Georgia: Abkhazia and South Ossetia

Introduction / Definiton: 

The conflicts related to the two separatist regions in Georgia—Abkhazia and South Ossetia—has its origins in Soviet and pre-Soviet politics in the (South) Caucasus. In total, over 80 ethnic groups live in Georgia, the largest, and politically most significant, ones being Georgians, Armenians, Russians, Abkhaz and South Ossetians (Cornell 2001: 63). Since 1988, Georgia has experienced two violent ethnic conflicts, as well as a short two-phase civil war (Cornell 2001: 75). The latter was between different political factions struggling over control of the Georgian state, while the former were essentially the result of increasingly aggressive Georgian nationalism during, and after, the dying days of the Soviet Union. Both Abkhazia and South Ossetia had enjoyed substantial autonomy throughout the Soviet period and even though the population of both regions was ethnically mixed, it was not until the intensification of Georgian nationalism from the late-1980s onwards that tensions emerged. The nationalist movement in Georgia became further radicalised after Soviet troops crushed a demonstration in April 1989. Calls for independence, the legal proclamation of Georgian as the only official language in August 1989, and Georgia referendum on independence and the subsequent election of nationalist leader Zviad Gamsakhurdia in May 1991 provide the background against which these tensions escalated into full-scale violent conflict: Abkhaz and South Ossetians wanted to preserve, and remain within, the Soviet Union considering their survival as ethno-cultural communities distinct from the Georgian majority to be in acute danger in an independent Georgian state (Cohen 2002, Coppieters 1999, Wennmann 2006).

South Ossetia
South Ossetians belong to the same ethnic group as the people of North Ossetia (now an autonomous republic of Russia which is considered to be the indigenous homeland of Ossetians). A (South) Ossetian presence in contemporary Georgia only dates back a few hundred years (Cornell 2001: 96), and is often used by Georgian nationalists to dispute any rights of South Ossetians to the territory in which they live. In 1989, South Ossetians made up just over two-thirds of their autonomous region’s population, roughly 65,000 out of a population of 98,000 (Cornell 2001: 99). Yet, at that time there were around another 100,000 Ossetians in other regions of Georgia. Tensions grew in the last years of the Soviet Union and escalated initially into full-scale conflict between November 1989 and January 1990. Prompted by the “March on Tskhinvali”, the South Ossetian capital, of between 20,000 and 30,000 Georgian nationalists in August, supposedly to protect the city’s Georgian population, the violence which ensued led to the death of six people and the injury of an additional 140 (Cornell 2001: 101). Subsequently, South Ossetians not only boycotted the political process in Georgia, including the September 1990 elections, but also declared their region’s independence, while Georgians effectively abolished South Ossetia’s autonomy with the proclamation of Georgia as an independent, unitary state with no internal borders.

Tbilisi initially only responded with an economic blockade, but 1991 saw a significant escalation of hostilities, leading initially to the Georgian occupation of South Ossetia’s capital, Tskhinvali. On several occasions in March, June and September, Gamsakhurdia, who tried to use South Ossetia to strengthen his own grip on power in Georgia (Wennmann 2006: 14), failed to restore full Georgian control over South Ossetia in the face of well-organised, highly motivated and Russian-backed resistance. The conflict lingered on for another year, but with the disposal of Gamsakhurdia in December 1991 and former Soviet foreign minister Edvard Shevardnadse’s assent to the Georgian presidency in March 1992,[1] it took only one final defeat of Georgian forces to pave the way towards the OSCE-mediated Sochi Agreement of June 1992, which established a permanent ceasefire and a military exclusion zone. It was followed by the deployment of an OSCE Observer Mission and a Russia-led CIS peacekeeping force, as well as the creation of the so-called Joint Control Commission, meant to facilitate cooperation between the sides on a day-to-day basis.

This arrangement worked relatively well during the presidencies of Edvard Shevardnadse, driven primarily by pragmatic considerations that assured all sides of benefits as a result of relative stability based on an acceptance of the status quo (cf. Lynch 2004). Saakashvili’s assent to power in 2003 changed this configuration significantly as the new president had made restoration of full sovereignty across the entire territory of Georgia on key campaign promise. The success he had in reigning in Adjara in April 2004 emboldened Saakashvili to move on South Ossetia in summer that year, under the pretext of abolishing the Ergneti market. While there is little doubt that trading on this market was connected to smuggling, it also presented one of the few opportunities for direct interaction between Georgians and South Ossetians. The violence during and after the closure of the market destroyed much of the confidence built between both sides and threw into jeopardy peace talks ongoing at the time. In fact, violence got so bad in early August that a formal ceasefire was agreed between Georgian and South Ossetian authorities, only to be broken within days. Violence continued through much of the summer, with Georgian forces making some strategic gains but eventually withdrawing its military forces and agreeing a further round of formal demilitarisation measures with South Ossetia in Sochi in November. Nonetheless, the 2004 events contributed to further polarisation and radicalisation on all sides, increasing the frequency and intensity of clashes along the ceasefire line up until the full-scale war in August 2008.

