While Georgia and Russia focus their attention on easing tension in South Ossetia, recent developments in Abkhazia should not be overlooked. The breakaway Black Sea region's political environment appears to be ripening for peace. Unfortunately, Tbilisi might be too preoccupied to take notice.
For more than a decade, Abkhazia has been siphoning resources and support from Russia. Ethnic Abkhazians have no more allegiance to Russia than they do to Georgia; yet after breaking off from Georgia, Abkhazia desperately needed a pillar to rest on, and Russia provided that. Abkhazian officials are quietly improving their region's economy and infrastructure, hoping to accumulate enough bargaining power so that the region will not need Russia to survive.
Georgia, on the other hand, is on a direct (albeit slow) path toward Westernization, with all the economic and political benefits that accompany such a transition. Sukhumi knows this, and in particular Sergei Bagapsh, the unrecognized Abkhazian president, sees that a healthy revival of his region's economy could be aided by closer ties with Georgia.
As Bagapsh said in late February, speaking about Abkhazia's relations with Georgia, "political issues are settled through the economy and wisdom, instead of rattling swords." Lifting Georgia's economic sanctions against Abkhazia could facilitate conflict resolution between the two sides, the official Abkhaz news agency Apsnypress reported the Abkhazian leader as saying in a February 15 speech to parliament.
Abkhazia's improving infrastructurecoupled with Bagapsh's statements on Georgia's own potential for economic developmentillustrates an opportunity (perhaps even an invitation) for Tbilisi. Fostering economic development in Abkhazia could help jump start diplomatic efforts to settle the separatist conflict.
Some significant strides have already been made in this direction. Free public transportation now connects Abkhazia's predominantly ethnic Georgian region of Gali with the Georgian city of Zugdidi; after 13 years of darkness, four regions of Abkhazia are now powered by the recently renovated Adzyubzha substation; and an agreement was just reached on rebuilding railway systems linking Russia with Georgia and the rest of the South Caucasus, through Abkhazia. At the power plant's reopening, Bagapsh said he was certain other Abkhaz assets would be renovated and that "more labor resources should be involved in the energy sector."
But seizing that opportunity will mean contending first with Moscow. One of Russia's greatest assets in the region has been Abkhazia's status as a mostly depopulated, undeveloped and isolated buffer between Russia and the South Caucasus. Any substantive economic development in Abkhazia, therefore, threatens Russia's regional control. Moscow can tolerate Sukhumi's efforts to act as an independent economic player, provided that Abkhazia continues to make loud threats of violence against Georgia.
Bagapsh knows he carries far less heft in Tbilisi without Russian backing, but Moscow would never support a regime intent on abandoning it for negotiations in Tbilisi. As a result, Abkhazian officials have to make overtures to both Russia and Georgia, but each in a different way. Bagapsh makes military threats toward Georgia to reassure Moscow, and talks about areas of potential Georgian-Abkhazian economic cooperation including energy and transportation -- to reassure Tbilisi.
In recent interviews, for instance, Bagapsh has vowed that Abkhazians would defend South Ossetia (Georgia's other separatist region) if the South Ossetian leadership felt itself at risk. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. He has also said that some of Georgia's recent behavior amounts to "pure terrorism", and warned that Abkhazia would defend its own borders if its Russian peacekeepers ever withdrew. As if to prepare for such a scenario, it was quickly announced that more than 4,000 Abkhazian reservists are to be called up by Sukhumi for a three-day training exercise on March 21joined by two motor-rifle brigades, the air force, artillery and other special units.
Georgian officials are not getting the economic message from Sukhumi; they only are hearing the threats. Bagapsh's condemnation of Tbilisi made headlines throughout the Georgian and Russian media, while the infrastructure improvements in Abkhazia were hardly noticed.
The time has come for Georgia to reverse that focus. Georgian officials for years have continued an economic blockade of Abkhazia as an expression of their anger at the unruly breakaway province. In the information age, however, blockading Abkhazia becomes less valuable and more detrimental to Georgia's goals with every passing week.
With more secure electricity supplies, Abkhazians could watch more television, listen to more radio, perhaps even picking up special broadcasts from Georgia. With more options for transportation, they could gain greater access to Western products and, potentially, embrace Western culture. A connection could be made between prosperity and an open, democratic society. Compared with Russia, Georgia is in a much better position to encourage these trends; the Georgian government merely needs to discover this for itself.
But the longer Georgia waits, the weaker this association will be; and by the time Tbilisi finally opens the border, Abkhazia will have already developed its palate for the practice of independence, and not just its principles.
David Young is an analyst with the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies in Tbilisi, Georgia. He is currently researching prospects for peace in Georgias ethnic conflicts, and he recently worked on conflict resolution projects for the International Rescue Committee and the Jimmy Carter Center.