Sergey Markedonov, Associate Professor, The Regional Studies and Foreign Policy Department of the Russian State University for the Humanities
This article is a version of the paper delivered at a roundtable organised by International Alert on 28 July 2014 entitled '(Mis-)calculations in the Caucasus: The political crisis in Abkhazia and new geo-political challenges for the region'. Read articles by other speakers here.
The pre-term presidential elections in Abkhazia took place on 24 August 2014. With 50.57 percent of votes, Raul Khajimba of the Forum for the National Unity of Abkhazia won in the first round. In second place was the head of the Republic Security Service Aslan Bzhania, with 35.91 percent of votes. Mirab Kishmaria’s and Leonid Dzapsha’s results look markedly more modest, with 6.4 percent and 3.4 percent respectively. However, the election results do not all simply come down to the electoral statistics. The pre-term election campaign was to put an end to the internal political crisis, which started with mass protests against the third president of Abkhazia, Aleksander Ankvab. His resignation was the first instance in post-Soviet Abkhaz history of a head of state leaving office early.
What role did Russia play – and does continue to play – in these events? Is there anything new in its position as compared to the previous years?
It is symbolic that the voting in Abkhazia took place almost simultaneously with the sixth anniversary of Moscow’s recognition of the Republic’s independence. The significance of the recognition of independence of both former Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic autonomies in August 2008 transcends purely regional Caucasian boundaries. This recognition was the first instance of breaching the Belovezh Accords (December 1991), founded on the principle of mutual recognition of territorial integrity of the former Union Republics – newly independent states of the post-Soviet space. For the first time since the disintegration of the Soviet Union, former autonomous entities were recognised as independent states. This event saw the start of a new geopolitical status quo in the Greater Caucasus.
During the last six years, Russia dramatically changed its position in the Georgian-Abkhaz ethnic and political conflict. Prior to August 2008 Moscow (at least officially) played the part of a peacekeeper and mediator in regulating the confrontation between the two entities. Six years ago, Russia became a military, political and socio-economic patron of the two de facto states, their guarantor of security and self-determination from Georgia.
Russia’s position: from status quo to revisionism
Despite the widespread opinion of unequivocal Kremlin support for separatists, Russian policy underwent serious changes from the 1990s through to the August war of 2008. For example, the British expert Oksana Antonenko, evaluating Russia’s policy towards Abkhazia, rightly referred to it as “multipolar”. However, the same characteristic can be applied in no lesser degree to South Ossetia as well. The political course steered by Moscow in relation to Abkhazia is determined by a wide spectrum of issues: the internal political situation in the Russian North Caucasus, as well as the dynamics of Russian-Georgian and Russian-American relations, and international contexts/settings.
Coming up against the Chechen separatist challenge, Moscow initially supported Tbilisi’s intentions to reinstate the territorial integrity of Georgia. However, the Russian position in Transcaucasia evolved significantly, starting in 1998. This was aided by the attempts of the Georgian leadership to change – by force, without taking into account the Russian Federation’s interests, and unilaterally – the status quo and to ‘de-freeze the conflict’. Such attempts were made in May 1998 in the Gal/i district, and in September 2001 in the Kodor/i Gorge (the infamous raid by the Chechen warlord Ruslan Gelaev). After Russia’s defeat in the first Chechen campaign, the official Tbilisi position towards the leadership of the separatist Ichkeria changed. The Georgian leaders overestimated ‘Russia’s weakness’, taking the setback for a start of a great geopolitical retreat from the Caucasus. Later on, many Georgian experts and politicians (especially in private conversations) acknowledged that their assumptions were not altogether correct.
As far as the international setting/context is concerned, from the late 1990s the Georgian aspiration towards NATO became more active, accompanied not merely by a certain rhetoric, but in fact it was connected with minimising the Russian influence in the regulation of both conflicts in particular and in Transcaucasia overall.
The events of spring and summer of 2004 in South Ossetia proved the final divide. The breach of the Sochi/Dagomys Agreement of 1992 (and later ignoring and nullifying the content of all its clauses) paved the way to ‘de-freezing the conflict’. The events of August 2008 merely became a logical conclusion of this process. The direct military confrontation between Russia and Georgia, the complete destruction of the old status quo, the recognition of Kosovan independence (the first time after the disintegration of the Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia that an autonomous and non-union entity was recognised), as well as the variety of interpretations of the ‘Medvedev-Sarkozy Agreement’, all spurred Moscow to agree to the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Full independence from Georgia or a Russian protectorate?
