Geogians and

Chapter 9 Part 1

Shades of Grey.
Intentions, Motives and Moral Responsibility in the Georgian-Abkhaz Conflict

Bruno Coppieters
This chapter consists of 3 parts (1, 2, 3, and notes)


Moral reflections on the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict can focus on five different themes. First, on the legitimization of organized violence and other forceful means applied by both parties to strengthen their political position in the conflict. A reflection on the regulation of violence should focus on the effective use of military force during the armed conflict in 1992-93. The inability of the Abkhaz government to undo ethnic cleansing, and the enforcement of an economic embargo by the Georgian and Russian governments against Abkhazia, would also be covered by moral reflections on the use of force in a political conflict. Economic blockades to break the will of the civilian population and to force their political representatives to compromise or surrender are traditional weapons of war. It is also possible to reflect upon the attempt by the Georgian government to have Russian troops use all the means at their disposal to implement CIS decisions, or to get the international community to enforce some kind of 'Bosnian model'. The escalation of violent conflicts in the Gal(i) region since the beginning of 1998 makes it clear that the cease-fire and the principle of peaceful negotiations, accepted by both sides in 1993, did not rule out the use of force in the conflict. Reflections on the political use of violence would have to cover the entire post-Soviet period.

Second, the overthrow of the democratically elected president Zviad Gamsakhurdia in 1991-92 by the political opposition and by the president's former supporters among paramilitary forces may be interpreted in the framework of the philosophical tradition which established a right to overthrow governments that came to power lawfully but govern with gross injustice.[1] This opposition between, on the one hand, a democratically elected president who lost popular legitimacy through his authoritarian and erratic policies, and an "unelected autocrat"[2] who promised to re-establish order and democracy, was decisive for the evolution of the war. At first, Shevardnadze could count only on the paramilitary troops of Kitovani and Ioseliani to resist the troops of the ousted president Gamsakhurdia. The 'interethnic' Georgian-Abkhaz conflict is closely intertwined with this 'intraethnic' Georgian-Georgian one. The decision to get Georgian paramilitary troops to occupy the main communication lines in Abkhazia was said to be aimed at stopping Gamsakhurdia's "terrorist" forces and obtaining the release of Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Kavsadze and other Georgian government officials who had been kidnapped by these forces.[3] Getting Georgian troops to re-establish Georgian authority over the territory of Abkhazia was a further objective of this move. It is far from clear how the Presidium of the State Council, constituted by Shevardnadze and his warlords, discussed the relationship between these two objectives. There is also a debate over whether Shevardnadze had doubts about his troops' chances of crushing the Abkhaz proclivity for secession. It is generally assumed that he could not have opposed his paramilitary allies without either resigning or being toppled from power, which would have entailed the risk of either a military dictatorship or the return of Gamsakhurdia's forces to Tbilisi and a new civil war. Russian and North Caucasian support for the Abkhaz troops led to the Georgian defeat in Abkhazia. After the Georgian troops had been expelled from Abkhazia, Russia helped Shevardnadze to crush definitively the military supporters of his rival, Gamsakhurdia. Shevardnadze's defeat in Abkhazia was the necessary condition for gaining the upper hand in this intraethnic conflict. In 1998, three years after the final removal of the paramilitary organizations from power and the implementation of a new democratic constitution, the conditions under which Shevardnadze acceded to power again became an important political issue. An attempt on his life in February 1998 by supporters of the ousted president put the question of 'a national reconciliation' between the two factions in the Georgian civil war at the top of the political agenda. Political stabilization through such a process of reconciliation may facilitate an institutional solution to the various interethnic and interregional conflicts or tensions (with Abkhazians, South Ossetians, Ajarians, Armenians and Azeris).

