Abkhazia: Can McDonald's Play a Role in Conflict Resolution?
Georgia claims it has averted an accidental encroachment on its sovereignty by one of the world's most powerful forces. No, not by Russia. By McDonald's.
The Illinois-based hamburger giant recently advertised on its website for a franchisee in Abkhazia, a breakaway region that Tbilisi and most of the international community (unlike Russia and a handful of pals) see as part of Georgia, and not, as the McDonald's ad suggested, an independent country.
Given Abkhazia's proximity to the 2014 Winter Olympics host city of Sochi, opening up a restaurant in the region may well have struck some at the Games' "Official Restaurant" as a swell idea. But in Tbilisi, the ad was construed as a plan to recognize Abkhazia’s de-facto independence from Georgia.
The question was how to respond. Severing ties with McDonald's was not in the cards. McDonald's has pretty much got Georgia hooked on its menu, free wifi and kids' parties.
Some people mooted the idea of boycotting the company's four Georgia-based restaurants. Or of protests, that ancient Georgian tradition.
But before matters reached such a head, the company deleted the statement, now found only in a Google cache or referenced in news stories.
McDonald’s franchisee for Georgia, businessman Temur Chkonia, took credit for the move. Calling the Abkhazia ad "a very primitive mistake," Chkonia told Netgazeti.ge that he had talked with a lawyer for McDonald's about the solicitation, and is awaiting a written explanation.
McDonald's could not be reached for comment in time for publication.
Chkonia argues that his franchise agreement covers all of Georgia, and that means, he says, that only he has the right to set up a Mickey D's in Abkhazia.
And he claims he wants to do it, too. Once the Sochi Olympics end on February 23, a burger overture to the de-facto Abkhaz government will begin, he said.
But don't look for Sokhumi to embrace that idea. Even nearly 20 years after the cease-fire with Tbilisi, Abkhazia's suspicion of Georgian intentions can run strong.
In comments on his Facebook page about a remark by Paata Zakareishvili, the Georgian state minister for all matters separatist, that the McDonald's ad was "a misunderstanding," Irakli Khintba, the region's de-facto deputy foreign minister, drily commented that Tbilisi's outcry can only prompt "an ironic smile."
He did not address Chkonia's proposal, an idea which may not warm hearts in Moscow, the chief cheerleader for Abkhazia's independence from Georgia, either.
Yet even if Chkonia makes it to Sokhumi, Big Mac in hand, he's likely to take a lot of flak from many Georgians as well. Opposition to any business dealings with Abkhazia until the region returns to Tbilisi's fold runs strong.
Chkonia, though, claims that won't stop him. “I don’t know how angry people will become with me, but I want to offer it to the Abkhaz side,” he told Netgazeti.ge.
As a sweetener, he said he also plans to throw in sales of Coca-Cola, another franchise he holds.
Not to underestimate the power of Coca-Cola and McDonald’s, but, right now, the odds for such a fast-food détente look pretty slim. Nevertheless, this project is something for Caucasus conflict-observers to watch.
Giorgi Lomsadze is a journalist based in Tbilisi, and author of Tamada Tales.
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