Interview | De Waal: ‘Is it time to come up with a bigger offer to Abkhazia?’

31 January 2019
Thomas de Waal is a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe, a London-based think tank.

Thomas de Waal, senior fellow at Carnegie Europe and a prolific writer on the South Caucasus recently sat down with OC Media. He discussed democracy in Abkhazia and the international community’s role there, and the recent thaw in relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Of Abkhazia, de Waal said it previously had ‘some quite democratic culture’, but that this had become more ‘problematic’ in recent years. He also pointed to a democratic deficit in the way non–ethnic Abkhaz people were treated — ‘Abkhazia is an ethnocracy’.

‘Only ethnic Abkhaz can be elected president, and other groups, particularly Georgians in Gali, are very much second class citizens.’

He said that there had been pro-European feelings in Abkhazia in the mid-2000s: ‘Of course, they wanted independence, but they also wanted to be a part of Europe.’ This, he said, had largely gone away following the 2008 war, but added that ‘there’s still a pro-European constituency in Abkhazia, and many more people who don’t want to choose: they want connections with Russia and they want to connect with Europe’.

In order to break the deadlock over the conflict, de Waal advocated for more robust international engagement in Abkhazia, particularly from the EU. ‘It’s time to look at this afresh and say — is it time to give this another push, to come up with a bigger offer to Abkhazia?’

He questioned whether the Georgian government was ready for a big international push in Abkhazia that was ‘not owned by the Georgian side’, adding that ‘the political environment in Georgia is still quite sceptical about this’.

De Waal dismissed Georgian concerns over ‘creeping recognition’ — ‘There is no such thing as “creeping recognition” ’. He said that any acts that could be interpreted by some as tacit recognition, meant nothing ‘without a formal act of recognition’.


‘The framework of recognition is very robust and nothing would change that.’

He emphasised that any attempts at reconciliation would be a long process, joking that ‘the Georgian government always comes up with the right policy but always a few years too late.’

‘Georgia and Abkhazia are living in different realities — different languages, different media spaces — so it’s going to take many years’ work’.

On Armenia, Abkhazia, and Nagorno-Karabakh, and recent optimism in the peace process after presidents Aliyev and Pashinyan met in Dushanbe and then Davos, de Waal remained sceptical, speaking only of a ‘modest improvement’.

He praised a new hotline between the two countries, meetings between foreign ministers, and a ‘bit of de-escalation of rhetoric’, but said this was coming from a ‘very very low base where two countries are almost on the brink of war’.

Below, is our conversation.


OC Media: In your most recent report, you say that Abkhazia, together with Transnistria and Northern Cyprus, might be more open to engagement with the EU compared to other de facto states. Is EU engagement with a de facto state welcome at all?

Thomas de Waal: There’s a strange reality that in the EU and its neighbourhood, there are uncertain or disputed places which are not exactly within the international legal order. That certainly is of benefit to nobody.

The EU certainly does not like this instability. Its neighbourhood policy states that protracted conflicts are a danger to the region. And the EU also believes in spreading values. So those should extend not just to recognised states but other places as well.

It’s interesting to compare them. I’m not talking here about South Ossetia or Nagorno-Karabakh where, for various reasons, there’s almost no international engagement.

In the case of South Ossetia, there’s a full self-isolation; in the case of Nagorno-Karabakh, it’s also isolation from the Azerbaijani side and a different policy: Nagorno-Karabakh is almost absorbed into the Armenian economic, diplomatic, and political space.

So Abkhazia, for me, is the most peculiar example: it’s a case of a country, of a place, a territory, that is self-governing and fairly stable — it’s not going to collapse — and yet is also far from international recognition.

The countries that recognise Abkhazia are doing so not of out of any intrinsic interest in Abkhazia; they are [doing it] just to please Russia. So it’s both stable and very isolated.

OC Media: Do you also see the signs of democratic development in Abkhazia?

Thomas de Waal: In the past, Abkhazia did have some quite democratic culture but it’s been more problematic recently. Certainly since the ousting of the former president, Aleksandr Ankvab, by what many people saw as undemocratic means. And there’s also problems in that Abkhazia is an ethnocracy, that only ethnic Abkhaz can be elected president, and other groups, particularly Georgians in Gali, are very much second class citizens.

It is important to say that in the mid-2000s there was an attempt to open to Europe. It was genuine, if a bit naïve. There was a European project in Abkhazia, it was called Key to the Future in 2006.

