Georgia has come knocking on separatist doors with a basket full of promised grants, investments and social welfare perks, but de facto Abkhaz and South Ossetian officials, wary of Georgians bearing gifts and mindful of Moscow and their own declarations of independence, show no sign of interest in the offering.The Action Plan for Engagement, a white paper originally tabled this winter, marks an attempt to switch from stick to carrot in Tbilisi’s dealings with Sokhumi and Tskhinvali. The document offers assistance ranging from investment promotion schemes to Georgian social security benefits.The separatist-controlled governments, however, were quick to term the offer “bribery.” Russia, which has a large troop presence in both regions, has already described the effort as too little too late.In comments to the OSinform news agency, Russian parliamentarian Sergei Markov, a member of the ruling United Russia Party, scoffed that the Kremlin is not running a fruit and vegetable stand where “Abkhaz and Ossetians are sold like tomatoes and tangerines.”Georgian officials have dismissed such objections as “a classic routine” and, undeterred, have prepared to start jockeying with Moscow. Far less attention is paid to attitudes in Sokhumi and Tskhinvali, whose de facto governments Georgian media usually portray as passive offshoots of Moscow. Abkhazia’s de facto foreign ministry did not respond to questions emailed by EurasiaNet.org about the plan; South Ossetia’s de facto government could not be reached by phone.Apart from Abkhaz and South Ossetian disinterest in the scheme, though, the financial odds do not seem to be on the Georgian side.Even if Western donors underwrite Tbilisi’s efforts, deeper-pocketed Moscow can match every lari from the Georgian government with 100 rubles from Russia, noted Lawrence Scott Sheets, Caucasus project director for the International Crisis Group.Georgian officials counter that Russian aid is notorious for vanishing via corruption, and claim that Tbilisi can establish tools -- allegedly via international organizations and Georgian-Abkhaz-South-Osssetian cooperation -- to make sure aid reaches the intended beneficiaries.That assumption, however, skirts one hard reality -- Tbilisi no longer exercises any control over either Abkhazia or South Ossetia, and the two breakaway regions’ de facto governments have little incentive to shun the Kremlin for friendlier ties with the Georgian government. The plan makes no mention of Russia, which has pledged millions of dollars worth of aid for both breakaway regions.The plan also appears to sidestep the deeply rooted sense in both de facto governments that their regions have a separate national identity from Georgia -- and, therefore, no need for the plan’s Georgian social welfare benefits or nationality-neutral identity cards.The July 22 International Court of Justice ruling that Kosovo’s declaration of independence is acceptable under international law has furthered that sense. De facto Abkhaz Prime Minister Sergei Shamba noted that Abkhazia has “not less, if not more, historical, legal and moral foundations and arguments to be recognized than does Kosovo,” Apsnypress reported.In response, Georgian First Deputy Foreign Minister Giga Bokeria countered that the Kosovo ruling is a standalone case and cannot serve as a precedent for separatist efforts around the world. In both Abkhazia and South Ossetia, ethnic Georgians, rather than an ethnic minority, were the victims of ethnic cleansing, he asserted. “Substantial parallels between Kosovo and the [Russian-] occupied territories [of Abkhazia and South Ossetia] cannot be drawn,” Bokeria said.The White House, the key supporter of Georgia’s claims to Abkhazia and South Ossetia, has commented similarly. Moscow, the international champion of the two territories’ independence, pointed out that the court only recognized the legality of Kosovo’s right to declare independence; not on the legality of its actual secession.The Action Plan’s authors, however, say that by focusing on ordinary people’s everyday needs, Tbilisi can avoid falling into the quicksand debate over the territories’ status. If some elements of the plan are implemented, the de facto Abkhaz and South Ossetian governments will have no choice but to go along with the entire initiative, reasoned State Minister for Territorial Integrity Temur Iakobashvili.“If an Abkhaz is in need of serious medical treatment, he will go for an affordable option in Zugdidi [Georgian city near the administrative border with Abkhazia], rather than go to faraway and expensive Moscow hospitals,” Iakobashvili asserted. Such visits already occur, but with a proposed identification card, which would have a blank space for nationality, anyone from Abkhazia and South Ossetia could travel into Georgian-controlled territory and claim all Georgian social welfare and civil benefits, the government pledges.The document is also meant to facilitate interaction for mixed families, and to allow residents of the two regions to apply for international scholarship programs, which often require a Georgian passport. Tbilisi also touts the card for allowing holders to travel abroad, but most Abkhaz and South Ossetians are Russian passport-holders and can do so already.The offer to set up trading zones near the administrative borders with Abkhazia and South Ossetia could prove more tempting, Sheets believes. Prices for food and goods in Georgian-controlled territory run far less than in Russia’s markets, he noted.The plan further proposes an international donor-operated trust fund and an investment fund to channel development and business money into both regions. Selling gas in Abkhazia and providing consumer credits could also be included, Iakobashvili said.But the risk of upsetting Moscow, which keeps the two territories under a thick comforter of financial, military and political assistance, may prove the ultimate spoiler for such measures, Sheets argued.“If you are a politician running Abkhazia or South Ossetia, you would not want to risk relations with the Kremlin… [by] entertaining a proposal from Georgia,” he said.Russia aside, Tskhinvali and Sokhumi “see it as a Trojan horse to establish Georgian rule over South Ossetia and Abkhazia,” Sheets concluded.
Giorgi Lomsadze is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi.