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Abkhazia Pawns its Independence

Zygmunt Dzieciolowski
27 August 2008

They've been dreaming about independence for years. In 1999 Abkhazia's citizens voted overwhelmingly in favor of independence in a national referendum. When I met top Abkhaz politicians only few weeks ago, "independence" and "sovereign state" were terms they used frequently and longingly. For them, a return to Georgia was simply unacceptable. They called Russia their "window to the world". However, they also remembered periods during the Yeltsin years when their neighbour to the North did not always seem to be a reliable ally. Abkhaz parliament speaker Nugzar Ashoba told me how afraid they were in the nineties that the Russians might sign a compromise agreement with then-Georgian president Edouard Shevardnadze. And for years the Kremlin refused to lift sanctions imposed on Abkhazia.

Abkhazia's relations with the Kremlin have improved considerably since 2000. The new Russian president, Vladimir Putin, understood much better than his predecessor how useful the Abkhazia and South Ossetia cards could be in his geopolitical game in the South Caucasus.

Step-by-step, Russia penetrated Abkhaz politics and the economy. Russian companies started investing in the local tourist industry and more and more Russians were ready to ‘risk' a vacation on the Abkhaz Black Sea coast. At some point, Moscow agreed to give Russian passports to residents of the breakaway republic. It allowed its youth to study at Russian universities.

But the Kremlin also did its best to control the internal politics of Abkhazia and was quite frustrated when its own enthusiastically-supported candidate, Raul Khajimba, lost a presidential election in 2004. Moscow's emissaries spared no threats or warnings in trying to enforce their will on Abkhazia's politicians. Only last-minute, backstage negotiations, conducted through friendly Russian parliamentarians, allowed them to reach a compromise. The Kremlin finally agreed to let Sergei Bagapsh become president, while its own candidate, Khajimba, got the job of top deputy.

A role in the world?

When the most recent wave of tensions in Abkhazia began with a series of terrorist explosions earlier this spring, it was clear that they were part of the larger Georgian-Russian-American political game, rather than a reflection of some home-based frictions. All actors in the Abkhazia and South Ossetia conflicts were well aware of their global dimensions. They knew that Georgia's territorial integrity was not all that was at stake. There were far larger issues involved, like NATO enlargement and alternative transit routes for oil, ones that bypassed Russia.

As grateful as they were for Russia's support, the Abkhaz were also hoping that other countries and international structures would play a constructive role in resolving the Caucasus crisis. Even though they were always quite careful with their public statements, Abkhaz leaders were thrilled to host politicians such as the EU's foreign policy representative Javier Solana or the German foreign minister Frank Steinmeier in their capital, Sukhumi, earlier this year. As one influential Abkhaz politician told me, Russia was certainly Abkhazia's best ally. But at the same time, it was not easy to talk to their politicians or emissaries, who were unable to hide their old imperial manners. That is why, he added, Abkhaz leaders would welcome greater European participation.

It is also interesting that fifteen years after the end of the bloody war of 1992-1993, the international media has recently started listening to the Abkhaz point of view. Some authors have also appealed to international leaders to listen to their voice. The question as to whether the Abkhazians should be allowed to live independently from the Georgians no longer belongs to the realms of political fiction. It has finally become clear that any future peace agreement must provide real security guarantees for the Abkhazians even if the goal is to preserve the territorial integrity of Georgia.

Independent, but pawns

The Abkhaz are certainly very happy that now, in the aftermath of the war over South Ossetia, the Russian president Dmitri Medvedev has signed a decree recognising the independence of the two South Caucasus republics. Reports from Sukhumi have shown crowds of people shooting automatic guns in the air out of joy and enthusiasm at having their independence finally recognised by their big northern neighbor. They have finally seen their long-held dream fulfilled. Soon the Russian Federation will open its embassy in Sukhumi and will appoint its first ambassador to Abkhazia.

But they cannot ignore the new reality. Unlike Kosovo, which was recognised by most Western nations, only the few countries most loyal to Russia will accept the new status of the two Caucasus republics. They will now be even more isolated from the West than before the recent war. That is to say, from now on they will be Russian pawns, totally at their mercy. From now on the Russian Ministry of Defence will face no constraints. It will be able to send as many troops or tanks as it wants to Abkhazia. No investors, except Russians will be prepared to invest in the development of the Black Sea coast and its tourist infrastructure.

What is more, the Russia which recognised Abkhazia and South Ossetia is not the same as the Russia before the war. It is one thing to be recognised by a respected member of the international community. It is quite another matter to be recognised by an international outcast accused by nearly every democratic state of violating international law, one whose relations with the outside world have deteriorated considerably.

Zygmunt Dzieciolowski wrote this article from Moscow for the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting

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