The Georgian-Abkhaz Conflict: Its Impact on Smuggling and Vice Versa

Juliette Vieillevigne,

Intern at Caucasian House

The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and may not coincide with the official position of Caucasian House 

According to the United Nations, organised crime is “understood to be the large-scale and complex criminal activity carried on by groups of persons, however loosely or tightly organized, for the enrichment of those participating and at the expense of the community and its members. It is frequently accomplished through ruthless disregard of any law, including offences against the person, and frequently in connexion with political corruption” (United Nations, 1975: 8). Although it can take several forms, this article will focus on a specific type of organised crime, namely smuggling. In particular, it will analyse, on the one hand, the impact that the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict has on smuggling and then, on the other hand, the impact that smuggling has on conflict resolution. To do so, and thanks to thorough research and interviews with experts, it will first of all assess the evolution of smuggling levels after the imposition of sanctions on Abkhazia as a result of the conflict. It will then point to the changes that followed the Rose Revolution with Saakashvili’s fight against corruption and organised crime. This essay will then look at the relationship between the conflict and smuggling from the opposite angle. It will indeed argue that those benefiting from the illegal trade have an interest in perpetuating the frozen conflict. An analysis of the use of violence will also be undertaken. The positive impact of smuggling on conflict resolution will then be assessed, namely that it has the potential to increase the attention of Western powers with regards to the conflict. Finally, this essay will argue that economic cooperation between Georgia and Abkhazia should be encouraged because it can lead to a reduction in illegal trade and represent a first step towards conflict resolution, but that it will prove difficult to establish.

Although the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict reached its peak in 1992 during the war, it was not resolved when the latter ended in 1993. Rather, it became what is known as a ‘frozen conflict’, with violent struggles resuming at several points throughout the years, leading to numerous deaths and an increase in the number of refugees. As a result of the conflict opposing Georgia and Abkhazia, sanctions were imposed on the latter. Although they were initially only implemented by Georgia and Russia in 1994, they then evolved into a CIS-wide embargo two years later through the Decision of the Council of the Heads of States of CIS of 19 January 1996, with the article 6a stipulating that “affirming that Abkhazia is an inalienable part of Georgia, states-members to CIS without the agreement of the government of Georgia will not implement trade-economic, financial, transport or other operations with authorities of the Abkhaz side” (Civil Georgia, 2008). Georgia then reaffirmed its position through the 2008 Law of Georgia on Occupied Territories, with article 6 once again emphasising the “limitation of economic activities in the occupied territories” (Saakashvili, 2008). With these sanctions, it sought to alienate Abkhazia, leaving it without much hope of building foreign economic relations – on an official basis at least – with the aim of making the reunification of Georgia and Abkhazia the only viable option for the latter. A consequence of these sanctions, however, was the emergence of illegal trade activities in the uncontrolled territory. It has indeed been proven that in the case of prohibition, when the production and distribution of certain goods or services is prohibited, and yet there is still a large demand for those, then that demand will still be met but illegally and at high prices (Skaperdas, 2001: 181). Such a phenomenon has occurred in the case of Abkhazia who, forbidden from undertaking economic activities with its neighbours, consequently developed illegal trade. This is still the case even though Abkhazia has since resumed its trade with Russia and is now heavily dependent on the latter. Organised crime activities are therefore still witnessed in the conflict zone, mostly taking the form of smuggling.