Third, moral reflections on the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict may focus on the normative meaning, in this conflict, of the right to secession - including the normative dimension of the right to self-determination and the principle of territorial integrity. This issue does not only concern the origins of the war. The long-term possibility of Abkhaz secession is being reckoned with in all negotiations on the federative future of Georgian-Abkhaz relations. The international community's refusal to recognize the Abkhaz government as legitimate or to recognize any border changes achieved by force or unilateral forms of secession, puts the normative question of the right to secession at the forefront of relations between Abkhazia and the world community. This question may continue to be debated even after a peace settlement. There is no reason to believe that confederal or federal institutions will put an end to conflicts of sovereignty or even to secessionist strivings. It may be hoped that debates on this issue in Abkhazia and Georgia will take place in an institutional framework which prevents violent clashes, as is the case in Canada and some Western European countries. The federalization of a common Georgian-Abkhaz state is not necessarily a stepping-stone to secession, but it will not prevent democratic discussions on this issue and it will require ongoing normative reflection on the legitimacy of common institutions.

Fourth, the Georgian and Abkhaz concepts of citizenship and their view of themselves as constituting with 'the other' one single national community (from the Georgian perspective) or two different national communities (from the Abkhaz perspective) requires a moral exploration. The question as to which parts of the population living on a particular territory are included and which are excluded from these concepts of a particular community (the question of who should be regarded as 'guests' or 'foreigners' on Georgian soil or the question of the rights of the Georgian population of Abkhazia to return to their homes) has a clear moral dimension. This moral dimension is also present in the discussion about who should be regarded as a political minority or a political majority according to these community concepts (Georgians as a political majority according to the Georgian concept of a single national community; the Abkhaz as a political majority according to the Abkhaz concept of a national state). The discussions on the content of value-laden concepts such as democracy and federalism are directly related to these discussions on citizenship and nation.[4]

Fifth, the possible strategies for dealing with the past injustices committed by both sides. A peace settlement implies the need for policy choices, first of all between criminal prosecution or amnesty for the individual perpetrators of gross injustices, and secondly between the need to remember or to forget past crimes. Strategies in other countries which have experienced similar forms of transition have taken a wide variety of forms.[5] The political choices involved are basically moral choices. These questions are at present not at the forefront of the political negotiations, but they will inevitably become more prominent in the future.

All these five themes clearly have to be differentiated. They are inextricably interrelated in empirical reality, but they also refer to different traditions in political philosophy. Each has its own classics in literature. Research on the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict within the framework of these various theoretical traditions would require a lengthy analysis, which is not my intention here. I will restrict my contribution to the question - which I consider more essential than a detailed analysis of any of these issues - of whether a discussion of the moral character of the armed conflict could be fruitful in the context of Georgian-Abkhaz collaboration at an academic level. This question led to a debate when discussing the first draft of this paper with the participants of the conference in June 1997. Some participants (and not only Georgian or Abkhaz ones) had strong doubts about whether such discussions could have positive consequences for a dialogue between the communities in conflict. This lack of consensus concerning the importance of moral debates between Georgians and Abkhaz contrasted with the general consensus that the issue of federalism and federative systems (federative systems including both federations and confederations) would be of the utmost importance for a future peace settlement. I would certainly agree that institutional questions must be the main priority in Abkhaz-Georgian collaboration, as I also argue in the conclusions to this book. But does this mean that a discussion on the moral dimension of the conflict would have merely divisive consequences? There was a relative consensus at the conference that the issues of pan-Caucasian integration strategies and the historiography of Georgian-Abkhaz relations would be worth discussing. But why this lack of agreement concerning the importance of morals in confidence-building programmes, despite the overt moral character of the conflict? I am convinced that such a rejection is based on a misunderstanding of the place of morals or ethics in political conflicts and scientific disputes. A process of dialogue between Georgians and Abkhaz on an academic level should preferably include all scientific disciplines - including ethics - and all the scientific traditions represented in these disciplines.

In the following, I will first consider a major objection concerning the relevance of a moral analysis of a political conflict, and then two alternative approaches - that can be found among the contributions to this book - to the explicit inclusion of ethics and ethical judgements in an analysis of Georgian-Abkhaz relations. I want to demonstrate that these alternative approaches cannot replace a moral approach, in particular when the question of political responsibility must be analysed. This question has to be addressed as part of a peace settlement, as can be seen from the question of how and to what extent the right of the Georgian population from Abkhazia to return there should be linked to an assessment of their involvement in the war. In this analysis, I will point out the importance of the concepts of 'intentions', 'motives' and 'responsibility' - which are central concepts in political ethics - for an analysis of the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict.

