The end of the Olympic Games poses a new challenge for Abkhazia

As the Sochi Olympics come to a close, International Alert asked journalist Inal Khashig, editor of Chegemskaya Pravda newspaper, to comment on what the passing of the Games means for Abkhazia. This article is part of our ‘Olympic politics’ series.

(Русский)

Seven years ago, when Sochi was chosen to host the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in distant Guatemala, the decision of the International Olympic Committee was met with as much joy in Abkhazia as in Russia itself. Though there were no public illusions that Abkhazia could send its own team to the Olympics – not being a member of the IOC – people in Sukhum were sure that the hosting of the games on the border with Abkhazia would be quite significant for the young, and as yet unrecognised republic.

Abkhazia’s hopes were primarily related to security – an issue of utmost importance for Abkhazia being in a constant state of war with Georgia. From the Kremlin’s perspective, it would be unthinkable to host the Games alongside the threat of a smouldering conflict that could at any time erupt into a large-scale war, so Sukhum hoped that Moscow would do its best to ensure stability in the region. It is unlikely at that point that the Russian administration had a clear vision of how to do this, having no recipe for a cardinal change for the better. What is more, no one imagined back in 2007 that it would take just one year to achieve this.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili 'helped' to force the issue. His desire to pre-empt Russian action and restore the 'territorial integrity' of the country as soon as possible, turned out to be a disaster for Georgia. His adventurism, in the form of the war he started in August 2008, had the opposite result: the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia was recognised by Russia and they received security guarantees, thereby leaving Tbilisi with just illusory hopes of regaining what it had lost over time.

Nevertheless, Mikheil Saakashvili still received a curious form of satisfaction. In the context of the Sochi Games, a certain souring was already developing in the Abkhaz-Adyghe relationship at the time when the host city for the Winter Olympics was being chosen. The protests of some Circassian organisations about the hosting of the Games on the battlefields of the Caucasian War 150 years ago – a scene of much loss of life and forced displacement to Turkey of the indigenous population – did not find support among the Abkhaz. Saakashvili’s government inflamed this issue further. By recognising the genocide of the Circassian people by the Russian Empire, 'forgetting' what happened to the Abkhaz, Tbilisi was quite proficient at manipulating the issue, and managed to drive a wedge not just between the Adyghe people and Moscow, but also between the Adyghe and Abkhaz. However Saakashvili was unable to follow this issue through to its logical conclusion, as the new authorities in Tbilisi which replaced him refused to play the Circassian card, not to provoke the Kremlin, and the relevance of stoking historical grievances subsided. And with the end of the Olympics (the main detonator for the Circassian issue) it is doomed to obscurity. Nevertheless, the way things played out could not but lead to a certain amount of misunderstanding, bordering on offence, in Abkhaz-Adyghe relations.

While hopes for greater protection from new Georgian aggression were more than satisfied in the context of the Sochi Olympics (security AND recognition of statehood), nevertheless the initial prognoses that the preparations for the Games would bring serious economic dividends for the Abkhaz economy remained illusionary.

The belief in Sukhum that Abkhazia would become one of the main providers of building materials for the construction of Olympic facilities dissolved in the silence of the Russian bureaucratic machine’s many offices. One can only speculate why inexpensive but high quality Abkhaz sand and ballast was not in high demand for the $50 billion massive infrastructure project.

However, not being involved in Olympic construction had some indirect benefits. Moscow invested more than 15 billion roubles in Sukhum under its Integrated Plan for cooperation in the socioeconomic development of Abkhazia. Primarily, the Russian assistance went to construction and renovation of infrastructure, including roads, schools, hospitals, and sporting and cultural facilities. Unfortunately, the fact that the Kremlin took on the burden of 'social' spending acted as a kind of sleeping pill for the Abkhaz government. Concentrating exclusively on assimilating the Russian tranches (not without some corruption), the government lost interest in restoring and developing its own economy. Choices made not to undertake any serious reform, including economic reform, led to an increase year on year in the share of the Abkhaz budget made up of Russian injections – exceeding 70 percent in the 2014 budget. This level of reliance on Russian assistance has created a dependency culture, not only within the authorities, but also in Abkhaz society in general. Representative delegations from various villages and towns now regularly go to President Aleksandr Ankvab with requests to renovate roads and schools, build water supply systems and so on. In such cases, as a rule, the question 'Where will the money come from?' does not arise. Not only the petitioners but also the authorities themselves think 'Moscow will help'.

