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What does Russia really want with Abkhazia?

Abkhazia border crossing.jpg

Will the new treaty being discussed between Abkhazia and Russia provide a blueprint for cooperation or something more like annexation?

 

Sergei Markedonov
30 October 2014

Talks about a new treaty between Russia and Abkhazia have been going on for some months now, but until the actual document appeared, the discussions were mostly conjecture and speculation: what principles would underlie this agreement between Moscow and Sukhumi? Would the aim be to hand over Abkhazian sovereignty to the Russian Federation? What limits could be placed on Russia’s ambitions, and where might these limits begin and end?

Hedging its bets

In Abkhazia, these questions have been the subject of wide public discussion, but in Russia have only been debated in specialist circles – a fact that highlights the one-sided character of relations between the two countries. For a major power like Russia, with the pretentions to be a global player, a question about state building in a small republic with limited international recognition is an obscure subject, just one element in the bigger political picture. However, a political crisis that unfolded in Abkhazia this year has given the discussions a new urgency.

Border crossing in Abkhazia. The sign on the right reads 'Abkhazia and Russia, 200 years together.'

Border crossing in Abkhazia. The sign on the right reads 'Abkhazia and Russia, 200 years together.' CC DILIN

The crisis had in fact been brewing for some time. The government’s opponents were already voicing their discontent with the rule of the republic’s third president Aleksandr Ankvab, in 2013, but the Sochi Winter Olympics and a reluctance to spoil relations with Moscow meant the denouement was postponed until this year. Many linked both the crisis and Ankvab’s resignation, with his government’s unwillingness to sign a new agreement reflecting the current state of Russo-Abhazian relations.

On 13 October, however, the Abkhazian Parliament received from Moscow the first draft of a treaty on ‘alliance and integration’ with Russia. The very name of the document allayed some alarmist fears, since it was not presented as an Association Agreement, a term that had caused some disquiet in previous discussions. But a document does not consist solely of a title, and the content of this one received an emotional and complex reaction. What was also important, however, was the fact that the new presidential administration sent the draft to parliament with a recommendation that it return it with its comments and suggestions within two weeks, sending a clear message of intent from new president Raul Khadjimba to both his own supporters and also to those who had not voted for him but would no doubt have to deal with him.

The new government is hedging its bets: if something goes wrong, blame can be apportioned equally between Moscow and Sukhumi.

This tells us that the new team has at least learned some lessons from the failures of its predecessors. A back-door attempt to push the draft treaty through would have aroused all sorts of fears, phobias, and mixed reactions, and triggered a mass backlash even among Khadjimba’s supporters. So the new government is hedging its bets: if something goes wrong, blame can be apportioned equally between Moscow and Sukhumi.

In any case, the draft agreement cannot be regarded as a working document. Russia may well get a much-revised version back; and its final adoption may take some time. It will be discussed and commented on not only by Abkhazian MPs but also by representatives of the republic’s NGO sector, who regard the present discussion as insufficiently open and transparent. They would prefer a wide debate on the agreement from the beginning, and not when it is completed and presented to the public after some backstage reworking and backroom deals. Moreover, even when the treaty comes into force, many of its provisions on, for example, the armed forces, trade, social welfare, and pensions, will be the subject of separate detailed agreements.

The emotional response

But what is causing such an emotional response among Abkhazians? Here we need to bear in mind that territories with ‘disputed sovereignty’ (or as some specialists refer to it, ‘suspended’ sovereignty’) are naturally very sensitive about the whole subject of sovereignty. Unrecognised or only partially recognised statehood can give rise to questions, scathing comments, and sometimes contemptuous sneers; and for the governments and populations of such states, any question about handing over powers to anyone else is a cause of deep sensitivity and alarm. If Russia, a nuclear power and permanent member of the UN Security Council, puts the preservation of its ‘full sovereignty’ at the centre of its relations with the West (in both its internal politics and on the global stage), then little Abkhazia, recognised by only a handful of other countries, regards any intervention from outside with apprehension, at the very least.

Former president Dmitry Medvedev shakes hands with former president Aleksandr Ankvab at a Russia-funded bridge in January 2012.

Former president Dmitry Medvedev shakes hands with former president Aleksandr Ankvab at a Russia-funded bridge in January 2012.   

