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William Eggerton

Student at the University of Birmingham

After the Abkhaz War (1992–1993) Abkhazia has found itself in a state of limbo. It is internationally recognised as a sovereign part of Georgia; however, Georgian authority does not extend beyond its border with the de facto state. Abkhazia, in effect, functions completely independent of Tbilisi’s control. This division was further heightened after the Russo-Georgian war in 2008 and the subsequent recognition of the state’s independence by Russia and a handful of other countries. This occurred in the background of Georgia’s turn towards the West, and its long-term aspirations to join the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. Given Abkhazia’s lack of international recognition, and it being nearly dependent on Russia for its survival (Ambrosio & Lange 2015) Russia has a big say in deciding the future of the state. Thus, the questions arise of what exactly does Russia seek to gain from the Abkhazian gambit? Does it really support Abkhazia’s independence or is it merely a guise for integration into the federation? Or, does Russia simply seek to use the state as a pawn in the never ending spat between Russia and Georgia?

There is no hesitation in saying that without Russia’s support, Abkhazia as a state would not exist. The Abkhaz and Russian economies are deeply intertwined, as is there military and state structures. However, despite the overwhelming Russian domination in the economic sphere, Abkhazia as a nation runs independently from Moscow. This independence from Russia is most notably seen in the political sphere. A case in point is that since its independence, all of the state’s presidents have been citizens and residents of Abkhazia.

When considering the future of Abkhazia, its joining Russia is an argument that is raised in many circles. However, further evaluation of this argument proves that such a goal is not on Moscow’s mind.

Abkhazia’s importance to Russia should be put in context with Georgia’s turn towards the West. Since 2003 and the coming to power of Mikhail Saakashvili, Georgia has sought to deepen its connection with the West and its foreign policy draws a stark contrast to the other countries in the South Caucasus, much to the chagrin of Moscow. Although Georgia’s aspirations to join the EU do not pose any harm to Russia, apart from limiting the spread of its influence in the region, its hopes to join NATO certainly rustle the feathers of the Kremlin. The only limiting factor which halts Georgia’s accension into the alliance is the de facto states which are situated within its borders.

Due to Georgia’s increasing cooperation with NATO, Abkhazia, who sees its sovereignty threatened by Georgia, continues to turn to Russia for support. Thus, as long as the breakaway regions continue to work in Russia’s interests, it seems that the current status quo between the three states will continue.

After the Abkhaz War (1992–1993) Abkhazia has found itself in a state of limbo. It is internationally recognised as a sovereign part of Georgia; however, Georgian authority does not extend beyond its border with the de facto state. Abkhazia, in effect, functions completely independent of Tbilisi’s control. This division was further heightened after the Russo-Georgian war in 2008 and the subsequent recognition of the state’s independence by Russia and a handful of other countries. This occurred in the background of Georgia’s turn towards the West, and its long-term aspirations to join the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. Given Abkhazia’s lack of international recognition, and it being nearly dependent on Russia for its survival (Ambrosio & Lange 2015) Russia has a big say in deciding the future of the state. Thus, the questions arise of what exactly does Russia seek to gain from the Abkhazian gambit? Does it really support Abkhazia’s independence or is it merely a guise for integration into the federation? Or, does Russia simply seek to use the state as a pawn in the never ending spat between Russia and Georgia?

Current State of Play in Abkhazia

There is no hesitation in saying that without Moscow, Abkhazia as a state would not exist. The Abkhaz and Russian economies are deeply intertwined, as is there military and state structures. Russia accounts for 90% of Abkhazia’s exports and 99% of Abkhazia’s foreign direct investment comes from Russia (Ambrosio & Lange 2015). Russian businesses are heavily involved in the management of the country’s airport and railway system, as well as gas exploration (Kirova 2012). Militarily, Russia maintains a force of around 4000 soldiers, which patrols the perimeter with Georgia, and as recently as 2019, President Vladimir Putin announced that he would be financing the defence modernisation of the country (Pryce, P 2020). All of this comes at a big blow to the Russian state’s coffers. In the period of 2009–2018, subventions alone amounted to 40 billion roubles, not to mention other subsidies and the payment of pensions. (Kolstø 2019).