As a transit country, Georgia has been experiencing high levels of smuggling from all sides for a long period of time, especially since the collapse of the Soviet Union. As a result of the economic sanctions imposed on Abkhazia however, smuggling has increasingly developed, more particularly in the conflict zone although statistics on the matter seem to be difficult to find. Such illegal trade includes drugs, fuel, cigarettes, timber, weapons and so on. The Georgian-Abkhaz war and its continuous struggles have particularly boosted the smuggling of weapons and, although it has a tendency to decrease in periods characterised by lower tension, it is nevertheless still significant in the region. Another problematic good being smuggled – and one which makes the issue of smuggling a very alarming one – is nuclear material. In 2012, Georgian officials had indeed claimed that “the radioactive material in the five new cases this year all transited through Abkhazia” (Associated Press, 2012). The issue of illegal trade is therefore a critical one that needs to be addressed. All these smuggled goods are brought to and from Abkhazia – in the latter case mostly to Turkey and Russia – and especially through the administrative border line separating the secessionist territory from Georgia. Border controls are indeed lacking in the area, with Georgian authorities claiming that “they cannot establish Border Guard and Customs Service checkpoints on the Inguri River […] because secessionists would immediately interpret it as an attempt to establish a new border” (Kukhianidze, 2004: 90). The conflict between Georgia and Abkhazia therefore has a negative consequence on organised crime as the political significance of the administrative border line prevents Georgia from allocating border police in that area. It is nevertheless important to note that, since the 2008 war with Russia, Georgia has appointed other special police units on the ceasefire line in order to prevent a new Russian invasion. This, along with the allocation of Russian border troops on the administrative border between Abkhazia and the rest of Georgia following the war, has made it more difficult for smugglers to operate in the region. Going back to the impact of the conflict on smuggling, the failure to recognise Inguri as a proper frontier – which would be politically unacceptable – also brings an additional problem to the table, namely that, according to the authorities, it is therefore difficult to prosecute the smugglers. Mebrdzol Chkadua, prosecutor for the Zugdidi region, indeed claims that “we cannot lay any charges against anyone for the simple reason that the border zone with Abkhazia cannot legally be registered as a frontier,” and that “Georgia regards Abkhazia as being part of its territory. As a result, we have no legal basis to call this trade smuggling” (Khubutia, 2003).

And yet, a fight against smuggling was undertaken under Saakashvili who made it a top priority for the country to achieve a reduction in the levels of organised crime and corruption. His reforms led to a dramatic increase in the number of criminals arrested in Georgia, including corrupt officials who had allowed for smuggling and other types of criminal activities to take place. As a result, organised crime groups in Abkhazia lost important network links that used to make smuggling to Georgia a safe bet (Nilsson, 2014: 114). Border controls also improved and smuggling became even more of a dangerous activity. The reputation of law enforcement officials was said to have improved greatly; an opinion supported by Alexandre Kukhianidze who stated in an interview that “if before the reforms, law enforcement was part of the smuggling networks; after the reforms, the police became one of the key institutions combatting smuggling and organised crime” (Kukhianidze, personal communication, July 15, 2015). And yet, some still express their concern over the fact that the new authorities have repeated the same failures. Mamuka Paniashvili, head of the Gori office of the Right Opposition, indeed claims that “despite their statements to the contrary, the new authorities that took over after the [November 2003] revolution have chosen to profit from contraband trafficking rather than stop it” (Vilanishvili, 2005). Unfortunately, with the lack of statistics available it has proven difficult to come up with a consensus on the matter. There was also a fear – although it remains to be proven – that the dismissal of law enforcement officials following the Rose Revolution had led to an enlargement of the recruitment base for organised crime groups since the pool of skilled and available people had suddenly grown larger as a result of the reforms. All in all however, even though there seems to be disagreement on the matter, the fact that illegal trade still remains a significant problem in the conflict zone points toward the need for cooperation to take place between the two sides. Indeed, with smuggling being dependent on networks running through both territories, Georgia and Abkhazia need to cooperate in order to tackle the problem simultaneously and achieve a decrease in the levels of smuggling. Yet, with the current tensions between Georgia and Abkhazia, cooperation seems difficult to establish. Although there has been an improvement in the levels of smuggling, the conflict thus still has a negative effect on the latter since it fosters animosity between the two parties and prevents the latter from collaborating on the issue.