This analysis will not deal separately with the five broad themes of political philosophy mentioned above, but will refer to all of them. The references to the conflict itself have primarily an illustrative purpose for my demonstration and do not attempt to give definitive answers to the moral questions it raises, and which were mentioned above. As is also the case with contributions from 'outsiders' concerning federative structures to be implemented in Georgia and Abkhazia, such reflections have as their main aim to deliver general ideas and principles and to refer to academic discussions which may be of particular relevance to the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict.

According to Michael Walzer, the most effective moral criticism is that made by those inside a community's moral system. Criticism from the outside is likely to be abstract and rationalist, leading to coercion rather than to dialogue.[6] Such criticism of an abstract and coercive discourse on morals is a recurrent theme in the Western philosophical tradition. The ethical tradition is more inclined to refine particular ethical questions than to present readers with ready-made answers. To take the just war doctrine as an example: Robert Phillips has rightly stated that this doctrine should be considered rather as "a series of questions which any moral agent must ask himself when faced with the problem of resorting to force. The doctrine of justified war by itself does not provide adequate moral guidance".[7]

Moral Disputes and Scientific Rules

According to one argument against moral discourses in conflict resolution, the question of right or wrong does not belong in the realm of scientific knowledge. Contrary to empirical or analytical research on conflicts, a moral dispute - so the argument goes - cannot be settled according to universally valid methodological rules. Morals are seen as being based on subjective perceptions, which are themselves based on irreducible contradictions between values and value systems. Conflicts between national communities express opposed hierarchies of collective values and it makes little sense for individual observers to settle or even to express personal judgements on such collective disputes, based on their own value systems.

It is true that empirical research cannot decide how the principle of self-determination or the principle of territorial integrity should be applied in a Georgian-Abkhaz peace settlement. Historians can describe the way in which wars for secession have been won or lost. Specialists in international law can describe how the principle of self-determination has been reinterpreted in the process of decolonization, or how the legal concept of sovereignty is being challenged by processes of integration and globalization. The history of the Yugoslav conflict may teach us how Western governments were divided among themselves on the question of recognizing Croatia's right to secession. Political scientists can analyse the consequences of particular institutional strategies which have been adopted in the past. No deductive analysis from generally accepted principles and no analysis based on historical analogies devoid of moral choices can give an empirically-based answer to the question of how the Abkhazian people's right to self-determination should be implemented. This type of analysis could not even answer the question of how the concept of 'people' should be interpreted. Should the pre-war or the post-war population be considered as the holders of such a right?

The argument that moral issues at stake in a conflict are subjective and cannot be treated according to standard empirical practices is true, but such an argument points to the limits of empirical research on conflicts rather than to the limits of moral reflection. Empirical research may discuss the causes of particular conflicts and the consequences of particular strategies, but it has few means at its disposal to help in taking a decision on the variety of political choices human agents may face or, in particular, the moral principles they should follow in conflict situations. Any analysis of the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict that excludes the ethical dimension may be regarded as reductive, precisely because it would exclude the opposing hierarchies of values and value systems that are defended in both communities.

As in any case the overtly moral dimension of the war cannot be neglected, it may be important to address it in positive terms. Moral arguments have been and still are being used in the political argumentation and declarations of all parties involved in the conflict. The weapon of moral critique is one of the panoply of instruments used by both protagonists to mobilize domestic and international support. As both parties argue in moral terms, a moral analysis of their arguments may seem irreplaceable, especially as there is a lack of moral clarity concerning their political objectives. It is not clear, for instance, what the moral content of the basic principles at stake in the conflict are. With which moral arguments does the Abkhazian government defend the primacy of the right to self-determination over the principle of the territorial integrity of internationally recognized states? Does this right to self-determination challenge the property and political rights of the pre-war Georgian population? What is the meaning of political freedom and equality in this context? Can equality between peoples only be achieved through independent states? Should freedom be identified with the sovereignty of an independent state, which finds its limits only in international law and in freely accepted commitments? Or should political freedom be seen as the freedom of a community to preserve its identity, which can be achieved in a variety of institutional ways? Clarity here is necessary, as common principles have to be found in the negotiations on a common state. The question of whether the principle of shared sovereignty can be accepted as such a common principle for the Georgians and Abkhaz is still an open one. The same lack of clarity concerning the moral content of the principle of territorial integrity is characteristic of the Georgian discourse. From the Abkhaz perspective, the Georgians are exclusively interested in the Abkhaz territory and in the property rights of their own population, without any consideration for Abkhaz rights over their own homeland.