However, despite the overwhelming Russian domination in the economic sphere, Abkhazia as a nation runs independently from Moscow. This is fuelled by a nationalistic spirit after a hard-won independence from Georgia, and the desire not to lose their sovereignty. This independence from Russia is most notably seen in the political sphere, where, as an advocate for Abkhazia in the UK Lord Rea mentions, “Abkhazia is run by its own government on certain terms and there is no trace of evidence that the Russians are involved in administration of this country” (Dzhopua and Agrba 2008, cited in Kereselidze 2014). A case in point is that since its independence, all of the state’s presidents have been citizens and residents of Abkhazia, while if we consider the other de facto state in the region, South Ossetia, we see that “between 2005 and 2011, South Ossetia had three prime ministers in a row who were Russian citizens, none of whom had any local roots to the de facto state” (Kolstø 2019).

Integration Into Russia or Deeper Cooperation?

An argument that arises in many circles is that Russia plans on Abkhazia joining the former. This argument has gathered steam after the situation in Crimea in 2014 and the signing of the Alliance and Strategic Partnership Agreement between Russia and Abkhazia in the same year. The aim of this article is not to go into detail about the provisions of the Agreement, however there are some points in the agreement which make the case for integration more valid. These include: the creation of a joint security force between Moscow and Sukhumi headed by a Russian official, as well as the “creation of a common economic and social space” which pulls Abkhazia’s economy even closer to that of Russia’s (Ambrosio & Lange 2015). However, it should not be assumed that the deal was agreed only upon Russia’s terms. For instance, that name of the agreement itself was changed from the “Alliance and Integration Agreement” to the “Alliance and Strategic Partnership Agreement,” in order to make it clear that Abkhazia’s final aim is not integration into the Russian Federation. Furthermore, the Abkhazians retained their control on the real estate market, not allowing Russian investors to buy property there, for fear that the prices would rise and housing would become unaffordable for the Abkhaz.

Most of the provisions mentioned in the agreement will occur with Russia’s financial support and it is quite clear to see that the relationship is very much one sided with Russia providing but receiving little in return. In view of this, and with Russia acting as the clear hegemon in the area, it should be expected that Russia should be able to dictate and pull the strings in the relationship. However, as noted by Pål Kolstø, it finds itself yielding to the wishes of the client, and Russia’s recognition of Abkhazia has actually increased the number of aces that the de facto state has to play with (Kolstø 2019). Russia cannot leave Abkhazia for a fear of “a complete loss of face” (Kolstø 2019) in front of the international community, which gives Abkhazia room for manoeuvre. Russia’s support to Abkhazia needs to be addressed through a geopolitical lens. It is happy to finance the state if, by doing so, Russia can achieve its foreign policy objectives, most notably, the destabilisation of Georgian politics.

Russo-Georgian Relations Since Independence

Russo-Georgian relations have been turbulent ever since Georgia gained independence from the USSR in 1991. During the 90’s, Russia accused Georgia of harbouring Chechen rebels. During the Chechen wars, Georgia refused to give access to its air bases to Russia, and in retaliation Russia violated Georgia’s airspace. The effects of the Rose Revolution and the pro-Western government under Mikhail Saakshvili culminating in the Russo-Georgian war of 2008 and the introduction of economic sanctions. And, although relations improved under the presidency of Giorgi Margvelashvili, the 2018 anti-Russian protests which sparked in Tbilisi after the election of a Russian MP threw another spanner in the works, ultimately leading to a travel ban from Russia (BBC 2019).