Conversely, although smuggling has an impact on Georgia’s economy, especially through the illegal trade of petroleum products which, according to International Alert, leads to a loss in revenues which is “one of the main causes of Georgia’s budget deficit” (Chkhartishvili, Gotsiridze, & Kitsmarishvili, 2004: 137), the economic impact of smuggling through Abkhazia in particular is rather insignificant. More than the consequence on its economy however, what is important to note is that “the smuggling networks in Abkhazia increase the crime rate, create corrupt economic interests among powerful political groups, and contribute to the existing political status quo” (Kukhianidze, 2004: 95). This is still the case even with Russia removing itself from the CIS Treaty on Abkhaz Sanctions and inviting other CIS countries to do the same, hence reducing Abkhazia’s dependence on smuggling as a source of income. Such a form of organised crime can indeed be beneficial for individuals but also and mostly for organised crime groups and political elites. As the conflict allows for smuggling networks to exist and proliferate, those who profit from the latter have an incentive to keep the conflict ongoing rather than finding solutions to resolve it.  This is true for Abkhazia but also for Georgia who, for that matter, has experienced a loss in credibility as a viable protectorate for Abkhazians once it became common knowledge that Georgian politicians, law enforcement officials, security services and so on were participating in and profiting from the illegal trade (Closson, 2010: 197) – a situation that has since improved with the reforms following the Rose Revolution. After interviewing participants in the conflict, Chkhartishvili, Gotsiridze and Kitsmarishvili have come to the conclusion that “the lack of a final settlement guarantees the incomes of certain sections of society. The paradox is that the deeper the (unregulated) economic and business relations between the conflicting sides, the less interest there is in a political solution to the conflicts” (2004: 151). Hence, although it is not the only reason for the maintenance of the conflict in its frozen state, smuggling and the financial gains that certain people from both sides derive from it help to keep the conflict ongoing. For that particular reason, organised crime under the form of illegal trade has a negative impact on conflict resolution.

In addition to the will of the elites, the violent component that accompanies organised crime is also responsible for keeping the conflict alive. Indeed, although violence is a tool that organised crime groups try to avoid using since it disrupts businesses and scares away customers, it nevertheless remains a key feature of their activities. Any organised crime group member needs at time to resort to violence, either to show customers or other group members that he has the ability to punish those who might mislead him, or to punish those who have.  This is true for members of smuggling networks. Because the latter are engaged in illegal transactions that lie outside of the state’s legal periphery and hence cannot seek the state’s legal protection through having recourse to state’s institutions or official law enforcement agent, they indeed have to use violence. Such a fact can be proven in the case of the Inguri region for instance, where Chkadua claims that “the majority of assassinations and kidnappings are related to the shadow businesses across the CFL [cease-fire line]” since disagreements over shares of the gains often lead to violent confrontations (Kukhianidze, 2004: 16). These acts of violence result in instability in the region and in additional tensions between Abkhazia and Georgia as each side often comes to blame the other for those unfortunate events. Both are counterproductive to the resolution of the conflict. In addition to those, a more direct consequence of violence on conflict resolution – and one linked to the will of the elite – is the fact that violence can be used as a tool against state-building (Wennmann, 2004: 113). In such a scenario, violence is not merely an accompanying feature of organised crime but rather a means to an end which would be used in reaction to a change in status quo and to attempts to resolve the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict. In that sense, smuggling – through violence – represents an obstacle to conflict resolution, although the levels of violence have decreased since the Rose Revolution.

And yet, on the other hand, smuggling can also have a positive impact on the conflict. Through economic interaction – even if illegal – between the two parties, the probability of fighting resuming decreases since the latter would disrupt trade (Chkhartishvili, Gotsiridze, & Kitsmarishvili, 2004: 151). Even more than that, smuggling could represent a first step towards solving the conflict since it could lead to an increase in the degree of involvement of Western powers. Indeed, the Georgian government – which has been urging the European Union to play a more dominant role in the conflict – has been raising attention to the issue of smuggling in its secessionist territories and to “the international security problems attached to [an entity] existing outside Georgian or international jurisdiction, and especially the possibility of such [territory] functioning as [an] operational [base] for organised crime” (Nilsson, 2014: 112). By politicising this issue – issue that has a direct impact on the EU member states since illegal goods are also transited to and from Europe – Georgia aims to increase the level of involvement of foreign powers in the resolution of the conflict with Abkhazia, in order to achieve a reduction in the levels of illegal trade. EU engagement in the conflict is perceived by Georgia as being extremely helpful and thus smuggling could be an efficient tool to fuel such an engagement and could represent a first step towards solving the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict.