The conflict in South Ossetia led to around 1,000 people being killed, 100,000 being forced to flee, and extensive damage done to homes and infrastructure (International Crisis Group 2004: 4). In addition to ethnic Georgians and South Ossetians leaving the region for Georgia proper and North Ossetia, respectively, a very large number of South Ossetians were also driven from their homes in Georgia proper. Within South Ossetia, segregation between the two communities increased significantly as a result of the conflict with members of each ethnic group taking refuge in the areas controlled by ‘their’ side.

Historically, the Stalinist period saw the persecution and destruction of the political and cultural elites of the Abkhaz population in Georgia. Abkhazia, during this period, additionally experienced a massive influx of Georgians, decreasing the share of ethnic Abkhaz among the resident population to around one-third from the late 1930s to the early 1950s, and had declined to under 18% by 1989. This policy of Georgianisation continued after the Stalin years, and triggered several short spells of violence in 1957, 1967, 1978 and 1981 (Cornell 2001: 155ff.) The resurgence of Georgian nationalism under Georgia’s first post-independence leader, Zviad Gamsakhurdia could not but be seen as a precursor of worse things to come by the Abkhaz and leading them to conclude that establishing their own state was all the more necessary to ensure their ethnic survival (International Crisis Group 2006: 3).

Following Georgia’s declaration of independence in 1991, and the simultaneous abolition of Abkhazia’s autonomy, the Abkhaz immediately reinstated their 1925 constitution, defining it as an independent state united with Georgia on the basis of special union treaty and proceeded to declare their desire to leave Georgia and remain part of the Soviet Union/Russian Federation. This quickly escalated into open violence with Georgian forces taking over the Gali region in August 1992 and cutting Abkhazia off from Russia. However, the pre-text of the attacks were alleged abductions of Georgians by supporters of Zviad Gamakhurdia who had been ousted in a coup in December 1991 by three Georgian warlords who subsequently asked Shevardnadse, a native of Georgia, to lead the country through this difficult period.

As a result of Georgian advances, the Abkhaz leadership was forced to retreat from Sukhumi but immediately regrouped and organised guerrilla-style resistance. Backed by North Caucasian, in particular Chechen, fighters, as well as Russian air support (Sabanadze 2002: 11), the Abkhaz quickly recaptured most of the territory initially lost, with Georgian control reduced to the Khodori Gorge and Gali. Ceasefires were agreed and broken time and again until May 1994 when the Moscow Agreement established a permanent ceasefire line with military exclusion zones on either side. In parallel, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 854 establishing the UN Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG). The Russia-dominated CIS also dispatched a peacekeeping force to the region. Since then violations have been rare, even though the general security situation, especially in the Kodori Gorge, a Georgian-held area in Abkhazia, deteriorated sharply in 1998, 2001, 2006, and 2008, bringing both sides to the brink of new war. Around ten thousand people are believed to have been killed in total in the fighting; in addition, around a quarter of a million Georgians have been displaced from Abkhazia (Alertnet 2007).

Economic and Political Impact of the Wars
The economic and political impact of the wars in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and of the subsequent sporadic flare-ups of violence throughout the decade-and-a-half after the ceasefire agreements, must be seen in the context of broader Georgian and regional developments, especially the weakness of the Georgian state and the turbulent transition of power during the Rose Revolution, the instability and violence in the Caucasus region as a whole, especially in relation to Chechnya, and the deterioration of Georgian-Russian relations.

The economic damage caused by the violence in Abkhazia is estimated at $11 billion (International Crisis Group 2006: 15), and economic recovery, if any, has been slow and initially almost entirely dependent on Russia. However, in January 1996, Russia agreed to a CIS embargo against Abkhazia in exchange for Georgian support in the first Chechen war. This had a seriously detrimental impact on Abkhazia. By 1999, Russian-Georgian relations worsened, and with the outbreak of the second Chechen war, the CIS embargo collapsed with Russia no longer enforcing it. In the last few years, the EU has also made a more significant political and financial effort to contribute to rebuilding the region’s economy. Moreover, Abkhazia is relatively privileged in terms of being self-sufficient with regard to food and electricity (Cornell 2001: 181). Revitalisation of tourism, especially after 1999 and in the context of improved Russian-Abkhaz relations, has further contributed to economic recovery.