Georgia’s Western Turn

Since 2003 and the coming to power of Mikhail Saakashvili, Georgia has sought to deepen its connection with the West and its foreign policy draws a stark contrast to the other countries in the South Caucasus who have either gone it alone, as is the case with Azerbaijan, or sort cooperation with Russia, as is the case with Armenia. Georgia’s Western orientation has certainly reaped its fruit; Georgia participates in the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) and is a member of the Eastern Partnership (EaP); the European Union (EU) and Georgia have signed an Association Agreement (AA) in 2016 which “strives for political association and economic integration between the EU and Georgia” (European Council 2020); Georgia is part of the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area with the EU, and Georgian citizens also benefit from Visa free travel to Schengen countries. All of this is at the chagrin of Russia, who seeks to encourage and objectify its influence to countries in the post-soviet space. With the normative influence of the EU slowly creeping up onto its borders (for example, the expansion of the EU in 2004), Russia feels threatened by other actors playing an interest in its neighbourhood. Despite Moscow’s efforts to curb this encroachment, mainly via the use of sanctions as can be seen in the cases of Moldova and Georgia, support for the EU in its neighbourhood has steadily been increasing. A recent poll conducted in 2020 showed that 82% of those asked support the EU and 74% support NATO membership (Agenda.GE 2020).

The EU itself does not pose a physical threat to Russia and Georgia’s western turn is nothing new. The recent news that the country plans to apply for full membership should not come as a surprise (EURACTIV 2021). The EU is already Georgia’s main trading partner and its relations with the EU far surmount those with Russia. Georgia’s accension would limit Russia’s influence in the region but not pose an existential threat. NATO, on the other hand, does. It is in this context that Abkhazia plays such a vital role to Russia. As writes, Paul Antonopoulos “The ambition of Georgia of increasingly friendly relations to NATO and the West is intolerable to Moscow that views these moves as a NATO policy of containing a resistant Russia” (Antonopoulos 2017). Russia has not remained quiet about this issue and has raised its voice many times since the Bucharest summit in 2008, where the NATO powers promised Georgia that it would join the alliance. The then Prime Minister of Russia Dmitri Medvedev even stated in 2018 that Georgia’s accession into the alliance “could provoke a terrible conflict” (Osborn 2018). For Russia, it seems that Abkhazia, together with South Ossetia, are the last cards it can play in order to halt Georgia’s accession into the alliance. Georgia fulfils all the criteria for accession and, according to the former Commander of the US Forces in Europe, “has nothing left to prove” (The World 2019), but the process has hit a dead end due to the status of the breakaway regions.

Point 6 in Chapter 1 in “Study of NATO’s Enlargement” states that:

“States which have ethnic disputes or external territorial disputes, including irredentist claims, or internal jurisdictional disputes must settle those disputes by peaceful means in accordance with OSCE principles. Resolution of such disputes would be a factor in determining whether to invite a state to join the Alliance.” (NATO 2008)

It was via this provision that France and Germany justified their position on the accession of Georgia at the Bucharest summit of 2008 and gives Russia a chance to stop the spread of the alliance to its southern border.

Looking Towards the Future

Future prospects for resolution look bleak. Georgian foreign policy has seldom changed since the mid 1990’s. The National Security Concept of Georgia (Ministry of Defense of Georgia 2012) continues to stress the countries aspirations to join NATO and the EU as well as for further integration into Western structures, and, although the Concept notes that “Georgia is willing to have good friendly relations with the Russian Federation,” Georgia’s European aspirations inherently draw conflict with Russia, which Georgia tends to see as the sole successor of the Soviet Union. Furthermore, because of the fact that Georgia “should not have diplomatic relations nor be in a military, political, or customs alliance with states, which recognize the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia,” improving relations with Russia is difficult.

In addition, Georgia continues to see Abkhazia and South Ossetia as “Georgian territory” and notes that “the reintegration of people living in these territories, and the restoration of Georgian sovereignty […] are the most important priorities of the country’s national security policy” (Ministry of Defense of Georgia 2012). In light of this, and due to Georgia’s increasing cooperation with NATO, Abkhazia, who sees its sovereignty threatened by Georgia, continues to turn to Russia for support. Thus, as long as the breakaway regions continue to work in Russia’s interests, it seems that the current status quo between the three states will continue.

Bibliography

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