BACKGROUND: In late May, Abkhazia’s de facto president Alexandr Ankvab stepped down following a series of opposition street protests led by Russia’s favored candidate Raul Khajimba, and called for snap elections. Khajimba, a graduate of Minsk’s KGB academy, narrowly avoided a runoff in the August election by securing 50.57 per cent of the votes – a dubious victory as almost 20,000 ethnic Georgians were stripped of their Abkhaz passports ahead of the election, preventing them from voting. Within a week after the election, Khajimba announced his intention to enhance ties with Moscow through a new cooperative treaty between Sukhumi and Moscow focused on security guarantees for the breakaway region. Khajimba also declared his intention to close four out of five cross-border checkpoints along the Inguri River that divides Abkhazia from Georgia proper, leaving only the main checkpoint operational and, as such, greatly limiting exchange between Gali, inhabited by ethnic Georgians, and the Zugdidi area.
One month later, a Russian-drafted version of the planned treaty was leaked, proposing significant changes to the security structures in Abkhazia. The document “on alliance and integration” entails placing the Abkhazian army border officials and interior ministry under Russian command, essentially undermining any autonomy of the Abkhazian military and law enforcement agencies. Importantly, the treaty posits that Abkhazia should simplify the process for granting Russian citizens Abkhazian citizenship, essentially enabling Russians to purchase land and property in the region. In exchange, Russia offers to provide Abkhazia enhanced security guarantees by protecting the Abkhazian-Georgian administrative borderline along the Inguri River; to increase social benefits to Russian passport holders in the region and to step up trade relations to improve the region’s economy.
Tbilisi has reacted with concern to the proposed agreement. On October 17, Georgia’s Parliament responded by condemning the treaty, referring to it as an annexation attempt by Russia, a threat to regional stability and to the process of normalization of Russian-Georgian relations. Individual representatives of the Georgian government have also objected to the document. Defense Minister Irakli Alasania stated that very aggressive – meaning active – foreign policy actions are now called for. Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili also expressed his concern about the treaty, referring to it as “alarming” and, notably, a threat to Abkhazia’s self-determination and struggle for recognition. The leading opposition United National Movement party reacted strongly to the PM’s statement, pointing to the irrationality behind statements in favor of Abkhazian sovereignty, given Georgia’s long-standing ambition to reintegrate the region with Georgia.
With the exception of some individual countries, Georgia’s Western allies have been modest in their reaction to the recent statements. U.S. ambassador Richard Norland restated U.S. support for Georgia’s territorial integrity but added that “it’s a little hard to imagine more integration [of Abkhazia with Russia]
statedber 21ng in Luxemburg dded that g ting to teh eorgia.d from responding the current developments, with the slation. The trthan here already is.” At a Friends of Georgia meeting in Luxemburg on October 21, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius stated that “We must condemn and stand against any attempt aimed to legalize the annexation of Georgian territories. All these efforts are the logical continuation of what Russia is doing in other regions, for example in Crimea.”
The draft agreement has caused unease also in Sukhumi. Shortly after the treaty proposal was made official, on October 16 the Abkhazian parliament convened to review the wording of the treaty and present an Abkhazian version of the draft. In a televised address on October 23, Khajimba announced that Russia’s proposal differs with Sukhumi’s view on several points and should not be viewed as being imposed on Abkhazia.
IMPLICATIONS: Khajimba’s victory in the August election, followed by the proposed treaty on further integration of Abkhazia with Russia, suggests that Moscow is increasing its political, as opposed to just military, influence in the region. Indeed, Russia has found it decidedly more difficult to gain a political foothold in Abkhazia than in for instance South Ossetia, where virtually the entire leadership is made up of Russian security personnel. In particular, Khajimba’s defeat against pro-independence candidates in three out of four presidential elections over the last decade testifies to the region’s preference for independence over closer integration with Russia.