South Ossetia has suffered similarly extensive damage during its war, but been far less able to recover. An extremely poor region, even by Georgian standards, there has until recently been hardly any investment in the economy. An OSCE-managed and EU-funded economic rehabilitation programme, as well as direct Russian donations have yet to show any significant impact. Moreover, Russia’s economic activities in the region, including energy supplies and construction of gas pipelines, have been deemed illegal (International Crisis Group 2007: 23). South Ossetia’s dependence on water supplies from Georgia proper has been a further source of tensions.

Politically, even before the Georgian-Russian war of August 2008, South Ossetia and Abkhazia had developed into de facto states, albeit relatively weak ones. This process, stretched out over the past decade-and-a-half was driven as much by personal political aspirations as by organised criminal activity. Above all, it remained politically, economically, and militarily entirely dependent on Russia, including use of the Russian rouble in almost all commercial and private transactions. Residents of Abkhazia and South Ossetia were allowed to acquire Russian citizenship and passports, which, at least in part, contributed to increased emigration to Russia, especially on the part of South Ossetians. In turn, it provided Russia with the basis for its claims that its actions during the August war were in defence of its own citizens.

The two regimes in Abkhazia and South Ossetia have always enjoyed at least a limited degree of political legitimacy in the eyes of the local population, but neither they, nor the elections from which they emerged or the referenda they conducted received any international recognition prior to 2008 when Russia, after the military confrontation with Georgia in August decided to recognise the independence of both entities. In both entities, power is concentrated in the hands of few politicians who have close links to security forces, business and organised crime, and easily dominate all branches of government. South Ossetia is under the control of Eduard Kokoity, a one-time wrestling champion who holds Russian citizenship and won in two successive rounds of presidential elections in December 2001 and November 2006. Neither the elections nor Kokoity enjoy any international legitimacy or recognition other than from Russia and other break-away regimes across the former Soviet Union who have since long established ‘diplomatic ties’ with one another. Abkhazia is an equally uncertain example of democracy. Its current president, Sergei Bagapsh, was elected in January 2005, after three months of turmoil following hotly disputed elections the previous October when, after alleged widespread irregularities, a split electoral commission declared Bagapsh winner over his Kremlin-backed rival, Raul Khadzhimba. The Abkhaz Supreme Court initially upheld the electoral commission’s decision, but was the intimidated by mobs supporting Khadzhimba into changing this decision. After further rioting and violence across Abkhazia, the former rivals agreed to stand on a joint ticket in the January 2005 re-run of the presidential elections. Both the now president and vice-president have previous government experience—Bagapsh as prime minister from 1997 to 2001, when he was succeeded by Khadzhimba who held the office until the October 2004 elections.

The combination of war-time economic devastation and political uncertainty and instability have also created opportunities for various local and transnational crime networks and fostered an environment in which, without proper government control, corruption can thrive, additionally aided by low living standards and weak law enforcement on all sides concerned. Abkhazia has become a heroin transit point, and is thus primarily connected with transnational organised crime, while poverty-stricken South Ossetia, one of the most heavily armed regions of Georgia, suffers predominantly from low-level local criminal activity, such as robbery, kidnapping and smuggling.

The Role of Russia
Georgian-Russian relations have, in almost equal measure driven, and been driven by, developments in both conflict zones. After becoming President of Georgia in 2004, Mikhail Saakashvili made the full and unconditional restoration of Georgia’s sovereignty across its entire territory a policy priority. While he succeeded in establishing Georgian control over another separatist region, Adjara, efforts to repeat this success with either South Ossetia or Abkhazia failed. Offers of autonomy and federal status to South Ossetia in 2004 and Abkhazia in 2006, respectively, were rejected, and tensions gradually escalated, requiring several high-level international interventions, such as George W. Bush’s public and private comments during his visit to Georgia in 2005, to prevent Georgian military adventures. The way in which Saakashvili stepped up his rhetoric was in sharp contrast to the more accommodating policy of Shevardnadse who did not directly challenge the status quo as established in the early 1990s. A direct consequence of Saakashvili’s policy was the deterioration of Georgian-Russian relations.[2]