Territories with ‘disputed sovereignty’ are naturally very sensitive about the whole subject of sovereignty.

The draft Russo-Abkhazian agreement does, however, contain clauses proposing the handing over of a considerable chunk of sovereignty to Russia, in the shape of ‘a concerted foreign policy,’ and ‘the formation of a common defensive and security zone’ that will include ‘the creation of a ‘joint force for repelling any attack from outside,’ as well as joint operations to protect the Republic of Abkhazia’s borders.

Another clause provides for the creation, within a year of the treaty being signed, of a Coordination Centre to facilitate joint police action against organised crime, and other dangerous criminal activities, and extremism on Abkhazian territory. The treaty would also create a single trade and customs zone across the two countries, although Russia would set up a ‘specialised customs agency’ whose monitoring activities would have to be recognised by the Abkhazian authorities.

In essence, there is nothing new in this document. Russia already has an FSB border checkpoint inside Abkhazia; and agreement has also been reached on a joint army base. The only extra element here is integrated policing.

The citizenship question

One section of the treaty has attracted less attention as it is by definition less political, and mainly covers the gradual harmonisation of social welfare and pensions in the two countries. But it does contain a more interesting clause, on a key question for any country – citizenship. At first glance this does not look particularly controversial, establishing as it does the principle of encouraging and simplifying the naturalisation of citizens of one country in the other. But in terms of citizenship legislation, Abkhazia is in fact the most rigid of any de facto Eurasian state.

Abkhazia refuses citizenship to anyone who fought against it in 1992-1993.

Historically, Abkhazia was one of the small Caucasian states that shifted between the Ottoman and Russian empires; and in 1810 it became an autonomous principality within the latter. In Soviet times it became an autonomous republic inside Georgia, but as the USSR crumbled, ethnic tensions grew, and in 1992-1993 led to a war between Abkhazia and a now independent Georgia; and to Abkhazia’s declaration of independence in 1999. As a consequence, the Republic of Abkhazia refuses citizenship to anyone who, by fighting against it, effectively called its national project into question. That means mostly ethnic Georgians who left Abkhazia during or after the fighting. Another factor affecting this hardline stance on nationality is the high Abkhazian population loss at the time, estimated at 2000-4000 out of a pre-war 93,000; and the fears of both the Abkhazian government and the general public that returning ethnic Georgians with Russian citizenship could buy up property in Abkhazia. Until now, property rights for Russian Georgians have been somewhat ‘selective,’ but the draft treaty effectively outlaws this selectivity; and in private Abhazians are much more afraid of this potential shift in the ethnic balance than about all the military stuff.

Easier access to Abkhazian citizenship opens the way for Russians to acquire property in Abkhazia.

It is not just an influx of Georgians that worries them: easier access to Abkhazian citizenship opens the way for Russians to acquire property in Abkhazia, or to attempt to reclaim property they owned previously, which does nothing to endear the document to the Abkhazian elite and the public.

Asymmetric allies

This brings us back to the subject of the inevitably complex questions and contradictions in the relations between asymmetrical allies (although it does not exclude the possibility of their being resolved). Abkhazia aspires to autonomy and independence, but is dependent on Russia for its defence and security, not to mention balancing its budget – everything from social benefits to post-war reconstruction). For its part, Russia wants greater access to the Caucasus and the Black Sea, offering opportunities for big business and a barrier to NATO penetration into Georgia (and the post-Soviet space in general). At the same time, however, Moscow cannot apply an ethnocratic principle to its own citizens, since any exclusion along ethnic lines would create a dangerous precedent. Abkhazia, on the other hand, while recognising all the advantages of ‘opening up the republic’ (new investment and greater financial viability), can also see a downside in moving away from the ‘ethno-democratic’ model that has developed since its armed conflict with Georgia.

All these contradictions can be resolved – they are an inevitable factor in any discussions about an alliance or partnership. Moreover, the text of the treaty (or rather, its silence on several subjects) shows it to be based on compromise. In truth, Abkhazia has to compromise, but looking around at Russia’s relations with its other neighbours there has not been much evidence of a willingness to do that.

This article first appeared in The Caucasus Times

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