Over decades of Georgian-Abkhaz peacebuilding work, ‘dealing with the past’ has emerged as a key conceptual space to address the legacies of violence that are such a barrier to a peaceful future. In the words of one dialogue participant: “Only if the mistakes of the past are acknowledged will it be possible to talk about future relations.” Initiatives that enable a more reflective, and potentially more inclusive, conversation about the violent past are essential to building the possibility for more constructive relations in future.
There are of course challenges in embarking on a process of dealing with the past in the absence of political agreement: there is no common legal framework within which to address the legacies of violence; there is no point in time at which a line can be drawn in the sand, and the parties can agree that the war and the deep-seated grievances associated with it are in the past. Moreover, some fear that to open up old wounds when settlement is a long way off would only further damage relationships.
Activities that focus on the ‘right to know’ have proved most appropriate to a context in which political settlement is such a distant prospect. Significant work has been done by the International Committee of the Red Cross to conduct exhumations on Abkhaz territory and enable exchange of remains of missing persons between the sides. A number of different initiatives, some led by civil society and also at the level of the formal peace process, are working to transfer archival material from Tbilisi to Sukhum/i to restore a small part of what was lost during the 1992–93 war when the Abkhaz archive was burnt. This is in part a symbolic reparation, in part an effort to rebuild missing elements in Abkhaz cultural history.
Other work aims to create space for people to talk about their experience of the war years. International NGOs – the Berghof Foundation and Conciliation Resources/swisspeace – work with local partners to capture oral history accounts, with some focusing more on ‘ordinary’ people’s experience, and others on key actors’ and decision makers’ testimonies. Work of this nature, that acknowledges the existence of different narratives, is an important precursor to thinking about a shared narrative moving forward post-settlement.
These initiatives contribute to peacebuilding as they enable people to acknowledge there were victims on both sides. They entail bearing responsibility, an appreciation of the others’ grievances, and a readiness to acknowledge the irrevocable damage done to people’s lives, identities and relationships. If reconciliation is seen negatively by many in the region as seeking to restore prior relations, or even brushing over difference, dealing with the past is perceived as more transformative – it is about creating a new basis for building different relationships, not a return to what there was before. One colleague from the region put it this way:
If a vase was made badly and broke because it was not sufficiently robust, and we then try to stick it back together as it was – this is reconciliation. But if we try to understand why it broke and then rebuild it in a sturdy and lasting way – this is dealing with the past, and transformation.
There are a wide range of efforts within the separate societies for long-term conflict transformation: working with young people to try to equip them to address the myriad challenges resulting from isolation and a lack of post-war investment and development; work on governance and participation, including of marginalised communities such as Georgians displaced from Abkhazia during the war; encouraging greater transparency and access to information for the public in Abkhazia; and promoting inclusion, making links across the diverse communities within the two societies.
Civil society is active in identifying, through Georgian-Abkhaz dialogue, issues of common interest (or indeed unilateral interest) where there is potential for progress. These include the de-isolation of Abkhazia by promoting international engagement; a wide range of measures to improve the security and rights of the Gal/i Georgians; freedom of movement; access to education and healthcare; and economic development.