As Georgia began to accuse Russia of de facto annexation of its territory through the distribution of pensions and passports to Abkhaz residents, financial support and training of the Abkhaz military, investment in and trade with the entity (International Crisis Group 2007: 5), Moscow, in turn, raised the issue of Kosovo as a precedent for international recognition of Abkhazia as early as 2006. Speaking at a press conference in January 2006, Vladimir Putin called for universal principles to settle the frozen conflicts: “We need common principles to find a fair solution to these problems for the benefit of all people living in conflict-stricken territories... If people believe that Kosovo can be granted full independence, why then should we deny it to Abkhazia and South Ossetia?” (RFE/RL 2006). This line of argument became official Russian policy, and gained in legitimacy following Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence in February 2008, and its subsequent recognition by a large number, predominantly western and pro-western countries.

Putin’s policy on Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and by extension Georgia, marked a clear departure from the Yeltsin era, when a generally weak Russia found itself in a prolonged war with Chechnya and sought Georgian cooperation in fighting it. Enabling Abkhaz and South Ossetians to gain Russian citizenship and passports, intensifying political, economic, and military cooperation with the two separatist regions, and the increasingly tough rhetoric and actions against Georgia were partly a reflection on Russia’s renewed assertiveness in the CIS and in the international arena more broadly. At the same time, however, Georgian policy made the pursuit of the Russian strategy at least easier: the isolation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia by Georgia left the two regions very few, if any, options than to forge closer ties with Russia, Georgia’s anti-Russia rhetoric was bound to encounter a response from Moscow, and Saakashvili’s rush to establish Georgia as a prospective NATO (and EU) member state could not but let alarm bells ring in the Kremlin.[3]

Moscow’s policy vis-à-vis both conflict zones was also driven by different groups who, while all lending support to local elites, did so for different reasons, including economic interests (especially in Abkhazia and related to tourism and port infrastructures), security concerns (regionally related to instability in the North Caucasus; globally related to fears of further NATO and EU expansion and a growing US presence), and simple resentment of Georgian nationalists.

Russia’s invasion of Georgia, triggered by Georgia’s violation of the existing cease-fire agreement, and the subsequent recognition of the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia are unprecedented in Russian policy vis-à-vis the so-called frozen conflicts in its neighbourhood. This escalation of means used to assert Russian interests in the CIS, however, has been followed by Russia’s willingness to become part of the EU-UN-OSCE co-sponsored Geneva talks, a new initiative on Nagorno-Karabakh, and signs of a greater willingness to find a compromise over Transnistria.

[1] Shevardnadse later became Georgia’s elected president until he was overthrown in the so-called Rose Revolution in October 2003 and replaced by Mikhail Saakashvili.
[2] During the Shevardnadse period, and after, another regional flashpoint, and source of Georgian-Russian tension was the Khodori Gorge, a Georgian outpost in eastern Abkhazia, which became a haven for Georgian guerrillas and Chechen irregulars, contributing further to local and regional instability in the Caucasus region (cf. Murer 2006).
[3] It has to be said that Russian policy has not always been a model of coherence: Russia at the same time sought to mediate between Abkhazia and Georgia over a possible federal arrangement between Abkhazia and Georgia and to integrate Abkhazia more tightly into the Russian economy. Current Abkhaz president Sergey Bagapsh was not Russia’s preferred candidate in the 2005 Abkhaz leadership election, nor was he initially a strong advocate of close ties with Russia, in contrast to his South Oseetian counterpart, Edvard Kokoity, who was elected in 2001 and had made close links with Russia his political priority.

Resolution / Status: 

In two rounds of mediation, the French presidency of the EU achieved first a cease-fire agreement between Tbilisi and Moscow on 12 August 2008, and then on 8 September 2008, as part of the further specification of one particular point of this Russian-Georgian agreement, that talks chaired by a troika of the EU, UN, and OSCE, with support from the US, should be held in Geneva. Subsequently, the involved parties further agreed that two working groups would be established, one focussing on security and stability and another on IDPs and refugees. The first session of these so-called Geneva talks took place on 15 October amidst controversy over the participation of delegates from Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and eventually broke down over procedural issues. Initially envisaged to be held on a fortnightly basis, a second meeting was postponed until 18 November 2008. This second meeting was more constructive, and even though there was no breakthrough on substance, this meeting was significant because it was for the first time since the August war that Georgian and Russian officials met and discussed the situation. Moreover, despite initial resistance from Georgia, discussions in the working groups included delegates from South Ossetia and Abkhazia. A further meeting took place on 17 and 18 December 2008, but again with no concrete deals achieved. Nonetheless, all parties agreed to hold the next round of talks on Geneva on 17 and 18 February 2009.