The social and political existence of Abkhazia during the last six years is determined by the fundamental contradiction between the proclaimed independence and rapid strengthening of the military, political, social and economic positions of Russia in the two partially recognised republics. Their self-determination from Georgia is securely guaranteed.
With Russia’s military help, Abkhazia improved its geopolitical position considerably. The Kodor/i Gorge was transferred to the Abkhaz authorities’ control. Prior to 2006 it was virtually uncontrolled by anyone, while two years prior to the ‘August war’ it was under Tbilisi’s control, serving as a launching pad for a possible attack on the Republic’s capital, Sukhum/i.
On 30 April 2009 the Agreement “on joint efforts in the field of protection of the state border of the Republic of Abkhazia”, according to which a Border Department of the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation was formed in the Republic of Abkhazia, was signed. Therefore, from the official and legal point of view, there is the creation of a department of a Russian security service on the territory of another, independent state! The first border-crossing checkpoint of this department in the village of Pichora of Gal/i district opened on 8 December 2010. On 17 February 2010 Moscow and Sukhum/i agreed to set up a united military base of the Russian troops on the Abkhaz territory. Today the scenarios along the lines of ‘a small war’ in the Gal/i district (1998), a raid in the Kodor/i Gorge (2001), the deployment of the ministry of interior troops, and the creation of an administration loyal to Tbilisi (2006) ‘look practically implausible’.
Moreover, Moscow is financing the restoration of the two republics, as well as being the main sponsor of their budgets. According to Aleksander Khloponin, the Russian president’s plenipotentiary representative in the Northern Caucasus Federal District, in 2010–2012 Abkhazia received 10.9 billion roubles, and from 2010 to 2012 the Republic was allocated 10.9 billion roubles (approximately US$300 million). In 2013 and 2014 the volume of financing was set to be lower at 1 billion roubles.
At the same time, it would be the height of naivety to suppose that the Russian policy is based on some theoretical affection towards the small nations of the Caucasus and towards their aspiration to self-determination. Moscow’s logic is based on the national interests. In an exclusive interview (September 2013), Sergey Ivanov, the head of the Presidential Administration of the Russian Federation, clearly and unambiguously pointed out this priority: “We brought everything in line with the rules of Russian budgetary laws. It is no secret that we spend billions to support Abkhazia and South Ossetia. These are our taxes, yours and mine, and not the ‘wants’ of the republics’ leaderships, and we would like every rouble to be accounted for, where it was spent and why.”
The Russian interest and asymmetric alliance
So what does Moscow want, judging by its actions in the past six years? Russia would be interested in preserving the loyalties towards its foreign policy. Additionally, there has been a clear signal towards the strategically important facilities (railways, Black Sea coast, which house the naval base in Ochamchira) and towards the resorts of Abkhazia.
Despite displaying all the required pro-Russian rhetoric and outward loyalty during the Aleksander Ankvab presidency, Moscow experienced some unpleasant setbacks. Among them was the refusal to build the Sukhum/i–Cherkessk road, the unwillingness to facilitate the work of ‘Rosneft’ on the Black Sea coast of the Republic, and the delay in liberalising the property market for the Russian nationals (which was promised by the late Sergey Bagapsh, but the process did not start under his successor). The idea of association with Russia was received rather indifferently by the Abkhaz leadership under Ankvab. The idea itself is actively promoted by the Russian president’s adviser, Vladislav Surkov, as a sort of a response to the EU policy in the post-Soviet space. It would be wrong to call it a strategically thought-out policy course. The policy of Moscow in Eurasia often seems to be responding to the challenges as they emerge, rather than a programme. However, the signing of the relevant association document with Tbilisi (with its subsequent ratification in the national parliament) was driving Moscow to some sort of a response, designed to demonstrate the vulnerability of Russia’s opponents. In the end, the association formula gained importance, which was received in Abkhazia with extreme unease. Unlike South Ossetia, Sukhum/i sees no need to promote the ‘unification process’ (as there is no North Abkhazia within the Russian Federation, and consequently there is no basis for a unification project, which is so actively pursued by Tskhinval/i). According to a very influential Abkhaz journalist, Inal Khashig, the editor of Chegemskaya Pravda (speaking after the elections), ‘any agreement, concluded with Russia, must not be in breach of the Abkhaz Constitution, providing for Abkhaz sovereignty’.
