The last three years were for Abkhazia and South Ossetia the first peaceful period since the disintegration of the USSR. In a span of less than twenty years, Georgia launched six large-scale armed attacks on the Abkhazians and South Ossetians, even though they were regarded as ethnic minorities of Georgia itself.
Wars were rocking the South Caucasus; it had become a conflict region, a veritable powder keg, much like the Balkans and perhaps even more so. By recognizing the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Russia made a major contribution to their security and to the stability of the region as a whole.
The Georgian political elite must face the new reality. Even though full normalization is still a distant prospect, the level of military tension in the area has declined noticeably. Both states have at long last been given a chance to turn its attention to peacetime challenges, to develop civil society, and to strengthen their government institutions. This process is beset with considerable difficulties. Settling down to a peaceful existence after years of continuous military mobilization, dislocation and devastation is no less difficult than winning a war. Many new problems have sprung up, such as a shortage of competent managers, specialists, and skilled labor; material limitations; a bureaucracy unfettered by any of the normal checks and balances, corruption, and more.
But despite its problems, Abkhazia attained a level of democracy after independence that deserves respect. In Georgia, there has not been a single legitimate transfer of power. Its first president was ousted by armed attackers, and his successor was deposed by a crowd that burst into parliament. In contrast, the Abkhazian head of state has to this day been elected in accordance with its Constitution and the true will of the people. The political battles in elections are intense, at times dramatic, but the opposition enjoys the same chances as the ruling party, and the outcome of presidential or parliamentary elections is truly in the hands of the people.
Despite the serious demographic problem in their country, the Abkhazians have refused to brand a portion of their fellow citizens as “permanent alien residents” so as to ensure a privileged position for the majority. In other words, they have turned their back on the antidemocratic practices typical of the Baltic States. Unlike the latter and neighboring Georgia (whose elite was incapable of sustaining normal interethnic relations either in the Soviet period or thereafter), Abkhazia is seeking and finding ways to resolve interethnic problems on the basis of generally accepted international human rights norms. Naturally, Abkhazians regard the position of Western countries, which refuse to recognize Abkhazia and prevent others from doing so, as unfriendly and self-serving. They therefore take a sober-minded view of the idea of widespread international recognition. The former president, Sergei Bagapsh, who died in May, said that recognition was desirable but not vitally important, as Russia’s recognition of Abkhazia gave the country a sufficient foothold for national progress.
International recognition is also desirable for South Ossetia, although there it plays an even more minor role. The new state’s development prospects depend primarily on improved relations with North Ossetia, which is also home to Ossetians. Geographically, South Ossetia is bound to experience more tension along its southern borders than Abkhazia. For example, the Georgian authorities are planning to have several thousand displaced people cross the South Ossetian border. The Russian Foreign Ministry issued a warning regarding this “large-scale provocation,” calling on other members of the international community to send Tbilisi “unequivocal signals.” If they follow that course, the impact should be large enough to discourage Tbilisi from continuing to play with fire.