It is doubtful whether this format will result in any settlement of the now internationalised dispute over the status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, let alone that any negotiated agreement will come about in the short term. Georgia and Russia remain far apart on the central issues of Georgia's future sovereign status and borders, and the international community (and importantly the co-chairs of the talks) continues to insist on the recognition of Georgia's territorial integrity in its present borders. Even though Georgia has dropped its objections to including Abkhaz and South Ossetian delegations into the working group negotiations, all the indicators are the links between the separatist regions and Russia will only deepen and intensify as the Geneva talks continue without measurable progress.
The very fact, however, that internationally mediated talks are being held, that they involve all concerned parties, including delegates from the two break-away entities, and that both disputes are discussed simultaneously and in the same format must be considered as progress compared to the situation before the Russian-Georgian war in August. Moreover, Russia’s role in the negotiations is now unambiguously that of a conflict party, rather than that of mediator/peacekeeper as previously. The strengthening of the role of the EU in the format, from observer to co-chair of the settlement negotiations, and a more significant presence of the EU on the ground, agreed by all parties, may well give the negotiations an important impetus and demonstrate the serious commitment of the international community as a whole to achieve a negotiated settlement of these two conflicts.

The Role of External Actors[4]
For most of the period after the conclusion of the 1992 and 1994 ceasefire agreements, the OSCE and the UN were the only significant external actors. It has only been over the past several years that the EU, US and NATO have come to play a more influential role as well. It is important to note that the earlier involvement of the UN and the OSCE was specific to one of the conflicts each, whereas the impact of the US, EU and NATO has been more general in relation to the conflict environment as a whole.

The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe
The involvement of the OSCE in the conflict in South Ossetia was formalised with the 1992 Sochi Agreement, mediated with OSCE and Russian support. The Agreement established the Joint Control Commission, which secured the OSCE’s post-Agreement involvement in any negotiations, and created trilateral (Georgian, Russian and Ossetian) Joint Peacekeeping Forces whose conduct is observed an OSCE mission.

The OSCE’s original mandate was established in December 1992 with the objective of promoting peace negotiations between the sides. While the OSCE has remained the lead international organisation in relation to the conflict in South Ossetia, its mandate has been considerably expanded since 1992. The organisation’s mission in Georgia now also plays some role in relation to the conflict in Abkhazia, albeit more in terms of liaison between the UN operations there and the OSCE Chairman-in-Office.[5] Its mandate with regard to Georgia as a whole now also tasks the mission with the promotion of human rights and good governance, in cooperation with other international organisations, such as the Council of Europe and the EU. OSCE mechanisms, such as the High Commissioner on National Minorities and the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights are also active in the country. Between December 1999 and December 2004, the OSCE’s Border Monitoring Operation observed traffic across Georgian-Russian border (Chechnya, Ingushetia, and Dagestan). In addition, the OSCE also ran a capacity building and training programme for Georgian border guards in 2006 and 2007.

Since 2000, the mandate of the OSCE mission has been extended on an annual basis, the current mandate runs until 31 December 2008. Annual costs of the mission have been in the region of €10million, covering both programme activities and operational costs. The mission currently has a staff of 142.

The United Nations
The UN has been engaged in the conflict in Abkhazia from the very beginning, but its track record is characterised by an equal lack of success in bringing about a sustainable peace settlement as that of the OSCE in the conflict in South Ossetia. An initial UN fact-finding mission in October 1992 was followed by the appointment of a Special Envoy in May 1993. Only in August 1993 did the Security Council establish a full-fledged peacekeeping mission, the UN Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG). By then, however, the lack of formal and higher-level international engagement, including the unwillingness of other P5 states in the Security Council to push harder for heavier UN engagement, had allowed Russia to establish itself as the lead-power in ‘managing’ the conflict in Abkhazia (MacFarlane 1999: 36) and establishing its own mediation rules and preferences (Sabanadze 2002: 14). While the UN did provide the bulk of humanitarian aid to Georgia,[6] it had effectively been sidelined in any negotiations, despite some efforts by the Special Representative to facilitate substantive negotiations. From the beginning, the UN established full respect for the territorial integrity of Georgia as one of the key parameters of any future settlement.

