The Georgian government has developed a new strategy for re-engaging with -- and ultimately re-incorporating -- the separatist territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and is working to gain international support and funding for its plan.The plan, officially named the "State Strategy on Occupied Territories: Engagement through Cooperation," was developed by Georgia's Ministry of Reintegration and released at the end of January. Published in five languages -- Georgian, English, Russian, Abkhaz and Ossetian -- the plan takes a more conciliatory tone than has been customary for Tbilisi, and stresses the need for a "human-centric policy aimed at engagement with the residents of" Abkhazia and South Ossetia.Providing for a variety of social programs, the plan would make health care available to people in the separatist territories, and sketches out plans for rebuilding roads and establishing bus lines. It would also promote the Abkhaz (though not Ossetian) language, and encourage people-to-people contacts across the de facto borders. Focusing on these less controversial issues would help Tbilisi blunt criticism from authorities in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and the Russian government, Temuri Yakobashvili, Georgia's Deputy Prime Minister and State Minister for Reintegration, said in an interview with EurasiaNet. "Status and security, those two issues are deliberately not part of the strategy. It's about people," Yakobashvili said. Still, the strategy document openly acknowledges that it is intended to help the Georgian government regain control over the territories. "The Strategy is part of Georgia's overarching determination to achieve the full de-occupation of Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region/South Ossetia, reverse the process of annexation of these territories by the Russian Federation, and peacefully reintegrate these territories and their populations," the document says in its preamble. Now that the overarching strategy has been completed, Yakobashvili's ministry is taking steps to try to implement it. The hope is that a donor conference could be convened in late June, in order to attract funding from Georgia's allies.To that end, Yakobashvili toured Western capitals late February to drum up support for the plan. He visited Washington on February 25-26, meeting Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns, as well as with officials from the White House, Department of Defense and the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and members of Congress. Before that, he had met with UN officials in New York and French officials, including Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, in Paris. A statement issued by the US. Embassy in Tbilisi said it "strongly supports" the objectives of the plan. "The strategy is a constructive step towards easing tensions and a way to reach out to all residents of the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia," the embassy said. Yakobashvili said the reaction he had gotten from US officials on his trip was positive, adding that USAID representatives indicated they would provide some assistance for the reintegration strategy. Yakobashvili's early success in generating international enthusiasm for the plan may be set back by a mid-March scandal in Tbilisi, in which a television hoax about a fake Russian invasion caused panic in the Georgian capital and outrage in Moscow. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. US and European Union officials have voiced displeasure over the fake report, which Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has nonetheless characterized as "maximally close to reality." [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].The television scandal has appeared to dent Georgia's image among some of its most important donors. On March 17, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso voiced concern about the report, cautioning Tbilisi to avoid action that could inflame regional tension.
In any event, reaction to the new Georgian strategy from authorities in Abkhazia and South Ossetia -- as well as from the Russian government, which exerts significant control over those territories -- has been antagonistic. Abkhazia's leader, Sergey Bagapsh, dismissed the strategy as "soft bribery." "We will not even talk about this issue. In response to this document we will tighten border control along the Inguri River, and we will not allow the creation of 'fifth column' in the Gali District. I can imagine how many people are already recruited [by Georgian authorities] and running around the [Gali] District," Bagapsh said.Russian officials have scoffed at the plan, too, saying that it was "written by Americans," Yakobashvili noted. But if those in charge of the separatist territories don't allow Georgia to implement the programs it wants to, they will be the ones who suffer, he claimed. "Theoretically it's possible to block [the strategy] but practically they would have to demonize themselves excessively if they want to block it," Yakobashvili said. "We want free Internet for Abkhazia. Somehow, is free Internet hindering national Abkhaz feelings? Tell me how? If they get better health care, is that politically radioactive?"US analysts doubt that implementation of the plan is feasible in the short term, but said it was nevertheless an important and welcome step for Georgia's policy toward Abkhazia and South Ossetia. "An Abkhaz or a South Ossetian reading this isn't even going to feel good about the title, about the 'occupied territories.' So this is not written [in] a way to engage them. But it's useful as a tool for internal Georgian discussions, saying that 'we want engagement, we don't want a military solution and we made mistakes,'" said Susan Allen Nan, a professor at the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University. "These are significant steps in a very, very, very long process.""It represents a conceptual breakthrough on the part of the Georgian government on how to deal with the populations of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. I think the substance of the plan can be supported in every way, but the issue of feasibility is another question entirely," said Cory Welt, associate director of the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies at George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs.Welt said the United States can be expected to help fund programs that Georgians prove can be actually implemented, and that Tbilisi is also hoping to use the strategy to gain more US diplomatic support. "I think they're looking for the Americans to keep the strategy in mind in their discussions with the Russians so that when, as it inevitably will, the strategy runs into obstacles, there is some hope on the Georgian side that the United States might try to encourage the Russians to see the strategy in a more positive way," he said.
Joshua Kucera is a Washington, DC,-based freelance writer who specializes in security issues in Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East.