Learning from conflicts past: what recent history of Abkhazia tells us about the future of Donetsk and Luhansk

Dr Anastasia is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Sheffield, and Director of the Centre for the Comparative Study of Civil War. In this piece, she reflects on lessons from Abkhazia - and what light they might shed on events of the last week.

Anastasia Shesterinina

The recognition of Abkhazia redrew Georgia’s international borders, a process that we now see in Ukraine with Russia’s recognition of the self-proclaimed republics of Donetsk and Luhansk…’

This piece is re-posted from UNU-WIDER; the original blog can be read here.

The recognition of disputed territories as independent states rarely brings underlying conflicts to an end. Instead, fully, and partially, recognized states established on the back of separatist wars face war recurrence, protracted violence just short of war, and what is commonly referred to as ‘frozen’ conflict.

For example, after Sudan’s decades-long civil war South Sudan gained independence in 2011 but soon found itself in an interstate war over the border area. The South Sudanese regime was challenged by rebel groups inside South Sudan and internal violence has plagued the new state ever since, despite international recognition. Similarly, decades after the Kosovo War, the border area between Kosovo and Serbia saw clashes that were sparked by Kosovo’s declaration of independence in 2008 and tensions in the border area persisted in the widely recognised de facto state.

Understanding what comes before war, and what will come after 

Continuation of conflict in newly recognized states with a history of separatist war stems from a complex combination of pre-war, wartime, and post-war dynamics. My forthcoming WIDER Working Paper on armed violence in Abkhazia — part of the UNU-WIDER project on Institutional Legacies of Violent Conflict — shows that we cannot understand people’s participation in violence in such states without drawing on their experiences of conflict before the war. However, wars can change the meaning of violence. And participants can come to redefine their post-war activities in terms of defending or challenging the outcomes of the war. These activities can, furthermore, be dramatically impacted by post-war developments, such as international actors’ involvement in these contexts.

Abkhazia is disputed territory of Georgia, with a long history of conflict over the rights of Georgian and Abkhaz groups in Abkhazia that resulted in the Georgian-Abkhaz war of 1992–93. Organized political violence, including recurrence of large-scale fighting in 1998 and 2008, continued even after the war of 1992–93 in Abkhazia, particularly along the ceasefire line established as a result of the war. It wasn’t until after the Russo-Georgian War of 2008 that Abkhazia was recognised as an independent state, and even then only by Russia and a handful of other states. While some incidents continued, violence decreased with the recognition of independence in 2008 and Russia’s subsequent military support and fortification of the border area in Abkhazia. Yet Abkhazia found itself in the legal gray zone of being de jure part of Georgia, de facto out of Georgia’s control, and in fact developing dependence on Russia. This dependence deepened over the next decade.

Despite these complicating factors, the recognition of independence is viewed as the culmination of the Abkhaz struggle. Decades of mobilization from everyday confrontation to political contention and violent Georgian-Abkhaz clashes shortly before the collapse of the Soviet Union were all part of this struggle for many ordinary Abkhaz people who lived through the conflict.

A matter of perception 

The war of 1992–93 started with the advance of Georgian forces into Abkhazia. The participation of the people of Abkhazia and external, particularly Russian, support in the fight cemented the Abkhaz sentiments of collective identity and belonging to Abkhazia that had been developing before the war. The fighting changed the self-perception of participants who now saw themselves as part of the liberation force of Abkhazia. This force transformed into an army-like structure during the war. The war ended with the displacement of Georgian troops and population from Abkhazia in what the Abkhaz side regarded as the Abkhaz military victory.

Defence of this victory was how Abkhaz border guards understood their duties after the war. Participation in low-scale clashes and the fighting in the Gali district in 1998 was part of these duties. In addition, the Abkhaz forces challenged Georgia’s control of the Kodori Valley with Russia’s support in 2008. The Abkhaz perceived this area to be part of Abkhazia and its ‘liberation’ meant the restoration of Abkhazia’s territory to participants and the broader Abkhaz group.

Russia’s recognition of Abkhazia came on the back of the ‘liberation’ of the Kodori Valley, the last area of Abkhazia that Georgia had controlled. But the sovereign statehood that the Abkhaz hoped to establish never came. Instead, Abkhazia is stuck in what I call ‘a limbo between victory and statehood’.

From Abkhazia to Donetsk and Luhansk

The recognition of Abkhazia redrew Georgia’s international borders, a process that we now see in Ukraine with Russia’s recognition of the self-proclaimed republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. While these contexts differ in many ways, the insights from Abkhazia have important implications for these breakaway territories. Regardless of the outcome of the unfolding tragedy in Ukraine, these territories are likely to become deeply dependent on Russia as Russia extends its reach beyond its borders and undermines its neighbours’ Western aspirations.

This piece is re-posted from UNU-WIDER; the original blog can be read here.