The Crimean precedent has breathed a new divisive life into politics inside Abkhazia. Against the background of the Ukrainian crisis and the growing role of Russia in the former countries of the Soviet Union, in Abkhazia the idea of integration with Russia is once again being put forward. The culmination of this debate was the thousands-strong ‘people’s assembly’ on 27 May in the capital Sukhumi, which concluded with an attack on the presidential palace, and an attempt to seize government buildings. The demands of the assembly were clearly articulated – the resignation of the president, government, general prosecutor, and the heads of administrations of Abkhazia’s three eastern regions.
According to the daily Nuzhnaya Gazeta, the protest attracted about 5% of the tiny republic’s population.
Representatives of opposition movements and parties, the intelligentsia, village elders, and parliamentary deputies took part in the march. According to the daily Nuzhnaya Gazeta, the protest attracted around 10,000 people, which is about 5% of the tiny republic’s population.
The people’s march, which had been more than a month in the making, was preceded by sharp polemics in the country’s media on the question of а formal association with Russia, a debate in which public figures and representatives of official government organs had been involved.
Participants in Sukhumi's 'People's Assembly' which ended in an attempt to seize government buildings. CC abh-ng.ru
The source of these sharp polemics was an interview with the President of the International Association of the Abkhaz-Abazin People, and former people’s deputy of the USSR, the political analyst Taras Shamba, which was published at the end of May 2014 in a Russian publication. In the interview, Shamba spoke out in favour of a formal association with Russia, for Abkhazia.
A house divided against itself
For the most part, neither Shamba’s statement nor the objections voiced by the Abkhazian opposition are anything new. The same arguments have long gone back and forth. But today, given the events in Ukraine, the question of strengthening integration with Russia and ‘the price of Russian help’ is now all the more acute in Abkhazia.
‘We won the war, but the reality is, that we are losing the peace.’
‘We won the war [of independence from Georgia], but the reality is, that we are losing the peace. The country swims with the current, depending solely on hand-outs and help, without any understanding or a development plan in site. You can’t be a sovereign country, while filling two-thirds of your budget with hand-outs from another state’ said a participant of the march.
The route of Abkhazia’s problem lies in the make-up of Abkhazian society. While in South Ossetia the overwhelming majority of the Republic’s population supports unification with Russia, (the exception is a small fraction of the ‘elite’, who worry only about preserving their own positions) Abkhazia is presented with an entirely different situation.
58.9% of the population favour maintaining independence, while 28.4% are for unification with Russia.
According to a social survey carried out by the Prague agency ‘Medium-Orient’ in 2013, 58.9% of the general population favour maintaining independence, while 28.4% are for unification with Russia. At the same time, only 5.8% of those surveyed expressed a desire to see Abkhazia as an EU member and another 6.8% found it difficult to express an opinion on the issue.
At the same time, it is worth mentioning that the stratification of these results among ethnic groups shows that there are proponents of unification of Abkhazia with Russia among every group, including the titular ethnicity – the Abkhaz. The most pro-Russian minded, unsurprisingly turned out to be Russians – 60% of the ethnic Russian population. In second place came the Abazins, with 50% of the ethnic group being in favour. Among Armenians, the figure for those expressing support for unification with Russia is 46%. Among Georgians it is 23% and among Abkhaz – 18.3%.
The ‘titular ethnicity’
This sociological gap demonstrates the problem facing the country when it comes to nation-building: society in Abkhazia is far from united on such fundamental questions as the future of Abkhazia and the republic’s foreign policy course. The foundations of the republic’s political structures (laws on citizenship and the constitution) were decided immediately in the wake of an inter-ethnic conflict that ended 20 years ago. In these circumstances there was a clear move towards ethnic nationalism, and the domination of the ‘titular ethnicity.’ But unlike Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia is not homogenous.
Only ethnic Abkhaz may occupy the post of President of the Republic.
Ethnic Abkhaz constitute only a little more than half of the republic’s population, even after the mass exodus of Georgians and the gradual depletion of the country’s ethnic Russians, and even Abkhaz themselves, as they leave the state’s borders. Armenians, Russians and Georgians (Mingrelians) are never going to be happy with a constitutional situation, (article 49 of Abkhazia’s Basic Law) which allows only ethnic Abkhaz to occupy the post of President of the Republic. Moreover, this situation exists when the economic activity of Armenians far from decreasing is actually picking up steam.
A burnt out armoured vehicle from the Abkhaz-Georgian War in 1994. (c) Vladimir Vyatkin/RIA Novosti
For this very reason, anything that appears in the media that even remotely touches on this controversial question can become an impetus for bitter debates in Abkhaz society. The Crimean precedent has merely thrown the issue of ethnic division into even sharper relief.
Statehood at Moscow’s pleasure
In light of events in Ukraine, Moscow has once again clarified its position in relation to Abkhazia’s political status (recognition without unification), but in the self-proclaimed republic there is now a fear that Moscow’s position could change. What is more, in Georgia the internal political situation is also changing against the background of the worsening situation in Ukraine; pro-Russian groups, whose voices were never previously listened to in Tbilisi, have become more and more active. If Russia and Georgia were to start enjoying a rapprochement, the Abkhaz question in Russia could be revisited; Abkhazia could lose its relevance for the Russian elite.
Sukhumi has neither the means nor the resources to resist the will of its powerful neighbour.
Sukhumi has neither the means nor the resources to resist the will of its powerful neighbour. Moscow has serious economic levers it can use against Abkhazia; the most important of them is the reduction or cutting off of investment.
This has already happened once before, when Moscow directed significant sums for the construction of the Olympics in Sochi, yet at the same time neglected to invest in Abkhazian territory. Today, a similar situation could arise in connection with Crimea’s annexation; Abkhazia’s tourist industry is particularly vulnerable to any favourable bias that Moscow might show towards its new possession; a significant part of the inhabitants of Gagra, Pitsunda, Sukhumi and other coastal regions of Abkhazia depend on Russian tourists. If Moscow decides to redirect the tourist stream to Crimea, small and medium sized businesses in Abkhazia will have nothing left. If one also takes into account the fact that Russia has taken Abkhazia under full military control, and that Abkhazia owes Russian creditors billions of roubles, the possibility for resisting Russia’s will drops to practically zero.
In Abkhazia, it is well understood that sooner or later Moscow will demand something in return. Perhaps because of this, and despite the whole-hearted condemnation of Shamba’s proposal for a ‘formal association,’ one can still glimpse the likely form of co-operation between Moscow and Sukhumi; for example, in the framework of the Customs Union, the EEC, or the proposed Eurasian Union. In particular, one notes that the united Abkhazian opposition (The Coordinating Council of Parties and Social Movements of Abkhazia), nothwithstanding its condemnation of the initiative for greater association with Russia, nevertheless called for integration in the framework of the organisations listed above.
Commenting on this situation, the notable Abkhazian journalist Inal Khashig, from the radio station ‘Ekho Kazkaza,’ wrote in his blog that his country’s elite were so corrupt that Moscow could easily manipulate them if necessary: ‘If Moscow suddenly took the notion to change things, finding the right buttons to push wouldn’t be difficult. It could be done by a single ally, a lobbyist, a local centre or support group. One wave of the [Russian] hand, and the previous unity on the idea of an inviolable Abkhazian statehood among the Abkhazian elite would go up in a puff of smoke.’
In Abkhazia, the danger emanating from Russia, which in the recent past was such an invaluable ally to the little republic, is well understood. Looking at a possible Russian annexation, the ethnic Abkhaz would loose their political supremacy, although their economic future would seem, in this set of circumstances, to likely be better. Together with six years of economic stability and peace, this is a powerful argument in Russia’s favour.
A billboard featuring President Bagapsh from 2012 - 'Strength of mind and wisdom will save our nation' CC Maxim Edwards
All in all, the majority of ethnic Abkhaz would agree with the statement of former Abkhazian president Sergei Bagapsh, which he made in an interview in November 2009. Answering a question on the influence of the Kosovo precedent on independence, he said ‘Thank God it happened.’
The next presidential elections are scheduled, in accordance with the law, to take place in 2016. Aleksandr Ankvab, the current President of Abkhazia, who clearly has plenty of troubles already, has announced that he intends to seek a second term; how (and if) he answers his country’s main question – ‘Where are we heading and who are we with?’ – will decide his fate and the fate of Abkhazia. But, in truth, neither the Abkhazian opposition nor the current authorities in Abkhazia can provide a concrete answer to that question. Today, Abkhazia finds itself in a political dead,end, and it is looking unlikely that it will be able to choose a way out of it, certainly not on its own.