stimulate nationalist feeling among Adjarans.

Rather, the situation regarding ethnic identity in Adjara resembles Samegrelo and Svaneti much closer than it does Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and this would explain why Adjaran separatism was ultimately defeated in 2004 by Georgian efforts to reintegrate the republic, and also why it has not been a factor in Georgian politics since then. What this further indicates is that even with substantial foreign support – which there is no strong evidence of being provided to either government critics or anti-state forces in Samegrelo and Svaneti at present – potential Mingrelian or Svan separatism, given the weak nature of institutions and lack of nationalist aspirations among these ethnic communities, would not be very likely to succeed.

To reiterate somewhat; the weakness or absence of Mingrelian and Svan nationalist aspirations, the absence of strong quasi-state institutions, as well as lack of foreign support makes both Mingrelian or Svan separatism very unlikely. It is probably not an exaggeration to say that Mingrelians and Svans today overwhelmingly support Georgian territorial integrity and are fundamentally loyal to the Georgian state. Mingrelians and Svans are mostly interested in addressing their grievances in a purely cultural and linguistic direction, rather than in the direction of political autonomy. This is good news for the government in Tbilisi, and Georgians more generally, whose fear of regional separatism should be assuaged somewhat. These facts might in turn convince some hardliners in the current government to eventually make more concessions towards minority rights, including support for Mingrelian and Svan culture and official status for these languages. On the other hand, this is bad news for any third parties who think they can use internal cultural and linguistic issues in Georgia to their advantage.

Posted in Georgia | 6 Comments

The Oligarch, the President and the People.

It has been an interesting few weeks for us Georgia watchers. The biggest bombshell has been the entry of Georgia’s reclusive and enigmatic oligarch and philanthropist Bidzina Ivanishvili into Georgian politics in early October. Ivanishvili has made clear
his intention to drastically change the political landscape in Georgia, and has actively mounted a challenge to the sitting regime and president Mikhail Saakashvili himself. In the course of less than a month, Ivanishvili has sharply criticised the sitting regime for its authoritarianism, corruption and lack of a sound foreign policy. He has also laid bare his intention to found a new political party to compete in the Georgian parliamentary elections in 2012, and he has offered to personally finance a range of Georgian media outlets to lessen their dependence on the state. It has also been suggested that he might run for president of Georgia in 2013. In his first public press conference on the 1st of November, he also made it clear that he and his political supporters intend to impeach president Saakashvili, should they achieve a majority of the seats in parliament.

Naturally, the sitting Georgian regime has fought back against this challenge in every way possible, firstly by depriving Ivanishvili and his wife of their Georgian citizenship, and then by raiding the Ivanishvili owned Cartu Bank in Tbilisi on the pretext of investigating instances of money laundering. Georgian opposition members from Irakli Alasania’s party, with which Ivanishvili has expressed his intention to cooperate, have also unceremoniously been removed from their positions in the Tbilisi City Council due to accusations of failing to serve the public. Ivanishvili has also received the usual slander and insults that the government controlled media and its supporters reserve for their opponents, including suggestions that Ivanishvili is an agent for the Russian security services, along with other doubts about his sense of patriotism.

It is clear from reading Ivanishvili’s political programme, as well as watching the government’s reaction to it, that his political ambitions represent a real challenge to the status quo. While some Georgians might be apprehensive about such a figure as Ivanishvili entering politics, with his wealth and hitherto unwillingness to sully his hands with dirty politicking, many probably welcome his recent shakeup of the political scene. For many Georgians, Ivanishvili speaks a truth to power which many agree with but which have been reluctant to speak about publicly due to the increasingly suffocating environment for free speech and expression during the reign of president Saakashvili. However, the entry of the oligarch into politics does not have a good track record in recent Georgian politics; suffice only to mention the fate of the late Badri Patarkatsishvili who only managed to get a fraction of the vote during the last presidential election. There is also the question of whether Georgia needs yet another charismatic “saviour” offering quick solutions, rather than focusing on improving key political institutions over time.

In the end, the obstacles standing in the way of Ivanishvili and his political allies are many and it is too early to tell what may eventually come of their political gambit. Like a real bombshell, the initial impact of Ivanishvili’s entry into politics has been massive, but it remains to be seen if the bombshell is sufficiently incendiary to ignite some spark of real political change in Georgia.

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The verdict on “The Verdict of the August War.”

Two weeks ago I managed to see the latest production by Studio Re regarding the 2008 August War in Georgia, appropriately titled “The Verdict of the August War.” The film has been available in Georgian for a few months already, but has recently been translated into English. For those who are not familiar with Studio Re, this is an independent film studio operating out of the Georgian capital Tbilisi, which has distinguished itself over the last couple of years by producing a range of balanced and thought provoking documentaries about the conflicts between Georgia and its breakaway republics Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Since I have been highly impressed by previous productions by Studio Re, in particular “Absence of Will” from 2008, I was somewhat disappointed by their latest production. First off, the film starts with a 15 minute rehearsal of what can be considered the official Georgian position on the August War and the Georgian-Abkhazian/South Ossetian conflicts. This is neither particularly interesting to someone who already has some basic knowledge of these conflicts, nor very useful from a conflict resolution perspective in my opinion.

The other side including South Ossetian and Abkhazian spokespersons and commentators, as well as non-mainstream Georgian and international experts are also given a voice, which is good, but again there is not much that is really new. Unlike previous films about these topics there is little effort to dig up new material, question recurring myths and assumptions, or even present the material in an engaging and provocative way.

Still, there are some important lessons which one can take away from this film, in particular the extent to which the policies of Georgia and the so-called international community (primarily the West) towards the breakaway republics have failed, and how urgent it is to restart efforts towards direct social, political and economic contacts between the involved parties. The film in its entirety can be watched here.

