27 Aug 2009
Abkhazia: Optimism and Tension
The Abkhaz elite are bullish about the future. Senior officials speak openly about developing relations beyond Russia, especially with Turkey and Iran; but Abkhazia is now facing its first serious political test since the 2008 Georgian War as an angry debate rages about citizenship for Georgia refugee returnees, Ben Judah writes for ISN Security Watch.
By Ben Judah in Sukhumi for ISN Security Watch
Sukhumi is being restored. The promenade has been cleaned up and the Stalinist colonnade whitewashed, but the Soviet baroque train station still lies in ruins, symbolic of the enclaves 20 years of isolation.
A year on from the Kremlin’s decision to formally recognize both of Georgia’s breakaway regions (Abkhazia and South Ossetia) as independent states, the Abkhaz elite are hoping to branch out beyond their patron and forge relations with the Muslim world.
Turkey is in their sights. With a large Abkhaz diaspora and historic links to the Caucasus, there is palpable confidence that a developing behind-the-scenes relationship may bring real benefits.
In an exclusive interview with ISN Security Watch, Abkhaz Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba describes this strategy as “a multi-vector foreign policy,” adding, rather cryptically, that they have met representatives from all branches of government in Ankara, “executive, legislative and parliamentary.”
Abkhaz National Security Advisor Stanislav Lakhora paints a far broader picture of the emerging ties.
“Thanks to our large and passionate diaspora, we have had unofficial meetings with Turkish leaders, have met many a large array of senior officials and worked closely with Turkish NGOs. We have considerable trade with Turkey, and in war-time Turkish volunteers came to assist us,” Lakhora told ISN Security Watch.
Senior Abkhaz officials confirm a meeting has taken place with Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan. Iran has also shown an interest in Abkhazia, with a delegation from Tehran recently visiting Sukhumi. And a rather less impressive meeting with representatives from the Democratic Republic of Congo has taken place in Moscow.
When discussing the states and organizations that recognize Abkhazia, ISN Security Watch sensed genuine embarrassment that Hamas and Hizbollah had chosen to offer their recognition. Give time and a low news profile, Abkhaz officials were bullish that these contacts could eventually help Sukhumi move out of the strategic corner it finds itself locked in by Russia’s over-eager help.
Abkhazia may, however, be trying to run before it can walk. Opposition forces have been gathering outside the government buildings in Sukhumi to watch a mix of fiery oratory and appeals to prevent the passing of a new law that would grant citizenship to returning Georgian refugees in the southern Gali region. Posters have sprung up on walls and lampposts decrying the fact that “enemies of Abkhaz independence” will soon be in possession of official passports.
Nadir Bitiev, senior advisor to President Sergei Bagapsh, looks appalled as he inspects one such poster.
“The thing they are really angry about,” he explains to ISN Security Watch, “is that if they get citizenship they will vote for our party and they won’t be able to come to power.” In short, the irony of the situation is that the returnees would vote for the ruling party simply because they allowed them to return to Abkhazia; thus, the opposition’s chances of returning to power will be that much weaker.
But Abkhazia, like so many countries, has its own demographic threat. Bitiev admits this, commenting that in fact “there are roughly the same number of Armenians as Abkhaz, then a considerable amount of Russians and about 30,000 Georgians now in the Gali region. The population is only about 200,000. This is extremely worrying for us and we have to think of a way to tackle this legally and peacefully.”
This precarious demographic situation has been the driving force behind Abkhaz actions since the early 1990s, when they seized control of the province amid a bitter war and ethnic cleansing despite only being counted as 17.8 percent of the population in the last Soviet census of 1989.
Russian Caucasus expert Sergei Markenadov argues that Abkhazia is poised over a fateful decision between having to choose an ethno-centric or citizenship model of future political development. Abkhazia’s eventual choice will have large consequences for the fate of the over 200,000 ethnic Georgian refugees that were ethnically cleansed in the early 1990s. Since then, around 30,000 have returned to the southern Gali region.
A senior Foreign Ministry official explained to ISN Security Watch: “This is our demographic predicament. We can accept another 30,000, but no more. If we did that we would be over-run and could no longer remain a viable state.”
The recent visit of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to Sukhumi affirmed that despite Abkhaz ideas Russia remains the overlord of the enclave.
Commitments were made to establish a Russian naval base at Ochamchiere and an airbase at Gagaouta, further up the coast.
“Abkhazia does not need relations with other countries,” Putin said.
Russian troop numbers have increased in Abkhazia in recent months. A thousand border guards are now policing the Georgian frontier, and those numbers are set to increase further, from 1,500 to just over 3,500. Russia will also be contributing $77 million to the Abkhaz budget, and Russia’s Rosneft is set to development Abkhazia’s untouched oil fields.
Interestingly, in ISN Security Watch interviews with Abkhaz officials the week before Putin’s arrival, most were hostile to oil developments and skeptical that Russia would or should increase its troop numbers. (Bomb blasts in Abkhazia are reported to have killed two during Putin’s visit, puncturing the balmy calm of August by the Black Sea.)
These developments have made some analysts worried about Moscow’s intentions. Russian defense expert Pavel Felgengauer predicted the 2008 Georgian War. He believes Russia has an absolute imperative in controlling Georgia and is for this reason building up forces in the region.
“If you control Georgia, you have a link to Armenia, and Azerbaijan falls into line. By controlling the pipelines that cross the Caucasus, Central Asia then falls into line as well,” he told ISN Security Watch.
In the Gali region, the Russian presence was highly visible and fresh, with encampments of tanks and tents on the roadsides.
Former CIA analyst Paul Goble believes that little will change.
"Moscow is likely to continue to support Abkhazia and South Ossetia as partially recognized states lest annexing them exacerbate Moscow's problems with its neighbors and the international community," he told ISN Security Watch.
The Kremlin recently proposed a new legal mechanism so that Russian armed forces could engage in activities beyond the Federation’s borders. The primary reason was so they could “defend Russian citizens abroad,” he said.
This was precisely Moscow’s rationale behind last summer’s conflict. Dust has settled from the fighting, but Abkhazia lies on geopolitical tectonic plates and these are never truly quiet for long.
Ben Judah is a senior correspondent for ISN Security Watch, currently reporting from Russia and the Caucasus. He has reported for the Associated Press; and his work has also featured in the Economist Online, the New Republic Online and in Standpoint Magazine.
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