The Elusive Dream of Direct Dialogue

by Ghia Nodia, Professor, Ilia State University

Talking is better than fighting. The ability to resolve conflicts through negotiation rather than violence is what distinguishes a civilized society from a backward one.

One cannot claim to be a truly modern person without sharing this view. Modern civilization may have failed to abrogate violent means of solving conflicts on the global scale, but it did achieve a spectacular success of making them effectively impossible within the developed world. This has been a major accomplishment of the post-World War 2 liberal international order. Therefore, it is important to maintain this achievement, even though there is less confidence in that now.

Unfortunately, some conflicts are just too deep to be simply talked through, and sometimes old-fashioned hard power is still needed. Liberal international order only became possible because Hitler was decisively defeated in WW2, and because in the Cold War, the free world out-powered the communist camp both militarily and economically. When it comes to current tensions with Russia, some westerners still believe that if only they talked to Putin a little bit more, and found a better way to address Russian sensibilities, calamities like 2008 in Georgia and 2014 in Ukraine could have been avoided. Alas, it does not always work like that. Dialogue is an indispensable political tool, but not a silver bullet for solving all problems.

Georgians also want to be part of the modern civilization. After the 2008 war, the United National Movement (UNM) government pledged to use exclusively peaceful means for solving territorial issues of Abkhazia and Tskhinvali Region (South Ossetia), and the Georgian public fully accepted that. The Georgian Dream government that claims to be more pacific than its predecessor, promised to go even further by engaging in a direct dialogue with the de facto authorities in Sokhumi and Tskhinvali, something UNM deemed pointless after 2008.

In that, they failed: the de facto governments would not seriously engage in anything short of Tbilisi’s recognition of their independence, or some step in that direction. This, Georgia cannot offer. Reasonable people understand that one cannot do much about this, so Georgia should simply “bracket out” the big issue of resolving the conflict until better times come (if they indeed ever do). Georgia should focus on what can be done now, like developing its political and economic systems, pursuing closer ties with Europe, etc.

On the other hand, the conflicts cannot be fully “frozen” either, as extremely painful incidents remind us on and off. Recently, Archil Tatunashvili, a Georgian IDP from Tskhinvali Region, died (or rather, was killed) in the custody of the separatist government, which now refuses to return his body to the family until lengthy autopsy procedures are completed.

Understandably, the Georgian public is upset and expects its government to act, but the latter is out of options. So, on March 9, Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili decided to issue a vaguely phrased appeal to the Kremlin with seemingly practical suggestions that are quite confusing. The address is full of general lamentation that things are not the way they should be, and that Russia should do something to improve them. Among other things, it asks the Russians to “show constructive approach” and enable direct dialogue between Tbilisi and its breakaway provinces. However, by issuing this appeal, the government appears to have shot itself in the foot: it may have caused a greater outrage than Tatunashvili death, tragic as it was.

Why do Georgians get angry about the idea of direct dialogue between Tbilisi and the de facto authorities? One should keep the context in mind.

There are two misleading narratives about these conflicts. A predominantly Georgian one says that they were caused by Russia’s instigation and would not have happened without it. Another (Russian and partly western) is that they resulted from a reaction of ethnic minorities to aggressive Georgian nationalism, while Russia is an external power that is just trying to establish peace (in the Russian version) or is using these conflicts for its own political advantage (in the western version).

In fact, both views contain the grains of truth. There would be no conflicts unless the Georgians on the one hand, and the Abkhaz and the Ossetians on the other, had fundamentally divergent views on how their political future was supposed to develop after the demise of the Soviet order.

However, at each and every stage in this conflict, Russia could and did wield commanding influence on how things developed; consequently, the steps the parties took were based on anticipating (rightly or wrongly) the actions of Moscow. The conflicts were always triangular, Russia has never been an external party.

There certainly was time (especially in the very beginning) when more of direct dialogue between the parties could have saved us from the worst. Unfortunately, at that time Georgian political elite was not mature and rational enough to take advantage of these opportunities.

Things changed dramatically after 2008: Russia has dropped any pretense of being a neutral mediator, formally recognized independence of both provinces and effectively took charge of their general security, governance and economy (while there are important differences of degree between Abkhazia and South Ossetia, we can ignore them here for the sake of simplicity).

This does not mean that the Abkhaz and the South Ossetians should not be considered political actors at all, but their degree of sovereign control vis-à-vis Russia to genuinely discuss political and security issues of primary significance is negligible; least of all can they determine their relations with Georgia, a subject of utmost interest for Russia. Paradoxically, having been recognized by Russia they have lost even a limited space for maneuver they used to have before. We cannot presume that they are dying to reach some kind of a deal with Georgia independently of Russia, but had they had such a wish, they would not be able to carry it through.

This is why, although informal Georgian-Abkhaz and (probably less so), Georgian-South Ossetian dialogue on the civil society level continues to be valuable, there is not much point in formal relations between Tbilisi and the de facto governments. The dream of solving the issue through direct dialogue might have been based on good intentions initially, but it is time to accept that at this point it leads us nowhere. I understand it may be politically painful for the Georgian Dream to admit that on this matter UNM was right from the start, and they were wrong, but they should have good sense to quietly put the issue to rest.

But revisiting the matter of direct dialogue in the context of Tatunashvili affair, and worse, appealing to Russia’s goodwill to facilitate it, is a grave political blunder indeed. Even a hypothetical value of direct dialogue between Tbilisi and the de facto governments lies in it being separate from Georgia’s relations with Russia. Asking Russia – whom Georgia considers an occupying power – to facilitate dialogue with the people it deems its own citizens, makes the government look pathetic and ridiculous, without any prospects of improving things on the ground.

The lesson learned is that truth is always contextual. Turning the idea of dialogue into a fetish may make it counterproductive, and actually discredit it.

Ghia Nodia is a professor of politics and the director of the International School of Caucasus Studies in Ilia Chavchavadze State University in Tbilisi, Georgia. He is also a founder and chairman of the Caucasus Institute for Peace, Democracy and Development (CIPDD), an independent public policy think tank in Tbilisi, Georgia.