Currently, experts are of the opinion (especially in private discussions) that Ankvab’s lack of flexibility was the main reason behind his departure. It seems that this view is rather one-sided. Indeed, Moscow did not support the head of the Republic (in office at the time). It did not denounce the mass demonstrations against him, which led to Ankvab’s resignation. The Kremlin, in its negotiations with the opposition (which had plenty reasons for dissatisfaction), asked them to refrain from mass protests, if possible, until after the completion of the Sochi Games. This condition was complied with. In doing so, Ankvab’s opponents earned a certain amount of Moscow’s trust. One should not forget about a certain ‘historical context’. Aleksander Ankvab has never been considered fully loyal to the Kremlin. This tradition started in 2004 when he, as the main force behind Sergey Bagapsh’s election campaign, was challenging the main Kremlin protégé (who enjoyed Putin’s personal support), Raul Khajimba. Due to the major geopolitical considerations, the defeat of Khajimba then and the success of Sergey Bagapsh did not have a major impact on the asymmetrical relations between Moscow and Sukhum/i. Moreover, Bagapsh managed to dispose Putin and those in charge of Abkhazia in the Russian president’s administration towards him. However, after the death of the second president of Abkhazia and the election of Aleksander Ankvab in early elections, the inter-elite contradictions became acute and the supporters of the Forum for the National Unity of Abkhazia turned out to be more favoured by Moscow.
In addition to the above, the Kremlin administration had other reasons too. Moscow held, and continues to hold, that the Western vector for Abkhazia is currently an unrealistic option. While the USA and the EU’s policies towards the Caucasus remain firmly entwined with the idea of Georgian territorial integrity and the promotion of its European and North Atlantic integration (which is perceived as a threat in Abkhazia), there will be no call to diversify the foreign policy in Sukhum/i. The ‘engagement without recognition’ approach is viewed by the Abkhaz elite (and here there is consensus between the authorities and the opposition) as a tool to engage the Republic in some form of Georgian sovereignty.
Therefore, with the overall pro-Russian vector preserved, the Kremlin does not set that much store in the name of the occupier of the presidential office in the Abkhaz capital. And, if this occupier is less headstrong than its predecessor, this option turns out to be almost ideal. One should not dismiss the fact that high politics are made not only by the leaders at the top, but also by the bureaucrats. There are still executives in the Kremlin, those who lived through the unpleasant experience of 10 years ago, to whom the departure of Ankvab is to some extent a compensation for previously suffered losses (i.e. elections of 2004–2005).
The inauguration of the new president of Abkhazia takes place on 25 September. After the inauguration, Raul Khajimba plans an official visit to Moscow. However, prior to his assuming office, the newly elected leader of the Republic discussed with Vladimir Putin the need to conclude a new treaty on friendship, cooperation and mutual assistance between the countries before the end of 2014. A treaty, which is to strengthen the military and political integration and, not to be ruled out, an increase in financing from the Russian budget.
At the same time, the interests of Moscow and Sukhum/i do not always coincide. Russia would prefer the Abkhaz market to be more open to Russian business. Abkhazia though fears that the arrival of Russian business would place the Republic under total control, both politically and economically. From time to time, property issues rear their head. Any society that has lived through the ethnic and political conflict (Abkhazia is not an exception in this respect) is unable to return to a standard practice of property dispute resolution for a long time. The system of power and its legitimisation are being built along ethnic lines. The procedures to regulate private property relations adopted in any peaceful environment have been substituted, for a long time, by the priorities of “collective ethnic property over/of land”. Moreover, it was not only the Georgians who fell victim to these principles; ethnic Russians suffered too. To assist the resolution of these problems, the Committee to “ensure the legality in establishing the property rights of the Russian and Abkhaz nationals” was called upon (convening for the first time on 28 October 2010 in Sukhum/i). However, until now many of its decisions either remain unimplemented locally or are openly flouted/sabotaged.
Therefore, today Russia and Abkhazia need a new agenda. And not the one that would refer to the ‘Georgian threat’ (which for the most part is not a pressing issue at the moment), but to those contradictions and problem clusters, currently existing in the relations between Moscow and the partially recognised entity, from budget expenditure to the human rights of Russian compatriots. It is clear that this host of problems is impossible to resolve reactively. Strategic approaches need to be developed. They require a certain caution and political correctness. Any mistakes in this regard will only create needless problems for Russian politics in relation to Abkhazia.
 O. Antonenko (2005). ‘Uncertainty: Russia and the conflict over Abkhazia’. In B. Coppieters and R. Legvold (Eds.). Statehood and Security: Georgia after the Rose Revolution. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. pp.208–17.
 The plan of peaceful settlement of the military conflict between Russia and Georgia. It was signed on 12 August 2008 in Moscow. Initially, it consisted of six clauses. However, after the consultations with the Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili, the point about the international discussions on the status of South Ossetia and Abkhazia was removed from clause six of the Plan.