On August 25, the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies held a seminar on the implications of the 2008 Russia-Georgia war, in which some innovative discussion was devoted to the question of future status for Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Earlier this month, a number of pieces that came out to commemorate the second anniversary of the war also looked over the horizon at possible political settlements of the Georgian-South Ossetian and Georgian-Abkhaz conflicts. In separate pieces, Thomas de Waal ("How to Square the Caucasian Circle") and Dmitri Trenin ("How to Make Peace with Georgia") both discussed, first, how Russia could use soft power to restore relations with Georgia, with Trenin explicitly calling on Russia to drop its sanctions against Georgia. They also tread, however, where few (outside the Russian government) have dared to go: taking independence of the two breakaway regions, not Georgian territorial integrity, as the baseline for more nuanced final political settlements.
De Waal and Trenin acknowledge that Abkhazia and South Ossetia have been, and continue to develop, along very different models that necessitate different approaches. De Waal seeks creative solutions in the realm of quasi-sovereign status, though the distinction he makes between South Ossetia and Abkhazia is not so clear. For South Ossetia, he suggests "self-government with ties to both" Georgia and Russia; for Abkhazia, some kind of "asymmetric sovereignty" arrangement (citing Andorra, Liechtenstein, the Aaland Islands, as well as Scotland and Northern Ireland). I'm not quite sure why de Waal puts Liechtenstein on the list of "asymmetrically sovereign" countries (I thought it was a fully sovereign micro-state…) but the break on the above list between two distinct forms of sovereignty definitely lies between Andorra (a peculiarly independent state with dual French and Catalonian sovereigns) and Scotland and Northern Ireland (federal or quasi-federal units). It would thus seem that what de Waal is really suggesting is some kind of creatively autonomous status for South Ossetia that retains trappings of sovereignty and some kind of creatively independent status for Abkhazia that retains trappings of Georgian (co-)sovereignty, a la Andorra. Trenin goes further than de Waal, calling outright for partition of Abkhazia, with its southern Gali region (populated mainly by ethnic Georgians) returning to Georgia and the rest receiving recognition as an independent state (think Kosovo without its northern Serb-populated region). For South Ossetia, he reserves something "along the lines of the Andorran model," which would involve "formal trappings of independence" but with Georgia "legally present in South Ossetia as a guarantor of its remaining or returning Georgian population."
So in a nutshell, two independent microstates but with Georgia having some kind of legal status in one. It's far too soon to formally discuss political solutions to the conflicts, and there are issues on the ground that could (and should) be addressed first, perhaps for several more years even before returning to the question of status. But while both these proposals lean much more toward the Russian mainstream than the Western, as a baseline for innovative thinking, of the two de Waal's has merit. To further think outside the box, say there was a proposal for Abkhazia to hold a referendum on independence, similar to that the international community has supported for Nagorno-Karabakh, and all those who fled Abkhazia during the 1992-93 war had the right to return and participate (i.e., mainly ethnic Georgians who made up almost half the population before that conflict). There would still be a reasonable chance that the population, including even some percentage of Georgians, would vote for independence in a democratic, representative, neutral Abkhazia. Along the Andorran model, that Abkhazia might have what amounts to full self-government (de facto independence) but with co-sovereigns, Georgia and Russia, to guarantee the security of populations and the state. Such a proposal will probably attract fervent criticism from all sides, but really, why not? It would accomodate Abkhaz aspirations to independence, justice for Georgian IDPs, validation of the dual role of Abkhazia in both Abkhaz and Georgian national identity formation, and security guarantees for all populations. That of course leaves South Ossetia, which really has virtually no claim, opportunity, or desire for independence (what South Ossetians really want is to be annexed by Russia).
Here some sort of innovative self-government does seem to be the way to go, with South Ossetia reintegrated with Georgia but with, to reverse Trenin's formulation, some kind of legal presence for Russia, that would provide security guarantees for that part of the population that needs it (and, it goes without saying, return of Georgian IDPs whose homes were destroyed by South Ossetia in the 2008 war). As I said, there's much practical work to be done yet before even approaching the question of status again, but the discussion of forms of "asymmetric sovereignty" is at least one worth having. Also of interest: Lincoln Mitchell and Alexander Cooley, “After the August War: A New Strategy for U.S. Engagement with Georgia,” The Harriman Review 17, no. 3-4 (May 2010) (Mitchell and Cooley have co-authored a number of pieces on the topic) Cory Welt, “After the EU War Report: Can There Be a ‘Reset’ in Russian-Georgian Relations?” Russian Analytical Digest No. 68, November 23, 2009.
Note: Some other pieces also came out in time with the anniversary: in the Washington Post, Sen. John McCain ("Georgia Needs U.S. Help in Rebuilding, Standing Up to Russia") called for a harder line toward Russia and greater support for Georgia, including in defensive armaments (to date, the U.S. government not only declines to provide direct military assistance to Georgia but also does not approve of private arms sales requests, out of a belief that Georgian defensive arms are both destabilizing and not very effective). Foreign Policy also ran a good piece ("The Georgia Syndrome") on the Georgian domestic scene by James Traub.