Posted in Georgia

Did Georgia blow itself up (again)?

A lot has been written lately about a string of bomb attacks that hit the capital Tbilisi last year. The targets appear to have been government buildings and other objects of public significance, including a blast near the US Embassy on the 22. of September. The bombs themselves were relatively small, and both casualties and property damage have been light, but at least one person, an elderly woman, was killed in one of the blasts. At least one bomb, placed at a railway bridge, apparently also failed to explode, and another was reportedly disarmed.

The Georgian government line has been that the Russian secret services are behind it, and have reportedly sentenced an alleged GRU officer and his local accomplice to long prison sentences in absentia. Not unsurprisingly, Georgia has also demanded that Washington and the international community take action against Russia, but has struggled to get its message through. Recently however, The Washington Times has published an article which corroborates the official Georgian story, citing access to classified US intelligence reports about alleged Russian involvement. The convoluted chain of evidence the paper presents for its allegations has to be quoted in full in order to give the reader the proper feel for it:

“The highly classified report about the Sept. 22 incident was described to The Washington Times by two U.S. officials who have read it. They said the report supports the findings of the Georgian Interior Ministry, which traced the bombing to a Russian military intelligence officer…”

In other words, there is still not much to go on.

So, how likely is it really that Russia is behind these explosions? One of the first things to have in  mind when discussing events like these is cui bono? Well, we do know that Russia and the US are in the midst of the so-called “reset” which represents the biggest rapprochement between these two powers for about a decade, and that both (but perhaps especially Russia) stand to benefit from it in major ways both economically and geopolitically in the coming years.

We also know that Georgia has a serious beef with Russia, primarily over Russian support to the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but also other issues including Georgian membership of NATO, and that Georgia is bedeviled by a number of political, social and economic problems, which have only seemed to increase in severity as the country heads for its next election cycle – and possibly economic meltdown– in about two years time. Consequently, the Georgian regime under Mikhail Saakashvili would only be glad to see the Russian-US “reset” fail, and would be more than happy for anything that could take the attention of the Georgian population away from the regime’s handling of the country’s domestic problems.

What then would be better than a little false flag operation to simultaneously hit out at the country’s main foreign enemy, and shore up additional support at home? I wish this line of argument could be relegated to the category of conspiratorial drivel, but unfortunately, previous events in Georgia compel me to take this possibility seriously.

What I am talking about is of course the Khurcha incident in 2008, which I have also written briefly about on a previous occasion. Basically, the story from the Georgian government back then was that a couple of buses carrying Georgian voters from the separatist controlled district of Gali in Abkhazia into Georgia proper had been ambushed by armed men with assault rifles and rocket propelled grenade launchers. The buses were stopped in the middle of a football field near the polling station and completely destroyed by the incoming fire, but luckily (or perhaps predictably) there were no casualties.

The Georgian government tried to pin the “attack” on Abkhazian separatists, but members of local and international organisations, including the Norwegian Helsinki Committee arriving at the scene talked to to the local population, who were convinced that their own government had been behind the attack. Further research also corroborated the story told by the locals, as it was discovered, among other things, that the rifle and rocket fire had come from the Georgian side of the de facto border with Abkhazia, and not from the Abkhazian side. The full report about the event can be read here.

It is also fitting that the individuals that Georgia blames for the Tbilisi bomb attacks were allegedly based in the Gali region. As I have written on an earlier occasion, Gali is an impoverished, mostly Georgian populated, disputed border region with serious security problems stemming from weak, or non-existent, government institutions and organised crime. In other words, this is a place where a lot of murky deals can happen and be covered up without much notice from the outside world. Georgian paramilitaries like the White Legion” and “Forest Bretheren” have a history of operating in Gali, and are known to have made use of violent tactics in the past, including bombings.

There have also been several cases of bombings elsewhere in Abkhazia over the last couple of years which have never been solved, and which the Abkhazians suspect the Georgian security services to have been responsible for. Suffice to say that in the current environment in Gali, it would be no problem for the Georgian secret services (or anyone else for that matter) to pay or otherwise induce someone to carry out acts of terror – and cover the whole thing up accordingly. This could be true even if it turned out that the culprit is indeed a former or serving GRU officer, as elements of the Russian security services have occasionally been known to go “free lance” in Chechnya and a number of other  Caucasus hot spots.

Of course, the “fact” that this terror cell was supposedly based in breakaway Abkhazia also gives the Georgian government more food for its narrative that Abkhazia is a “black hole” which constitutes a danger to regional and international peace, and deserves neither independence nor international recognition. In this way the whole affair is indeed quite ideal as seen from a Georgian propaganda standpoint.

There are also some similarities between these bombings and the Khurcha incident worth noting, most importantly the low casualty count, which might mean that whoever was responsible was trying to avoid a public outcry, which might in turn have raised calls for an independent investigation. The use of the explosive hexogen in the bombings is similar to the one allegedly used by the Russian FSB in the Moscow apartment block bombings in 1999 (an assertion which so far has not been conclusively proven), but these bombs were large in comparison , incurred  massive casualties, and created a huge amount of fear in Russian society.

This again matches poorly with the modus operandi of the Tbilisi bombings, which were relatively small, incurred minimal casualties, and received little public attention in Georgia. The question is why, if the Russian security services were indeed behind the bombings (as they allegedly were in Moscow), did they not use bigger bombs, and why, if we assume the GRU are professionals, did the bomb on the railway fail to explode, and another one was easily disarmed?

I do hope that an independent and credible future investigation will succeed in bringing additional light to at least some of these issues, but judging from past events I think that’s too much to hope for.

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