Nonetheless, Russia has remained persistent in attempting to install Moscow-loyal representatives in the Abkhaz leadership. When Khajimba was defeated by Sergei Bagapsh in 2004, Russia closed its border with Abkhazia for days until a compromise was reached through which Khajimba was offered the role of vice president. In a clear attempt to win over votes from the pro-independence camp, over the course of the 2014 election campaign Khajimba attempted to shake off his image as a Russian mouthpiece, portraying himself instead as a protector of Abkhaz independence, which likely secured him the election victory.
The newly elected leader will now have to balance the interests of Moscow with those of the Abkhazian people, who largely remain in favor of full independence. Such signs are already visible as the proposed treaty has given rise to strong objections from civil society organizations and local media who view it as a threat to Abkhazian sovereignty. However, while the Abkhazian leadership has been clear that it does not accept the agreement in its current format, negotiations with Moscow over its key points will most probably result in concessions from Sukhumi’s side. The property rights issue in particular is likely to become contentious, as the current legislation prohibiting foreigners from buying property and settling in the region has been an important means for the Abkhazian authorities to preserve its current demographic advantage and to prevent the region from exploitation by Russian investors. As the region constitutes a potentially attractive spot for Russian tourism, Russia is unlikely to compromise on this issue.
Tbilisi too has reason to worry about the current developments. The implications for the Georgian leadership are two-fold: first, Abkhazia’s further integration with Russia constitutes a serious setback for Georgia’s campaign to reintegrate Abkhazia with Georgia and ensure the return of IDPs to the region. Second, the Georgian Dream coalition that came to power in 2012 has sought to improve relations between Tbilisi and Moscow through, for instance, appointing Zurab Abashidze as a special envoy to engage in direct talks with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin.
For the same reason, Tbilisi has been careful in its response to both Russian actions in Ukraine and Khajimba’s victory in August. However, Sukhumi’s announcement to close the Inguri crossing points and Russia’s treaty proposal has led Tbilisi to significantly sharpen its rhetoric, indicating that it may withdraw from the Abashidze-Karasin talks. The Georgian government, just like the Abkhazian, is facing a significant challenge in weighing its ambition to normalize relations with Moscow against the quest of restoring Georgia’s territorial integrity, which remains a priority in the view of the Georgian public. The current events are also causing domestic controversies as the opposition is pushing for a more determined government response to Russia’s annexation attempts. The United National Movement has recently announced that a protest rally against the government’s inaction will take place in Tbilisi in mid-November.
The recent events coincide with another worrying development for Tbilisi. Since July, the Dagestani authorities have invested US$ 730 million into rebuilding the Avaro-Kakhetian road, an 83-kilometer motorway that will constitute an additional access point from Russia to Georgia other than through the Larsi checkpoint, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. While the official pretext for the project is to enhance economic relations between Makhachkala and Tbilisi, the road may equally serve as a military transport route from Russia to Georgia proper. The Georgian government has from the outset regarded the project as a security threat, and recently announced that no plans exist for rebuilding the road on the Georgian side. Whether or not the road project is intended to facilitate another Russian military operation in Georgia, its implementation is causing unease in Tbilisi, especially in light of the developments in Ukraine.
CONCLUSIONS: Moscow’s treaty proposal, for all purposes an attempt to integrate Abkhazia with the Russian Federation, underline the urgent need for a firm response to Russia’s assertive policies in the region, both from the West and Tbilisi. Moscow has taken note of the weak international response to its annexation of Crimea and aggression in Eastern Ukraine and displays a continuous interest in stirring unrest in the region rather than engaging in constructive dialogue or peace efforts. Moscow is also aware of the fragile political environment in Tbilisi caused by the ongoing controversies between the government and opposition – fuelled by a series of arrests of former government officials, including former president Mikheil Saakashvili who is arrested in absentia on a number of charges. A weak and divided political scene in Tbilisi risks inviting Russian infiltration into Georgian politics and provocative Russian steps in relation Georgia’s unresolved conflicts. Thus, it is more necessary than ever before that Georgia’s political forces coordinate their approaches to national interests and security and adopt a united strategy in relation to Abkhazia.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Johanna Popjanevski is Deputy Director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center. Carolin Funke is an independent analyst based in Germany. She was an intern with the Central-Asia Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center in 2013.
(Image Attribution: Wikimedia Commons, GNU 1.2)