The Security Council established UNOMIG in August 1993, on the basis of Resolution 858. Its mandate, modified and extended over time, now is to monitor compliance by the parties of the 1994 ceasefire agreement, to observe the CIS peacekeeping forces deployed under the agreement, and contribute to the return of refugees and displaced persons. The UN presence in Abkhazia was further enhanced with the establishment of the UN Human Rights Office in Sukhumi in 1996 and the addition of a civilian police component of 20 officers to UNOMIG in 2003. The current mandate of UNOMIG, with a strength of 134 military observers and 17 police officers, ends on 15 February 2009.

Over time, other aspects of the UN’s involvement in the Abkhaz conflict also changed. In 1997, the role of the Special Envoy was upgraded to that of a resident Special Representative of the Secretary-General.[7] Cooperation with Russia, whose role as the principal facilitator of peace negotiations the UN continued to accept, as well as with the so-called Group of Friends of the Secretary-General (Germany, France, Russia, United Kingdom, and United States) and with the OSCE gave the UN’s peace efforts some new momentum. By 2002, a set of “Basic Principles for the Distribution of Competences between Tbilisi and Sukhumi” (the so-called Boden plan, named after the then Special Representative, Dieter Boden) had been endorsed by Security Council Resolution 1393 (31 January 2002). Its implementation, however, ultimately failed because of the rejection of the plan by the Abkhaz side.

Another UN-sponsored initiative, the Geneva process, sought to revive the peace process from 2003 onwards. Three task forces--on economic matters, on the return of IDPs/refugees, and on political and security matters—were established, further meetings followed in Geneva, and a separate agreement was reached between Georgia and Russia to establish three additional bilateral working groups (on the Inguri Hydroelectric Power Station, the rehabilitation of the railway link between Georgia, Abkhazia and Russia, and IDP/refugee return) with UNOMIG participation. The Geneva process was a means to carry on with maintain cooperation on pragmatic issues after the initial failure of the Coordinating Council and did contribute to more constructive cooperation between the parties (Wennmann 2006).

The United States
US engagement in Georgia is based on US energy and security interests. The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline serves major US (and Turkish) interests, including diversification of supplies and limiting Russia’s (and potentially Iran’s) control over Caspian hydrocarbon resources by providing alternative supply lines to world markets. The security of the pipeline, however, remained crucially dependent on stability in Georgia which established an initial US interest in what was considered Russia’s backyard throughout the first half of the 1990s (Wennmann 2006:22).

With the beginning of the Global War on Terrorism, Georgia rose on the US security agenda because of its strategic location in relation to Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Middle East, necessitating the use of Georgian airspace and leading to the establishment of two (joint US-Turkish) airbases in the country. In 2002, as part of an effort to widen the coalition of countries supporting the US-led war on terrorism, the Georgia Train and Equip programme was initiated, funded with $64million and designed to increase the capabilities of Georgia’s armed forces by training and equipping four six-hundred strong battalions of the Georgian army and some additional troops under the command of ministry of the interior, including border guards. A follow-up to the train and equip programme was the Georgia Sustainment and Stability Operations programme, tied more specifically to Georgian troop deployments in Iraq and providing an additional $60million in military US assistance in 2005/6.[8] In addition, around $400 million worth of military surplus goods were delivered to Georgia.[9]

Beyond military assistance programmes, the US has been the largest donor of aid to Georgia. Between 1992 and 2007, a total of some $1.7 billion were spent on democracy promotion, social and economic reform, capacity building in security and law enforcement, and humanitarian assistance. In September 2005, Georgia and the Millennium Challenge Corporation reached agreement on a compact for further financial assistance of $295 million over a five year period for initiatives aimed at regional infrastructure and private sector development. As part of the international effort to assist Georgia’s economic rehabilitation after the violence in summer 2008, the US committed $1 billion, of which $30 million in humanitarian assistance have already been delivered in the immediate aftermath of the conflict.[10]

While the sustained commitment by the US to Georgia has had a significant impact on the country’s economic performance, especially since 2004, and arguably contributed to a number of social and political reforms, it has also exacerbated Georgian-Russian tensions, especially because of the US support for, if not encouragement of, Georgia’s aspirations to join NATO. While US policy in the early 1990s acknowledged Russia’s claims that Georgia (and other ex-Soviet republics) should be respected as part of its zone of influence, US military and energy security interests over the last decade have turned the South Caucasus into somewhat of a battleground for regional influence. In the context of generally worsening relations between Russia and the West (stalling cooperation with NATO, western support for Kosovo’s independence, US plans to establish a missile defence shield in eastern Europe, etc.), a perceived US agenda to press ahead with Georgia’s NATO membership bid at the Bucharest Summit in April 2008 was at least a contributing factor to the outbreak of violence in South Ossetia over the summer.