Russia is really helping. It is not only building schools and hospitals, but also topping up the salaries of teachers and doctors, police officers and military personnel, and it is paying pensions to local pensioners. However, the Kremlin also has its own problems with finances. In particular, the 2013 tranche to Abkhazia suffered serious delays. This led to the accumulation of massive debts to construction companies and delays in disbursing salaries of public sector workers, leading in turn to constant destabilisation of the internal political situation.

The government is still just about managing to stay afloat, but this state of affairs cannot continue indefinitely. Until now, the main factor avoiding divisions in Abkhazia was the forthcoming Olympics. The opposition, united in a Coordination Council, has not concealed the fact that they were putting off organising mass anti-government protests “until after the Olympic Games” and were doing this for one simple reason: in order not to upset Russia, Abkhazia’s main ally. But as the Paralympics follow the Olympics, and life in neighbouring Sochi follows its own course, the opposition’s hands will be untied.

However, even President Ankvab’s most loyal supporters, not to mention the opposition, recognise the need for fundamental transformation in all areas of the Abkhaz state. There is public demand for reform. The main question is whether President Ankvab is prepared to undertake this thankless task. After all, as a rule, reforms are generally a kind of surgery on the living, and these 'operations' do not always end the way they were planned.

The very uncertainty of the situation may indirectly nudge the authorities towards transformative change. This could take place after all the twists and turns of the Olympics have concluded. It appears likely that the Kremlin’s interest in Abkhazia will wane following the Olympics, and it will become peripheral. Already at the end of last year the new curator for Abkhaz affairs, Vladislav Surkov, stated unequivocally that the Kremlin would alter its previous approach to providing assistance. The main focus now will not be on direct tranches from Russian budgetary funds, but rather on attracting investment into the Abkhaz economy by Russian private and state companies. But for this to occur, again, not only would there need to be state guarantees for the hypothetical investor (even if they are subsequently put down on paper as law or regulations), but also serious, not just cosmetic, economic reform (from tax legislation and the banking sector to issues of private property, insurance and so on), as well as reforms in law enforcement structures and the social sector.

There are also other reasons why reform is needed. Sochi – Abkhazia’s eternal rival resort –has been a construction site for seven years, putting off Russian tourists, instead giving Abkhaz resorts of Pitsunda and Gagra cause for complacency. This means they have not made any particular efforts to upgrade. However, the once-famous resorts of Abkhazia will look like poor relatives against the backdrop of Sochi – a new, modern resort just over the border, with all the necessary infrastructure for year-round tourism. One can guess which the Russian tourist will prefer: the answer is quite obvious. For Abkhazia this means reduced income from its main source of budgetary revenue which cannot be compensated for by other means, given its absence of industry and weak agricultural sector.

In addition, Moscow’s interest in Abkhazia will also likely further diminish against the backdrop of the recently sparked Russia-Ukraine crisis, the consequences of which are impossible to calculate at the moment.

To summarise the influence of the Sochi Olympics on Abkhazia, this sporting initiative of global scale, in parallel with its sporting records and medals, put geopolitical interests, massive amounts of money and the prestige of Russia on the map. Moscow, with some small costs, passed the test. For Abkhazia the end of the Games poses a new challenge. Abkhazia now has to learn to live without the Olympic backdrop. We can expect the nurturing 'greenhouse' period to be replaced by harsh everyday life, without the former preferences. Now Abkhazia’s very survival will depend on the political will of the local elite to learn to be self-sufficient – able to live within available means and at the same time able to fulfil its own authentic, not just declarative, state functions brick by brick.

Read more and listen to our podcast on what the Sochi Olympics means for peace and conflict in the Caucasus here.

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