Although it is important to note that, as mentioned above, smuggling can enhance foreign involvement in the resolution of the conflict, the negative impacts of the former nevertheless seem to outweigh the positive ones. As a result, efficient methods to tackle this issue need to be put into place. “It is important to set up projects for Georgians and Abkhazians to work together and come up with business ideas”, said one of my respondents (personal communication, July 10, 2015). And indeed, economic cooperation could mirror the cooperation that was implemented between the two sides in the electricity sector. “We have [had] a very good cooperation in the energy [sector] for years already and I am sure that it will continue in the future as well”, stated Kakha Kaladze, the Georgian energy minister, with regards to the Abkhazians (Civil Georgia, 2015). Although cooperation in the electricity sector is very particular and unique as the Enguri hydroelectric power station is located on both sides of the administrative border line and hence forces both parties to collaborate, it nevertheless still emphasises the fact that cooperation is possible if both sides find an interest in it. Such an increase in economic relations could reduce the levels of smuggling as legal trade would replace illegal one. The legalisation of trade flows would moreover give those who previously profited from smuggling an incentive to push for conflict resolution (Kukhianidze, Kupatadze, & Gotsiridze, 2004: 48). And such cooperation would be beneficial to establish closer ties between Georgia and Abkhazia, especially since Georgia has emphasised that reunifying its territory through military means was not an option. According to Phillips, the examples where trade was an efficient tool for conflict resolution are numerous, and the two conflicting countries could follow a similar path (Phillips, 2011). Through its 2010 “State Strategy on Occupied Territories: Engagement through Cooperation”, Georgia has put forward its intention to pursue the above mentioned. And yet, economic cooperation is far from being easy to establish. According to Kukhianidze, Russia’s influence and growing presence in Abkhazia represents a major obstacle. “What kind of economic project can we talk about if Russia controls Abkhazia?” he argues. And to the possibility of involving Russia in the economic relations, he replies that “it would mean collaborating with and hence recognising and legitimising Russian occupation” (Kukhianidze, personal communication, July 15, 2015). Economic cooperation therefore seems to be difficult to envisage in the near future even though, on a theoretical point of view, both Georgia and Abkhazia could benefit from it and thereby achieve a reduction in smuggling levels while at the same time taking a first step towards conflict resolution.

Throughout this article, I have focused on the link between the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict and the issue of smuggling in the conflict zone. Although there has been great improvement in terms of levels of smuggling after the Rose Revolution, I have nevertheless shown that through the sanctions imposed on Abkhazia – which were a direct consequence of the conflict – smuggling has fuelled in the region. Further repercussions of the conflict include the lack of border control in the Inguri region – even though the situation has evolved since the 2008 war – and the lack of cooperation on the smuggling issue, both allowing for illegal trade to proliferate. Conversely, smuggling also has a significant impact on conflict resolution. Indeed, the former benefits organised crime groups but also the elite in power, who therefore have an incentive to keep the conflict frozen. They can do so through the use of violence, although violence in itself is already a defining feature of organised crime activities – one that creates instability and mistrust, and therefore reinforces the tensions between Georgians and Abkhazians. Yet, on the other hand, illegal trade could be a way to help resolve the conflict since it could attract Western powers’ attention, hence increasing their involvement in the peacebuilding processes. All in all however, the negative impacts of smuggling on the solving of the conflict outweigh the positive ones, making it necessary to tackle this issue. Through economic cooperation between Georgia and Abkhazia, legal businesses could replace illegal ones, hence achieving a reduction in the levels of smuggling. In addition to this, such cooperation could also bring the two sides closer together and could represent a first step towards conflict resolution. Unfortunately, respondents have expressed pessimism with regards to such cooperation being established any time soon, making smuggling and, more so, the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict delicate to solve in the near future.

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