The European Union
Economically, the EU has been, and remains, the second largest donor to Georgia after the US, with a sum-total of aid disbursed between 1992 and 2007 standing at over €550 million. 2008 saw a massive increase in EU funding to an annual indicative total of €181.9 million.[11] Moreover, at the Georgia Donor Conference, co-hosted by the EU, the Union pledged an additional contribution of €500 million.

Politically, however, the EU is a latecomer to Georgia and its two conflicts, even though it has now firmly established itself as a major player. Bilateral relations between the EU and Georgia have been formally regulated since 1999 on the basis of a Partnership and Cooperation Agreement.[12] In 2003, Georgia was included in the EU’s European Neighbourhood Policy, and a first Action Plan was finalised in November 2006.[13]

Until the summer of 2008, the EU played only a relatively marginal role in any efforts to resolve the conflicts in South Ossetia and Abkhazia with its two main tools—ENP and CFSP—far from effectively deployed. The EU Special Representative for the South Caucasus, operating in the framework of the Council-dominated CFSP, was first appointed in July 2003 with a very broad mandate and a small staff and budget. The first EUSR, Heikki Talvitie, served until 2005, and was succeeded in 2006 by Peter Semneby. Semneby’s appointment was marked by a strengthened mandate, increased staff numbers, the establishment of some local presence (in Georgia and Azerbaijan), and an enhanced budget (up from €370,000 to €2,960,000). The strengthened 2006 mandate notes that the EUSR, rather than merely “assist[ing] in conflict resolution” (2003), is to “contribute to the settlement of conflicts and to facilitate the implementation of such settlements” (2006).[14] The primary focus of the EUSR’s activities, however, has been Georgia, rather than Armenia and Azerbaijan, the priority being capacity building in border management.

ENP, under the auspices of the Commission, did not put conflict management very high on its agenda either. Among the eight priority areas identified in the 2006 ENP Action Plan, the promotion of “peaceful resolution of internal conflicts” comes in at number 6. Interestingly, especially in light of developments since August 2008, the EU specifically commits itself to including “the issue of territorial integrity of Georgia and settlement of Georgia’s internal conflicts in EU-Russia political dialogue meetings”. This reflects the strictly consensual bilateral character of the ENP—any measure depends on the consent of the target country. Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, it also points to a fundamental misconception of the utility of particular policies for conflict settlement: strengthening Georgia qua support for democratic, judicial, and economic reform, while important in itself, is unlikely to increase the country’s attractiveness to its separatist regions (cf. Coppieters 2007). Paradoxically, it is, however, one of the key strengths of the EU to contribute to creating improved social and economic conditions. The problem is that such a policy is unlikely to have an immediate and direct effect on the prospects of resolving conflicts like the ones in Georgia. Moreover, although the EU is the largest donor of (non-military) aid to Abkhazia (since 2004) and South Ossetia (since 1997) and has been instrumental in helping both regions with their own economic development, the increased profile that the Union has achieved this way had not translated into a greater weight in the conflict settlement process before 2008: in South Ossetia, the EU’s formal role was limited to observer status at JCC economic meetings (Coppieters 2007: 7), while no formal role existed for the EU in the process in Abkhazia (other than indirectly through the inclusion of some of its member states in the UN Secretary-General’s Group of Friends).

Following the outbreak of violence in August 2008, the EU has seen remarkable change of its fortunes—the French presidency of the Union was instrumental in brokering the six-point ceasefire agreement between Georgia and Russia, was invited to send, and quickly deployed, a monitoring mission,[15] and had achieved, by 10 October 2008, the completion of the Russian withdrawal according to the EU-mediated agreements of 12 August and 8 September. Moreover, the EU co-hosted a donor conference for Georgia in October 2008 at which a total of €3.4 billion was raised. These quick successes catapulted the EU to the centre-stage of international efforts to restore peace in Georgia and secured it formal participation in the renewed negotiation efforts between the parties. While the EU emphasised the continued need for cooperation with the OSCE and UN at headquarter level and in-country missions, the EU’s success so far was very much predicated on its ability and willingness to break free from existing and separate mediation and negotiation formats. Seizing the opportunity created by the August crisis, the EU took the lead in international crisis management efforts and firmly established its role as an effective mediator. Importantly, and contrary to much of the conventional wisdom, the EU’s contribution to managing the crisis in Georgia happened outside the framework of its economic aid and conditionality policies,[16] confirming that the EU can play a very useful role in conflict management beyond its traditional ‘comfort zones’.[17]

