Much Ado about…the Memorial
22 December, 2017
Much Ado about…the Memorial
The recently-removed memorial to victims of the Georgia–Abkhazia war in the Scottish town of Kilmarnock will be reinstalled unchanged, reports OC Media, a local news outlet. Kilmarnock authorities have apparently declared that the memorial will remain as it is until “universally acceptable alternative wording and content” can be agreed by all sides. For those not privy to this business, it is the very same memorial, the removal of which was a couple of weeks ago emphatically announced by the Georgian
Embassy in London as a diplomatic victory, as the memorial sported the “national” flag of Abkhazia. What transpired further would not look out of place in a script for a new season of the celebrated British political sitcom The Thick of It rather than real-life political narrative.

Never to be outdone, the Abkhazians raised quite a ruckus: appalled at the removal of the memorial, they launched an online petition (with direct involvement of their so-called government, no less) to put it back. At the same time, an international group of experts and researchers of the South Caucasus condemned the removal, issuing a joint statement in which they warned against politicizing the matter. “Fragile trust,” the statement intoned, “is easily broken.” Moreover, while the war of words was being waged, in came a statement from the East Ayrshire council that took things to new, dizzying heights of absurdity. It turns out that the removal of the memorial was never on the cards in the first place, and the council had merely had the memorial assessed by a professional stonemason. Blissfully unaware of political sensitivities in the distant lands of the South Caucasus, the council contractor removed the memorial to a stonemason’s yard on a temporary basis for assessment. The bizarre saga served yet another reminder of the ever-deepening rift between Abkhazian and Georgian communities, something that the joint statement above was so keen to underline. Among its signatories was none other than Bruno Coppieters, one of the most well-respected authors and celebrated scholars of South Caucasus conflicts, who was kind enough to discuss the matter at length with GEORGIA TODAY and Panorama TV Show.

“Whilst the legacy of wars is inherently political, politicizing war memorials does nothing to address the causes of violent conflict or to further the cause of reconciliation…” said the statement from the experts.

The age-old question, though: who did it first? The fact that it was the Abkhazians who put a flag on the memorial, thus sending a political message, seems to have somehow escaped the attention of the esteemed community that penned the statement. When pressed about the matter, Coppieters says their main gripe was against the negative consequences of removing a war memorial without prior consultation with all those who have a strong emotional connection to it.

“The memorial was there for 20 years without anyone taking much notice. As a result of the Georgian attempt to have the Abkhaz flag removed, the Abkhaz authorities said: ‘We are the victims here. We’re suffering, and the Abkhaz side is not being respected’. It’s clear that unilateral acts directed at weakening the other side can have negative consequences. If there is something that needs to be changed then all parties should agree to the changes.”

The consensus, however, has proven evasive so far. The Georgian side, in its quest to confine the so-called Abkhazian state to the lowest depths of the political world, is unlikely to accept any statehood symbols but that of their own, while Abkhazians are equally adamant on the issue. The solution, for Coppieters, might lie in the creation of a new war memorial that would be acceptable to both sides. Such negotiations would be difficult, of course: “It is something to be achieved in the longer-term,” he says, “and in the meantime, existing war memorials such as the one in Kilmarnock should be left as they are. I think there is too much fear in Georgia about the idea of creeping recognition. It’s obvious that a general recognition of Abkhazia as an independent state is not going to happen anyway.”

Fear, however, was not the only sentiment in Georgian society after the news about the memorial broke. Anger, for one, was much more prevalent. True to Coppieters prediction, all things negative poured from those who commented on the issue; neither reconciliation nor finding common ground were on the cards. Abkhazians weren’t the only ones Georgians were upset with – the British took stick too. How would they like it, one particularly inquisitive commenter asked, if we were to build a war memorial dedicated to the victims of the Falkland’s conflict and slap an Argentine flag on it?

“I think fear is a terrible guide for creating new solutions,” was Coppieters’ sage advice. “And anger’s not much better either, if not worse. The real question here is whether the removal of a symbol on a memorial brings us closer to reconciliation. My answer is, not at all. One side is venting its anger, claiming an imaginary victory; the other side states that it is a victim once again. It’s simply not constructive.”

Beyond the official narrative, the main thesis of Georgia’s staunch non-recognition policy rests on not allowing the Abkhazian state to get even a glimpse of international attention. When asked how successful that policy might be, Coppieters speaks of coins and their double sides.