Of course, [the Abkhaz] wanted independence, but they also wanted to be a part of Europe. It was unrealistic, but it was interesting that they had that opening. This was all closed down in 2008 [after the] war and Russian recognition, but there’s still a pro-European constituency in Abkhazia, and many more people who don’t want to choose: they want connections with Russia and they want to connect with Europe. And in private, people don’t have problems with connections with Georgia, but there’s a big public taboo about that.

So the question therefore is, is it possible for greater EU engagement with Abkhazia. There are many negative factors. The Abkhaz themselves, in some ways, are isolating themselves, they are rejecting initiatives. The Russians, obviously, are not enthusiastic about EU initiatives; but it also has to be said that problems also come from the Georgian side.

The Georgians are very cautious about international engagement, [with] any international engagement with Abkhazia that they don’t control. And also it has to be said that the EU has also lost interest and enthusiasm in this region in the last ten years, it’s slipped out of [their] agenda. That’s for understandable reasons: they have many other things to deal with. There’s less institutional memory, less energy, less interest in Abkhazia than there ever was.

It’s generally because of when there’s so little movement in a conflict [resolution] process, then people begin to give up and it is not an attractive proposition, people begin to put their energy elsewhere for understandable reasons.

It’s time to look at this afresh and say — is it time to give this another push, to come up with a bigger offer to Abkhazia which involves Assistance and Development Programme for Abkhazia?

This package should not be unconditional. It should be conditional on cooperation with internationals on several issues, including the issue of the rights of Gali Georgians, maybe on issues of detainees in Abkhazia.

A serious question mark about that is the Georgian government is ready for such a serious international offer to be made, which is not owned by the Georgian side. And political environment in Georgia is still quite sceptical about this. But personally, I advocate for this, that it’s worth an effort.

OC Media: Do you imagine a future situation where the EU becomes tired of Georgia’s ‘cautious’ approach to international engagement due to the concept of ‘creeping recognition’?

Thomas de Waal: Certainly, that is the view of some individuals. The Georgian government is too cautious; they are so worried about any actions that give certain legitimacy to de facto authorities in Abkhazia that [they] end up doing nothing, and then you end up with a much worse outcome, which is a lack of any European influence in Abkhazia, and de facto integration with Russia, and every year it becomes harder to deliver a European message to Abkhazians.

Someone needs to be looking more strategically: where will we be in ten years’ time, twenty years’ time? It’s easier for an international actor like the EU to do that, than for the local actors.

Despite the post–2008 war ceasefire agreement, which was supposed to restore the status quo, there are still multiple military bases in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Couldn’t greater international engagement absolve Russia of their responsibility for the conflicts?

Thomas de Waal: I’m not advocating for a minute that Georgians stop the international pressure for withdrawal of Russian forces for the security solution.

But at the same time, there’s also an issue of people, society, and it’s possible to work at more than one level, and the strong argument is that it’s much better to have a more open-minded, friendly, better educated society in Abkhazia than a closed society which more under the influence of Russia.

In may report I conclude that there is no such thing as ‘creeping recognition’. Recognition is a conscious political act. For example, you know, former EU Special Representative Herbert Salber was caught congratulating the South Ossetian leader. Maybe that was a diplomatic mistake, but without a formal act of recognition, that meant nothing, it was just a one-day news story in Tskhinvali, it didn’t mean anything, it didn’t change anything. The framework of recognition is very robust and nothing would change that.

Having studied [Northern] Cyprus, there’s an argument that the opening up of society, more engagement actually gives people the liberty to choose other options; it makes society more open, and this has some political effects. I’m not predicting at all that Abkhazia will vote to rejoin Georgia anytime soon, but more international engagement will lower the temperature of the conflict and make relations and connections easier between Tbilisi and Abkhazia.

OC Media: You mentioned the Key to the Future programme, which was probably ended by the 2008 war, but now we have a Georgian initiative a Step to a Better Future; can the incentives within it, e.g. greater trade, improve relations between the sides or Georgia should do more in this direction?

Thomas de Waal: First of all, it’s welcome. It’s a very positive initiative and it sends good signals to Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Even if the project is rejected, it still sends signals of desire for peaceful cooperation, which, again, lowers the temperature of the conflict. This is welcome.

Unfortunately, many people both here and in Abkhazia joke about this: the Georgian government always comes up with the right policy but always a few years too late. Ten years, 15 years ago this would have been a much more powerful initiative than it is now.

The problem is, to be frank, [that] Georgia and Abkhazia are living in different realities — different languages, different media spaces — so it’s going to take many years’ work to rebuild those connections, which is why I think that the Georgian government has to accept that there is only so far Tbilisi can go, the internationals can go further than Tbilisi.

If you really want to have an impact, it’s more about allowing initiatives which are coordinated with Tbilisi but which do not have an obvious Georgian packaging in Abkhazia from the EU and UN. So I think those are the only initiatives that have some chances for success.

OC Media: Let’s talk a bit about Armenian–Azerbaijani relations. Last year, in September, we saw that Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders agreed on a direct hotline to reduce tensions along the Azerbaijani–Armenian border and Nagorno-Karabakh Line of Contact. And later we saw some short détente on Twitter between Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Armenian PM Nikol Pashinyan. Can we talk about some kind of opening for negotiations or reconciliation over the Nagorno-Karabakh issue?

Thomas de Waal: We could talk about a modest improvement. Certainly it has been a much better year. I’m told that in 2018 the number of soldiers who died on the Line of Contact was 14, which was the lowest number for about ten years, and considering recent levels of violence in 2015 and 2016 in particular, this is welcome. You know, 14 people still died but it was welcome progress. The hotlines, some meetings between the foreign ministers, and a bit of de-escalation of rhetoric — this is obviously positive, but we have to be honest and say: we are starting from very very low base where two countries are almost on the brink of war, with completely mutually exclusive demands of one another.

What’s happening is that the Azerbaijani authorities want to give Pashinyan some space — they think that he’s a democratic leader — to come up with some compromises from the Yerevan side, so they’re behaving quite sensibly.

The basis for an agreement has to be some kind of land for peace in which the Armenian side starts by giving up some of the seven regions outside Karabakh that it controls. This has to happen but the Azerbaijani side is very over-optimistic about how possible this is. It’s very difficult for an Armenian leader to give these places up that have been occupied for more than 20 years.

We can expect maybe a bit of more of an opening up of debate in Armenia, talking about the cost of conflict, about the need for peace. This is possible but this is a long-term thing.

We’re talking about, first of all years of war, then the years of rhetorical war, and then a small war again in 2016, so we’re talking about a very very difficult stone to move. A few small initiatives won’t move this stone, we need to see much much more. I mean, just look at some of these other conflicts which are much further along, like Transdniestria or [Northern] Cyprus, where there’s much more progress and thousands of people go back and forth and there’s no threat of violence, and yet still, they can’t reach agreement on fundamental issues.

OC Media: People who committed war crimes on all sides of the conflicts in the South Caucasus have never been punished. On many occasions, war criminals are hailed as heroes. Is the time right to go back to these contested chapters of history?

Thomas de Waal: Clearly, any successful peace process needs to have an element of justice for victims and this can be done in different ways — war crimes trials, amnesties, and truth commissions. There needs to be a justice element, but it’s fair to say that this is usually only possible when there is a political agreement.

As you’ve said — people are heroes, they are defenders of the nation, and no nation which is still in a state of conflict, or in an unresolved conflict, is going to start punishing its own heroes.

It’s possible to start one step back — to start discussing the past, projects to understand what happened, to record what happened, to record testimonies of victims of crimes, to give a voice to and revive the memory of those who suffered — on both sides, and let them also share experiences with one another.

Once you have that basis for testimony and truth telling, that is a step forward, and that can also be a basis, a documentary basis, which can used for a justice initiative in the future.

OC Media: Obviously, we are also interested in the role of media in perpetuating conflicts, and how we can support reconciliation.

Thomas de Waal: As a former journalist for years, and also I was running the Caucasus project for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, this is a topic I care about. Certainly the media can play a very negative role in spreading false stories, perpetuating stereotypes, and not only in conflicts but [also] inside societies too. You saw this phenomenon in Georgia during the presidential elections, by the sound of it media, television made things a lot worse: Rustavi 2, Imedi… So it’s not only just about conflicts. So yeah, media can definitely be a problem.

Obviously there’s more responsible media, most of that responsible media in this region I guess is now online media but it’s definitely a factor and a lot of media consumers understand that they are not getting the whole truth from media but they often find it difficult to find a better, alternative source. This is definitely the challenge.

We also know that in a country where media is not trusted, this breeds conspiracy theories and lots of false stories and fake news.