It may be interesting here to draw a parallel with the American Civil War. Allen Buchanan is the author of a classic work on the moral philosophy of the right to secession. His moral reflections are rooted in American political history. Buchanan considers that there was a basic lack of clarity concerning the moral principles that were at stake in the American Civil War. One basic dimension of the tragedy of this civil war was the fact that "on both sides there was a profound moral ambiguity concerning what the war was really being fought for".[8] It is popularly believed that the Northern side fought for the abolition of slavery. Buchanan quotes Abraham Lincoln to prove that the emancipation of the slaves was not, however, one of the Northerners' primary objectives in the civil war: "My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save the Union by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that".[9] According to Buchanan, this lack of moral clarity concerning the issues at stake in the war had long-term consequences for the development of civic rights in the United States. This basic ambiguity surrounding the political conditions under which slavery was abolished in the last century has rendered the civic emancipation of the Black population of America more difficult to this day.

The Georgian and Abkhaz governments are making tremendous propagandistic efforts to defend the principle of territorial integrity and the right to self-determination, while Georgian and Abkhaz scholars are discussing the application of these principles in the context of the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict. In his contribution to this volume, Viacheslav Chirikba focuses his attention on the right to self-determination while Revaz Gachechiladze examines the principle of territorial integrity. It would be interesting if the moral meaning of these principles could be clarified within the framework of academic collaboration.

The political importance of such a clarification becomes particularly clear when we consider two of the most common accusations levelled against the leadership of the two communities. The Abkhaz government is accused of using the right to self-determination as an ideological façade for defending an ethnocratic dictatorship. According to the principle of territorial integrity, the integration of Abkhazia into the Georgian state would - so runs this critique - democratize Abkhaz state structures and cause the present Abkhaz leadership to lose power.[10] The Georgian government, meanwhile, is accused of interpreting the principle of territorial integrity as a means of retaining the possessions of its 'small empire'. Political negotiations will remain difficult as long as those who are responsible for negotiating or mediating use - or even attach any belief to - such accusations. A clarification of the values at stake when debating future state structures may be helpful in dissipating these strong prejudices.

In their contributions to this book, Ghia Nodia and Gia Tarkhan-Mouravi argue that the Georgian attitude towards Western concepts of democracy and human rights is based on an outward conformity, and not (yet) on a deeper cultural accommodation.[11] Gia Tarkhan-Mouravi states in his article that although the Georgian and Abkhaz parties appeal to the principles of international law, these have only an instrumental value for them. Moral arguments and the principles of international law do indeed tend to be used 'ad hoc' in political conflicts, and not just by the Georgian and Abkhaz governments. It is generally extremely difficult - including in Western Europe - to determine the borderline between outward conformity and a deeper cultural accommodation of 'universal' principles. In international law, universal claims are made on the basis of universally recognized values, but this recognition takes place through the ratification of treaties and conventions and not necessarily through acceptance by public opinion.[12] Nor should the fact that political players are more concerned about material interests than about moral arguments lead one to the conclusion that morals may be neglected in an analysis of the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict. Political players always define their 'material' interests within the framework of a cultural idiom, in which moral principles play a prominent role. The cultural idiom in which the political representatives of a particular community operate is decisive for selecting those interests that are to be considered fundamental.[13] The fact that the Georgian government considers 'Western' discourses on democracy, human rights and international law as 'instrumental', as 'useful' in advancing the country's future development, is as such relevant for an assessment of Georgian political culture itself. Such discourses are not considered to be instrumental in all parts of the CIS. I have the impression that the Abkhaz culture is not very different from the Georgian in that respect. Abkhaz archaeologists and historians like to draw attention to the fact that, since colonization by the Greeks and Romans, for long periods in history their country has been at the inner periphery of Western empires and Western civilization.[14] Abkhaz intellectuals feel no less close to European civilization than do Georgian intellectuals. In the contributions to this volume it will be impossible for the reader to find any 'civilizational' clashes between Georgian and Abkhazian views on the nation or on democracy.