“As regards non-recognition, it’s a successful one. Abkhazia is indeed isolated on the diplomatic level, recognized by very few governments around the globe. But then again, there’s an agreement that the non-recognition policy should be coupled with an active engagement policy. And it’s exactly that twin of the two that is doing rather poorly. Engagement, regaining the trust of communities, is the key to long-term unification.”

Coppieters was among the third-party people who tried to take an initiative to bring the fractured communities closer together. He says the degree of distrust between sides poses an insurmountable obstacle towards any initiative that is taken. Reminiscing, he talks about his own idea of establishing links between universities in Abkhazia and the EU which would on the long-term allow young Abkhazians to meet Georgian students and students from other countries. Instead of having the only option of going to study in Russia, Abkhazians would have alternative options. The Erasmus program, he says, served as an inspiration. But an inspiration was all it ended up being as both Georgia and Abkhazia found it difficult to find enough trust between them to get it going: neither side was willing to make concessions. The Georgian authorities, in particular, seemed to be fearful that there might come too much closeness with EU universities and their Abkhaz counterparts. Professors from the EU were teaching a few courses in Abkhazia, but the project didn’t go beyond its pilot phase, something Coppieters regrets to this day.

“We have leaders around Europe who are the product of Erasmus. Why not make creative moves in order to have Abkhaz university students participating?” he asks. “This is possible even without diplomatic recognition. Taiwan is not recognized by any EU member state, but they participate in the Erasmus program. I’m under the impression that when the Georgian authorities talk about engagement, they remain too fearful of criticism by the domestic opposition. Yet taking risks is necessary. Of course, then you will have Abkhaz students in European universities defending points of view which the Georgian authorities would not agree with, but that’s part of freedom of expression. In the long-term, it brings people together.”

The Erasmus program, together with the riches and possibilities that the AA and DCFTA agreements have to offer, is among the diplomatic leverage that Georgia tries to use to make itself more attractive for Abkhazians. But such proposals should not be made with the main purpose of making the welfare of the Abkhaz population dependent on decisions in Tbilisi. Coppieters thinks that such an attempt would be counterproductive. “That’s not how people come together. Equality is needed,” he says, “to achieve trust and reconciliation.”

“The very idea that Georgia will become attractive to Abkhazians, that one particularly sunny day Abkhazians will switch sides because the Georgian population has more welfare and more benefits to offer, is not a strategy that will work.”

As he so effortlessly steamrolls over the policy that the authorities in Tbilisi have been selling their voters for the last 10 years, Coppieters reveals his own insight on the solutions that would, in the long-term, make re-unification a realistic prospect. Being a federalist, he thinks that, “under the right circumstances,” the federal model might be the key. And not the federalism of the Russian ilk, where the regions are subject to central authority, but a “more democratic one, where the federal authorities and the federated states are equally subject to the Constitution and the rule of law”.

“Nationalist movements in South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Georgia have traditionally defended different objectives. However, multinational federations should be able to address such conflicting issues. In Belgium or Spain, you also have several nations that have very different identities. And it is all about equality among nations in creating plurinational statehood.”

Be that as it may, there is still a gigantic elephant lurking in the dark room of South Caucasus politics. Or, rather, a bear, to be more stereotypically correct. The factor of Russia cannot be underestimated and it has frequently popped up when discussing that particular federal model Coppieters seems so keen on. With a hierarchy among nations out of the equation, one of the main problems is the creation of a federal state structure that is able to make coherent decisions in the field of foreign policy. In such a situation, Russia risks playing the tune through an Abkhazian flute. This means that effective decision-making structures have to be created which minimalize the negative impact of external intervention. A second problem to be addressed is the relations between national communities in Abkhazia itself. “The tensions among them were a root cause of the Georgian-Abkhaz war and have to be taken into account in designing Abkhaz state institutions,” he says. “This is no less important, and complicated, than designing the relationship between Abkhazia and Georgia within a common federal framework.”

As we take a light step into the dreaded realm of geopolitical speculation, by his judgment, any kind of agreement between Georgia and Abkhazia would have to give the Kremlin some degree of control over the security situation. The Abkhaz side will need a guarantor, and this cannot be NATO. This is one of the concessions Georgia would have to accept, and NATO as well, in order to achieve a settlement. “This may create strong fears in Georgia, and this is one of the reasons I don’t see such negotiations happening anytime soon. However, you need a long-term perspective about solutions on reunification. Difficult negotiations will have to take place and Russia will undoubtedly play its part in that context.”

Author: Vazha Tavberidze

Source: Georgia Today
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