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Georgia's Breakaway Regions: Is "Forgetting" an Option?

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Thomas de Waal is a household name when it comes to conflicts and politics of the Caucasus. Hosted by the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung South Caucasus, Tom’s public lecture attracted a large crowd of young Georgians. Most attendees were too young to have any first-hand knowledge of the almost 30-year old conflict between Georgia and Abkhazia. Tired of politically-motivated narratives, many were thirsty for an objective account. And everybody expected to hear new ideas about a possible resolution.

Yet, Tom provided very little new information or ideas. Instead, exactly as promised by the title of his lecture, he put the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict into a longer perspective, that of an all but forgotten 19th century war fought by two of Europe’s emerging “nation states”. The two states in question were Germany and Denmark. The conflict was over two borderline duchies, Schleswig and Holstein, ethnically divided between the Danes (concentrated in northern Schleswig), the Frisians, and the Germans.

Over a span of less than 20 years, the Danes and Germans fought two bloody wars for the right to incorporate Schleswig and Holstein into their respective states. The second war, waged in 1864, ended in a resounding victory for the better-organized Prussian army. As a result, Bismarck’s Germany and its then-ally Austria established full control over both duchies, annexing them into the newly formed German Empire and bringing some 200,000 ethnic Danes under its rule.

The military defeat and the loss of territory were no petty matter for the Danes who regarded Schleswig as an ancient core region of Denmark (the southern part of Schleswig contains the ruins of the old Danish Viking "capital" Hedeby). Many were displaced or chose to migrate – to Denmark or overseas. The trauma of that war was a factor behind Denmark’s reluctance to commit troops abroad until as late as 1999.

Nevertheless, since WWII, the Danes and Germans live side by side at the heart of a united and peaceful Europe. Schleswig-Holstein, once a war zone, is much better recognized today for its wind farms than any past conflicts. It may be easier to imagine a modern-day Don Quixote waging a war on local wind turbines than a real war starting between the two neighboring nations. Indeed, one would have to be crazy to want to fight over the precise location of “Willkommen in Deutschland” and “Velkommen til Danmark” signs in today’s borderless Europe.

What can young Georgians learn from the history of a long forgotten 19th century conflict between two European nations?

The first lesson, according to Tom de Waal, is that territorial conflicts are never “frozen”. They evolve. The original reasons for the conflict are often forgotten, and what is passed down through history is the trauma – the loss of life, territory and forced migration. And, yet, after an extended period of non-violence, conflicts may be completely erased from memory.

Secondly, what also evolves is the geopolitical context in which conflicts originate and are fought. In particular, the interests of external patrons may – and often do – lead to a reconfiguration of alliances. In 1853-56, Britain and France engaged Russia in the bitter Crimean War in order to prevent it from gaining territory and power at Ottoman expense. Less than 10 years later, in 1864, Russia, France and Britain suddenly found themselves standing united on Denmark’s side, trying to contain Germany’s ambitions to gain territory and power at Denmark’s expense. De Waal quotes Lord Palmerston, Britain’s Prime Minister at the time of the conflict, who had famously said: “We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.

Yet, judging by questions asked by people in the audience, young Georgians are certainly reluctant to forget or give up. “How many real Abkhaz still live in Abkhazia?” “How many of them regret breaking away from their historical motherland?”

Likewise, recent pronouncements by senior EU politicians, such as Federica Mogherini, suggest no abating in Europe’s support for Georgia’s national sovereignty and territorial integrity. Speaking in European Parliament in 2018, she claimed that “all of our actions within the two regions are fully coordinated –and I would like to underline this because it is a very important point – and approved by the Government of Georgia, and fully in line with the Georgian engagement policy”.

Departing from the Schleswig-Holstein analogy, de Waal argues for an independent engagement strategy on the part of EU leadership – a strategy that would allow for actions that might not be approved by Tbilisi, such as the opening of an EU information center in Sukhumi, allowing Abkhaz students to study in Europe, or providing Abkhazia with humanitarian and development assistance.

“All the regional actors have their hands tied,” says de Waal, “the EU still has room for maneuver.” He further predicts that, if the current stalemate continues, the world will soon forget and move on. In five years’ time, the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict may become “as obscure as Schleswig-Holstein but in a less favorable part of Europe”. Do you agree? I don’t.


The world may soon give up on any future attempt to promote a peaceful resolution of the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict. However, there is very little chance for the conflict to become “obscure” in the same way in which the Schleswig-Holstein “question” vanished from the world’s agenda in the second half of the 20th century.

First, and most obviously, the bloody conflict and loss are very much alive in the collective memories of both nations. Thirty years is simply not enough for people to forget and move on.

Secondly, the international context of the conflict has deteriorated since the 1990s. The Russia of Boris Yeltsin was seeking compromises with the West. Putin’s Russia is a resurgent power seeking to dominate and be reckoned with. In this environment, the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict can only truly be resolved as part of a grand settlement among the world’s major superpowers concerning their regional spheres of influence.

Thirdly, the post-WWII international legal order is conducive to freezing rather than fundamentally resolving territorial conflicts:

  • Germany and Denmark, as well as most other European states, were able to “forget” about their conflicts and move on in the legal environment of the 19th century in which “national” borders were constantly redrawn through wars and conquests. In that context, the cycle of dealing with national grief & loss did not last too long. People had no choice but to quickly move from denial to anger to bargaining to depression and, ultimately, to acceptance of the new reality.
  • Dating back to June 1945, the current UN charter was designed to delegitimize conquest and secession. It did so by sanctifying existing political entities and their borders (even when drawn by cartographers in the service of imperial powers), and by failing to provide a clear legal procedure to dissolve legally recognized states (even if completely dysfunctional), or to create new sovereign entities against the will of their parent states. Hence, more than a dozen territories around the world, starting with Taiwan, find themselves in a “frozen” limbo state. Having gone through the first three phases of dealing with loss – denial, anger and bargaining – the parties to relevant conflicts are stuck in the “depression” phase without even the legal ability to accept – “forget and move on”.

I don’t agree with Thomas de Waal’s prediction because “forgetting” is discouraged by the UN charter and is not permitted by the global context surrounding the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict. Neither is the option of “forgetting” on the political agenda in both Georgia and Abkhazia. Thousands died in the chaos and bloody wars of early 1990s. Many thousands lost their homes and everything that was dear to them. Still today, many IDPs live in temporary housing, barely making ends meet and dreaming of their “Paradise Lost”.

*     *     *

“Forgetting” under these circumstances appears impossible and even inappropriate, but is it really such a bad thing? Ultimately, the ability to “forget and move on” is what allowed to bring peace and unity to Europe devastated by centuries of mutual destruction and plundering in the name of national sovereignty, religious and ideological fanaticism. Georgia wants to be a part of modern and united Europe. For now, however, it is stuck in a region as divided by barbed wire, war and (frozen) conflicts as Europe had been prior to WWII.


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