Machiavelli rightly stated that moral rhetoric is one of the most potent weapons in international politics and that the ability to convey the appearance of virtue is an indispensable part of the statesman's art.[15] This generally accepted principle has been applied more easily by the Georgian than by the Abkhaz leadership. In recent years, the Georgian political leadership has had the opportunity to adopt a Western discourse on democracy. Its progressive integration into Western political structures since its recognition as an independent state in 1992 has been accompanied by a parallel schooling in rhetoric. Georgian diplomats and statesmen have far less difficulty than their Abkhaz counterparts in playing with formulas that are pleasing to Western ears. Abkhazia's economic and intellectual isolation since the war - following seventy years of Soviet autarchy - and its lack of trained diplomatic personnel have meant that its present leadership has found it very difficult to gain recognition for its positions among an international audience. Well-founded Abkhaz claims would probably be far better understood and acknowledged in international fora if the basic values they wish to defend were set out more appropriately than they have been up to now (for instance, it is not easy for an outsider who is not familiar with the Soviet concept of federalism to understand why the concept of 'autonomy' is not a positive one for Abkhaz officials). By clarifying the moral values at stake in the different issues discussed at the negotiating table, both sides would be able to go beyond a purely instrumental use of moral rhetoric. An intensified Georgian-Abkhaz dialogue which clarified these basic values and principles would be helpful in moving beyond a position of mere outward conformity to universal democratic principles. A common state undoubtedly calls for more than an instrumental use of mutually agreed principles or institutions.

A Georgian-Abkhaz dialogue on the moral values at stake in the constitution of a federate common state is relevant for moral debates in other countries at well. The choice between a nation's view of itself from an ethnic and civic standpoint, as discussed in the contribution from Ghia Nodia, is a universal problem. It constitutes one of the main topics of discussion between political parties in Germany, France and other European countries when discussing access to citizenship. The right to secession, too, has become a prominent subject of discussion in philosophical studies in recent years. The official Abkhaz position favours not independence but rather - taking into account political realities - national sovereignty within the framework of a federated (preferably confederal) state. The nationalist pro-independence current, however, is strong in Abkhazia. Comparative research between discussions on the moral significance of secession and its alternatives for securing a community's basic values may be very relevant to the Georgian-Abkhaz dialogue. Historical comparison may be of particular interest too. When reading about the moral debate during the American Civil War, in an article of Philip Abbott I found a list of arguments which Lincoln used against secession. With the exception of point 6, which describes slavery as an evil practice to be expiated, they are all to be found in present-day Georgian anti-secessionist discourse:

1. The perpetuity proposition: Since the union was created in perpetuity, seceding units have no moral or legal identity separate from the existing republic.

2. The democratic privilege proposition: Secession is a violation of majority rule.

3. The infinite secession proposition: Secession will provide precedents for further secession until all effective government ceases.

4. The economic mobility proposition: Secession will severely inhibit economic mobility.

5. The outlaw culture proposition: There is no legitimate cultural claim to secession for those who violate basic human rights.

6. The expiation proposition: Resistance to secession will expiate national guilt for tolerating evil practices.

7. The exceptionalism proposition: Secession is unjustified in cases in which a state is undertaking an extraordinary course in democratic development.

8. The common heritage proposition: Secession will sever an irretrievable and treasured common heritage.[16]

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Georgians and Abkhazians. The Search for a Peace Settlement
© August 1998, Vrije Universiteit Brussel