Abkhazia: A nation-state project under Russia's auspices

20 years after declaring its independence, Abkhazia's geopolitical choices remain strongly intertwined with Russia's financial support and the country's military.

Abkhazia: 20 years of independence under Russia’s auspices

Click to enlarge the image. Drawing by Niyaz Karim

At the end of September, Abkhazia celebrated the 20th anniversary of its victory in the armed conflict with Georgia. In 1993, the former autonomous republic of the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic began implementing its own nation-state project beyond the framework of an independent Georgia.

Since then, Abkhazia has made impressive progress. First of all, the country achieved international recognition, albeit limited. It has been showing a slow yet steady recovery. Its geopolitical choice is secured by Russia’s military, border and financial support. However, Abkhazia’s political agenda has some peculiarities that often remain outside the focus of attention.

First of all, the Georgian factor no longer plays the defining role in the life of the partially recognized territory. Russia is currently front-and-center, with all the benefits, costs and discrepancies of its influence.

The patronage of the Russian military spares Abkhazia the need to think about the direct military threat from Georgia. For its part, Moscow is guided by the logic of its own national interests, rather than by some abstract concepts.

Sergei Ivanov, the chief of staff of the Presidential Administration of Russia, made this clear in a recent interview with Gazeta.ru. “It is no secret that we spend billions of rubles on backing Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

These are our taxes, and we want to know how every ruble is spent and why.” Therefore, Russia emphasizes control of Abkhazia’s strategic assets — its railways and sea infrastructure (the latter being especially important given the touchy nature of Russia’s relationship with Ukraine) — as well as liberalization of the Abkhazian market, to pave the way for large and medium-sized Russian businesses to come to that country.

However, Abkhazia is somewhat intimidated by plans to explore the oil deposits of the Black Sea and build roads connecting the western part of the Russian Caucasus with Sukhumi. Even Russian investments make Abkhazia feel uneasy, despite their potential for creating new jobs.

Abkhazian business cannot compete with Russian capital, hence the concerns that more investments mean more dependence on Russia. Further, unlike their counterparts in South Ossetia, politicians in the partially recognized territory do not think they have a future in a union with the powerful neighbor.

The result is a serious conflict between the wish to promote the nation-state project and the growing military, political and socioeconomic dependence on Russia. While the Abkhazian authorities mostly share their concerns behind the scenes, the opposition does not hesitate to speak openly.

The pro-Russian geopolitical choice is underpinned by the consensus of Abkhazian elites. However, it is far more difficult to achieve consensus in the matter of the ownership rights of Russian citizens in Abkhazia.

Local authorities have failed so far to come up with a systemic solution to property disputes, and even court decisions on repossession can be blocked by local officials and pressure groups.

Secondly, the strategic link between Moscow and Sukhumi cannot but affect other aspects of Abkhazian politics. Ahead of the Sochi Olympics, North Caucasian Islamist groups have “taken an interest” in Abkhazia.

The assassination of Russian diplomat Dmitry Vishernev in Sukhumi this September can be traced to North Caucasian extremists, the Russian Investigative Committee has stated. Prime suspect Yusup Lakayev, a Chechen national, has been included on the list of persons who pose a threat to the Sochi Winter Olympics.

Radical Islamism has not taken deep roots in Abkhazia. Opinion polls show that only 16 percent of the population consider themselves to be Muslim. Most of the Abkhazian Muslims have nothing to do with terrorism or radical Islam.

However, Islamists have been trying to make their way into the country. Jamaat Abkhazia, which considered itself to be a division of the “Caucasus Emirate,” was liquidated in 2011–2012; it was comprised of 20 members.

Prior to that, there had been a few assassination attempts on representatives of the Spiritual Board of the Muslims in Abkhazia: In August 2007, Imam Khamzat Gitsba was killed, and, in July 2010, Emik Chakmach-ogly, head of the board in Gagry District and member of the Public Chamber, was assassinated.

The victory in the armed conflict with Georgia and subsequent recognition by Russia did not spell the end of trouble for Abkhazia. Old challenges and contradictions were replaced by new ones. The Russian-Abkhazian relationship is also marked by contradictions and conflicts of interest.

In any case, history shows that it is only normal for allies to build their relations through difficulties and challenges. Both big Russia and small Abkhazia should work out a systemic, rational approach to each other and understand that the situation is changing. What the two countries really need is a robust bilateral agenda, rather than memories of bygone days.

The author is a visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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