On February 17, Russia and Abkhazia signed a treaty on building a military base in Gudauta during the official visit of Abkhazia’s president Sergei Bagapsh in Moscow. The document is a result of the general agreement on military cooperation between Russia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia established in September 2009. The Russian land base will be established using and modernizing the existing military infrastructure in Gudauta, where 1,700 soldiers are already deployed.
The agreement on the land base is part of the evolving military cooperation between Abkhazia and Russia. The next moves in this sphere will likely be an airbase in Gudauta and navy base in Ochamchire, situated very close to the administrative border with Georgia and the ports in Poti and Supsa, which are important to Georgia’s transportation of energy resources. Moscow is already in control of Abkhazia’s railway, airports and borders.
The military base will be rented for 49 years with a possibility of prolongation if both sides agree. It has a planned capacity of housing up to 3,000 servicemen, including Federal Security Service (FSB) border guards, which have been controlling Abkhazia’s administrative borders since April 2009. No reliable data exist on the exact number of Russian soldiers stationed in the breakaway region of Georgia, although referring to different sources they could amount to 4,000-5,000. According to the signed document, the two sides will create joint forces and cooperate on military technology development, besides the base establishment. Currently, it has not been specified whether the land forces stationed in Gudauta will also consist of units from the Kodori Gorge or if an additional base will be established in the mountainous region. The upper part of the Kodori Gorge was taken by Russian troops in the 2008 August war after Tbilisi had established control over it in 2006.
The process of deepening cooperation between Abkhazia and Russia seems to be a main priority of the Sukhumi government, not only on military matters but also in the economic and cultural spheres. The development of such policies under President Bagapsh, who was recently re-elected for a second term, meets strong criticism both within and outside Abkhazia. The first critical voices were heard in early summer 2009, when the previous government of Abkhazia proposed a law allowing Russian citizens to buy land, gain citizenship, and settle with their families in Abkhazia. Originally, such rights were to be reserved for Russian soldiers stationed in the region after the August war, but was later expanded to also include civilians.
The critique of Bagapsh’s foreign policy has increased after later agreements were signed. Especially the Gudauta land base treaty has brought a new wave of objections. The opposition to the incumbent president argues that such deepened cooperation with Russia will lead to excessive dependence on the Russian Federation and its potential incorporation of Abkhazia. This would prevent Abkhazians from building the fully independent, stable and sovereign state for which they have been fighting over the last two decades. On the one hand, the public is pleased with the new development perspectives opened by Russian financial involvement and the decrease of the Georgian threat (according to Abkhazian rhetoric) due to its military presence. On the other hand, Abkhazians are not in a demographic majority in the region and there is a concern over the consequences that an increase of Russians acquiring Abkhazian citizenship and property could have for the region’s ethnic composition and political direction.
The growing number of Russian soldiers in the region as an effect of the signed treaty is not only viewed as problematic by Abkhazian civilians, but is also a potential threat to Georgians living in Abkhazia (mostly in the Gali region), as well as to the Georgian state.The FSB border controls impedes communication between the Gali and Zugdidi regions, the latter remaining under Tbilisi’s control. Additionally, the establishment of the three land, navy and airbases enables Russia to react immediately in the case of future tensions not only between Tbilisi and Moscow, but in the South Caucasus at large, whereas the Greater Caucasus mountain ridge had previously prevented Russia from any larger military maneuvers in the South Caucasus during winter. Additionally, the Georgian side argues that the treaty violates international law (as de iure, Abkhazia remains part of Georgia) and the six-point ceasefire agreement signed in 2008. NATO representatives also underlined their support for Georgia’s position on the Russian-Abkhazian treaty, arguing that the deepening military cooperation between Sukhumi and Moscow threatens Georgia’s territorial integrity and is counterproductive to the process of re-establishing positive Georgian-Abkhazian relations.