Independent Abkhazia one year on

Inal Khashig
18 August 2009

It need hardly be said that little remains of the boundless euphoria experienced by Abkhaz people on 26 August 2008, the day President Dmitry Medvedev announced the recognition of independence for Abkhazia and South Ossetia. At that time everyone believed that no fewer than 10 countries would soon follow suit, but this turned out to be a vain hope. At the moment of writing no one, apart from Nicaragua, has offered support to Abkhazia, and this has clearly affected the official rhetoric emanating from Sukhumi.

A year ago, before the August events in the Caucasus, President Bagapsh and foreign minister Sergei Shamba often put forward the idea of a multi-vector foreign policy, which clearly did not suit Moscow at all. Several months before Russia's recognition of Abkhazia, Mr Shamba had spelt out this policy, which was to involve Russia, the European Union and Turkey (where there is a population of up to 500,000 Abkhaz, who were forced to migrate there after the Caucasian war in the 19th century). However, these signals received no support from the West, and after the European Union and the USA had reacted extremely negatively to Russia's recognition of Abkhazia's independence, the "multi-vector" thesis quietly disappeared from the vocabulary of official Sukhumi altogether.

Nevertheless, the fact of recognition and Moscow's acceptance of responsibility for security in Abkhazia was sufficient for the issue of the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict to take a back seat for the Abkhaz themselves a year later.

Stationing a Russian military base in the republic and posting Russian border guards on the Abkhaz-Georgian border along the Inguri River virtually eliminated the threat of war with Georgia for Abkhaz society. The world media may constantly claim a new Russian-Georgian war is not far off, but from inside Abkhazia this is difficult to believe. No one in local political circles or in the expert community thinks that Abkhazia will be dragged into a new war in the near future. Never before has there been such unanimity.   The unprecedented flow of tourists into the republic is indirect proof that there is no cause for concern. The season is in full swing and already three times more people have chosen to take their holidays at Abkhaz resorts than last year. Which, as Abkhaz politicians say, is a kind of barometer.

For the Abkhaz themselves, perhaps the most important product of recognition is security.  After all, the young republic had effectively been in a state of siege since 1994, with daily expectations of an attack from Tbilisi.

The Sukhumi government may have dealt with one headache, but there are still just as many problems. The Abkhaz are now trying to prove that their desire for independence is not limited to not wanting to live in Georgia. Currently the most important task for them is to establish and maintain normal relations with Moscow with no loss of sovereignty. The whole future of the Abkhaz project depends on how quickly they will cope with the new challenge.

In relation to the main enemy, Georgia, even an ordinary Abkhaz farmer understood very well what was in Abkhaz interests and what was not, as these interests had cost the lives of several thousand Abkhaz during their 1992-93 war with Georgia. But how to organise its relations with Russia, at present its only ally - this not even the Abkhaz political elite itself knows.

The Abkhaz have no wish to quarrel with their mighty neighbour: Russia is not just their only window on the world and guarantor of protection from Georgia, but also the source of financial prosperity. Direct subsidies from Moscow make up more than half the Abkhaz budget and trade with Russia is 95% of the country's commercial traffic.   Holidaymakers at Abkhaz resorts (the most important segment of the economy) are almost exclusively Russian and practically all foreign investments are also Russian. On top of this most people have dual Abkhaz-Russian citizenship, which allows them to travel the world. Local pensioners receive a Russian pension, which is 10 times greater than the Abkhaz pension. Such close relations make it difficult to preserve the national interest, that is sovereignty and national identity, but Abkhaz society is not prepared to sacrifice its sovereignty just to please Moscow - it is too hard won. South Ossetia regards independence as a transitional stage to eventually becoming part of Russia, but Abkhazia has no such plans.

This explains the reaction to one of the first treaties with Russia - "On the joint protection of the border of the Republic of Abkhazia", signed at the Kremlin by Presidents Dmitry Medvedev and Sergei Bagapsh at the end of April this year.   Many experts consider that some parts of the Agreement go against the Abkhaz Constitution and such was the level of criticism that even Moscow became concerned. A representative delegation of Federal Council senators and State Duma deputies was immediately dispatched to Sukhumi to dispel Abkhaz doubts. The Kremlin also recalled for fine tuning the Russian-Abkhaz treaty on military cooperation which was ready to be signed. Thus did Moscow succeed in defusing the situation.

But this may only be a temporary measure.  The Abkhaz presidential elections are due in December and it is already clear that in the battle for votes the Russian question will be one of the most important. There are plenty of possible irritants. President Sergei Bagapsh has declared his intention to transfer Abkhaz railways and Sukhumi Airport to Russian management for eventual privatisation. He also plans to allow the Russian state company Rosneft to produce oil on the Abkhaz shelf of the Black Sea. The government's projects have riled the opposition. They accuse the president of selling off national interests.  He in his turn justifies his actions by saying that Abkhazia on its own cannot rebuild and subsequently maintain its railway and this also applies to other strategic segments which Russian business has its eye on.   Through the media, which he controls, the President has accused the opposition of inflaming anti-Russian feelings, which is an absurd charge. The Abkhaz political elite has plenty of shortcomings, but one thing that unites them is their pragmatism in relation to Russia.

Spoiling relations with a country on which the vitality of one's own country depends is not part of the game plan of any Abkhaz politician. Moscow could come to an agreement with any of them on any issue, except one - Abkhazia's rejection of independent state status. The present Abkhaz opposition, represented by two leaders - the head of the ERA party Belan Butba and the former vice-president Raul Khadzhimba - is no exception. Butba entered politics as one of the richest people in Abkhazia, and his main business is in Russia. Raul Khadzhimba had unlimited Kremlin support in the presidential elections of 2005. For several months the Kremlin used all kinds of pressure, including closing the Abkhaz-Russian border, refusing to recognise the victory of the candidate from the opposition at the time, Sergei Bagapsh. Moscow was forced to back down in the end and new elections were held.  Bagapsh became president, and Khadzhimba vice-president. After the scandal surrounding the border treaty, Khadzhimba staged a walk-out and resigned. He now says that the present state of Russian-Abkhaz relations is not Moscow's fault at all:  he lays the blame exclusively on the Abkhaz leadership, hinting that national interests suffered because of the government's incompetence, and that they were sacrificed for the personal interests of individual government representatives.

The Kremlin is more aware than ever of the nuances of the Abkhaz internal situation (which was not the case, say, five years ago during the last presidential elections). Although Moscow is quite happy with President Bagapsh, and his popularity rating in the country is quite high, Russia does not intend to repeat previous mistakes. To clarify his position Vladimir Putin had to do something the Kremlin had never done before in the post-Soviet space. During his one-day visit to Sukhumi he took the unusual step of holding separate meetings in the presidential palace with Bagapsh and the leaders of the opposition. A year ago Russia guaranteed Abkhazia protection from Georgia.  Now she has no objection to extending her powers and guaranteeing their internal stability. And by all accounts the Abkhaz do not object to these intentions.

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