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Inside Ardzinba’s Public Council: the fate of Abkhazian–Georgian dialogue

2 August 2022
Foreign Minister Inal Ardzinba in the first meeting of the Public Council. Image: Abkhazian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

When Abkhazian Foreign Minister Inal Ardzinba convened his second ‘public council’ earlier in July — the future of Abkhazian-Georgian talks in the context of the Russian invasion of Ukraine was among the most contentious topics to be discussed.

On 20 July, the Public Council, a convention of around a dozen of the most prominent journalists, politicians, and war veterans flocked to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the behest of Foreign Minister Inal Ardzinba.

This was only the Council’s second meeting since its founding; it was created to openly discuss the most pressing foreign policy issues facing Abkhazia.

During this meeting, the Council touched on a variety of topics, including the transfer of the Pitsunda (Bichvinta) state dacha to Russia, and Russia’s naturalisation of Abkhazian citizens.

However, the national security of Abkhazia took precedence over every other topic, with those attending sharing their thoughts on what dialogue with the Georgian government could look like, especially in the context of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Ardzinba himself openly rejects holding talks with the Georgian government. He said that as the Geneva International Discussions that began following the August 2008 War had been suspended, this put an end to any official contact between Sukhumi and Tbilisi for now.

‘Georgia spends $300 million [annually] on military spending, yet at the same time, it does not sign a treaty on the non-use of force. This, too, must be taken into account. Therefore, negotiations are negotiations, but after all, it is necessary to sign an agreement and recognise Abkhazia’, Ardzinba repeated like a mantra to any argument in favour of dialogue.

Not all saw eye-to-eye with the minister; Maxim Gvindzhia, who served for many years as Deputy Foreign Minister under Sergey Shamba, former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, advocated for dialogue in any form, whether officially or in secret, especially if it was aimed at achieving peace.

Gvindzhia pointed out that national security was, first and foremost, the preservation of human life, especially in the face of a potential war.

‘What is the possible number of losses we could suffer, and how tragic would it be for us?’ the former official asked. ‘Perhaps in a new war, if it is imposed on us, we will win, but how many casualties [will there be]?’

‘The birth rate, in which we so far have had no progress, is important to us. Therefore, war is generally an unacceptable discussion for us. We must do everything to avoid it. And no one should impose this war on us.’

Gvindzhia touched on the potential of Abkhazia to become an important trade and transit hub between Russia, Turkey, Iran, and Armenia. He said that if that was to be achieved, then negotiations and cooperation between Abkhazia and the Georgian government could not be avoided, even without Georgian recognition or a signed agreement on the non-use of force.

[Read on OC Media: Abkhazia seeks to revive its rail link to the outside world]

Temur Nadaraya, a veteran of the 1992 war and former administrator of the Gali (Gal) region, advocated for dialogue, but only in an official form. He insisted that the Georgian government’s peaceful intentions today were simply a ‘political decision dictated by today’s realities’.

‘Bismarck said that it is not intentions that should be evaluated, but potential, and the potential of Georgia is their $300 million army budget, which is twice our state budget’, he said during the Council session. ‘If it suddenly happens that the Russian Federation will suffer some setbacks, then the current [Georgian] government may change its position. And the question of opening a second front remains on the agenda,’ says Nadaraya.

Others said that should there be contact between Abkhazian and Georgian officials, there must first be an internal consensus between the government and opposition on Abkhazia’s position on different issues.

One such proponent of this view was Ruslan Khashig, the chair of the Union of Journalists of Abkhazia, who used the post-war period of multilevel negotiations as an example. Back then, dialogue was not regarded as a surrender of national interests.

‘Documents [with plans] should be prepared. What to do in a certain situation and what our work plan is. If the situation changes, we create a different work plan. That is, an internal agreement, a foreign policy vision in a specific area with Georgia, and a possible version of Russian-Georgian relations. They have to be developed in our country, and a consensus has to be found in society,’ Khashig said.

Socrat Dzhindzholiya, a seasoned Abkhazian negotiator who has previously negotiated with Georgia and Russia, recalled a time when Moscow was not a staunch supporter of Abkhazian independence. He hearkened back to the years-long Russian blockade of Abkhazia during Boris Yeltsin’s presidency, and to his apparent preference for forcing Abkhazia back into Georgia — ‘a story’, he said, ‘many have forgotten, even in Georgia’.

Dzhindzholiya added that Georgia does not consider Abkhazia a party to the conflict, and therfore was not ready for dialogue.

Temur Gulia, the head of the Aruaa veterans association, said that what Abkhazia needed to do was to prepare for war. He said that no international agreements or allied support could guarantee Abkhazian’s security in the event of aggression.

‘You have to protect your own home’, he said.

 For ease of reading, we choose not to use qualifiers such as ‘de facto’, ‘unrecognised’, or ‘partially recognised’ when discussing institutions or political positions within Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and South Ossetia. This does not imply a position on their status.

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