[4] Russia is not considered as an external actor because of its clear and partisan involvement in the conflict. This is not a judgement on the nature of Russia’s involvement.
[5] The OSCE has between one and two of its staff based at the UN Human Rights Office in Abkhazia.
[6] This is done primarily through the activities of the so-called Trust Fund with the aim to establish conditions conducive to IDP and refugee return.
[7] In 1997, the UN also established a Coordinating Council to deal with security problems, economic and social issues, and return of refugees and displaced persons. Its principle mechanism to achieve its aims were, similar to the JCC in South Ossetia, weekly meetings of the parties in the conflict zone, the CIS peacekeeping force and UNOMIG. At best moderately successful, the Coordination Council ceased operating in 2002, but was revived in 2006 with three working groups on security, IDP/refugee return, and social and economic issues.
[8] Information from
[9] Information from
[10] Information from
[11] Most of this increase is related to the violence of August 2008, with €98.7 million to be spent on IDPs, €21 million contributed to the UN Flash Appeal, €47.8 million allocated to core recovery programmes for the Georgian economy, and €35.4 million committed to the EU Monitoring Mission.
[12] Partnership and Cooperation Agreement between the European Communities and their Member States, of the one part, and Georgia, of the other part. Available at
[13] EU/Georgia Action Plan. Availabe at
[14] The 2006 mandate, however, remained very broad, covering a wide range of objectives from support for political and economic reforms in the three countries of the South Caucasus, to conflict prevention and settlement, to constructive engagement with main interested actors concerning the region (presumably including countries and organizations outside the South Caucasus), to encouraging regional cooperation, and to enhancing the effectiveness and visibility of the EU in the region.
[15] The European Monitoring Mission (EUMM) was established by a European Council decision on 15 September 2008. It comprises 352 staff, including 200 monitors, from 22 member states, has a budget of €35 million and an initial duration of 12 months.
[16] This is not to say that humanitarian aid and post-conflict rehabilitation did not play a role in the overall EU approach.
[17] There has been some evidence of this in other ESDP missions, especially in Aceh and the DRC.

References / Further Reading: 

Alertnet. 2007. Crisis Profiles: Georgia, Abkhazia, S. Ossetia, [accessed 29 October 2008]
Cohen, J. 2002. Regional Introduction: Struggling to Find Peace, in Searching for Peace in Europe and Eurasia: An Overview of Conflict Prevention and Peacebuilding Activities, ed. by P. v. Tongeren, H. v. d. Veen, and J. Verhoeven. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 404-415.

Coppieters, B. 1999. The Roots of the Conflict, in A Question of Sovereignty: The Georgia-Abkhazia Peace Process, ed. by J. Cohen. London: Conciliation Resources, [accessed 18 October 2008].

Coppieters, B. 2007. The EU and Georgia: time perspectives in conflict resolution. Paris: EU Institute for Security Studies.

Cornell, S. E. 2001. Small Nations and Great Powers: A Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict in the Caucasus. London: Curzon Caucasus World.

International Crisis Group. 2004. Georgia: Avoiding War in South Ossetia. [accessed 11 October 2008].

International Crisis Group. 2006. Conflict Resolution in the South Caucasus: The EU’s Role. [accessed 11 October 2008].

International Crisis Group. 2007. Abkhazia: Ways Forward. [accessed 11 October 2008].

Lynch, D. 2004. Engaging Eurasia’s Separatist States: Unresolved Conflicts and the de facto States. Washington, D.C.: United States Institute for Peace.

Murer, J. S. 2006. Caucasus, in Flashpoints in the War on Terrorism, ed. by D. S. Reveron and J.S. Murer. London: Routledge, 87-114.

RFE/RL. 2006. Russia: Putin Calls for ‘Universal Principles’ to Settle Frozen Conflicts (1 February 2006),, [accessed 29 October 2008].

Sabanadze, N. 2002. International Involvement in the South Caucasus. [accessed 11 October 2008]

Wennmann, A. 2006. Renewed Armed Conflict in Georgia. Geneva: Graduate Institute of International Studies (PSIO Occasional Papers 3/2006).