TBILISI, Georgia — Just over a year after Russia recognized the independence of the Georgian breakaway republics Abkhazia and South Ossetia following a brief war with Georgia, the region is still shaking from the consequences.
The mid-August visit of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to Abkhazia promising to boost the Russian military presence there further rattled nerves, both in Georgia and in the United States.
In Abkhazia, however, one word is on the lips of everyone from government officials to taxi drivers: progress.
“The most important change [since August 2008] is the stability of Abkhazia. People finally know that they can live under a peaceful and independent government, and build their future — through economic development, political development, rebuilding all that was destroyed by the war,” said de facto Abkhaz President Sergei Bagapsh.
Following the 1992-1993 conflict between Georgia and Abkhaz separatists, which drove Georgian forces out of the province, Abkhazia had been economically and diplomatically isolated.
However, that quickly changed last August after a five-day war between Russian and Georgian forces in South Ossetia that left hundreds dead and Moscow firmly entrenched in the two enclaves. Both Moscow and Tbilisi point their fingers at the other for instigating the fighting, and an international fact-finding mission is set to release its report on the conflict at the end of the month.
In the meantime, Russia has signed a flurry of deals granting Abkhazia and South Ossetia humanitarian and military assistance, helping to prop up their de facto independence from Georgia.
And although South Ossetia was the flashpoint for the initial confrontation, Abkhazia has also quietly benefited from its newfound big brother. More than one third of the Abkhaz budget comes from Russian aid, Russian troops now patrol Abkhazia’s borders, Russian tourists flock to the region, more than 80 percent of Abkhaz residents are Russian citizens, and the Abkhaz Ministry of Finance has no plans to create an Abkhaz currency — they’ve been using the ruble for more than a decade. More recently, Putin pledged nearly 0 million to strengthen Moscow’s military presence in the disputed area, while the Abkhaz government has proposed its coastline as a base for Russia’s Black Sea fleet.
For its part, Georgia now classifies Russia’s involvement in its breakaway territories as an occupation and has appealed to the West to rein in Moscow’s ambitions over Georgian sovereignty.
“Abkhaz and Georgians lived side by side for centuries,” said Temuri Yakobashvili, who serves as Georgia’s minister for reintegration and is the chief negotiator in the resolution of its internal conflicts. “In family you always have good times and bad times, but it doesn’t mean you have to kill the family right?”
He added: “We still have governments [in the breakaway republics] that in our understanding are serving as puppet regimes by force. They have a different level of independent decision-making. In South Ossetia, it’s close to zero. In Abkhazia, it’s drastically decreasing.”
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has also denounced Russia’s “puppets,” though for a time it seemed his government might also be a casualty of the conflict following revelations that Saakashvili may have spurred the fighting by launching an unprovoked attack on South Ossetia.
Tens of thousands of Georgians took to the streets to call for Saakashvili’s resignation in April, and hundreds staged a sit-in protest barring the Georgian Parliament from meeting and blocking the main boulevard for 107 days in Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital.
But in the end, the Georgian opposition, which is made up of a disparate group of disjointed factions, was counting on a major government crackdown like the one it received during the Georgian political crisis in December 2007.
This time, however, Saakashvili didn’t flinch, and as a result popular interest in the street protests waned until the blockades were dismantled with little fanfare following a visit by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden.
However, though Saakashvili weathered the domestic storm in the aftermath of the war, his foreign agenda has been severely damaged. Since receiving an endorsement by the Bush administration to begin the process of NATO integration before the war, Georgia has now seen that offer virtually taken off the table.
“I think this is probably the one issue on which Russia benefited from the war in Georgia. The issue of Georgian membership in NATO, as well as that of Ukraine, has been put on the backburner at best,” said Masha Lipman, a political expert at the Carnegie Moscow Center. “There is every indication that this is not a first priority for the U.S.”
During his visit to Moscow in July, President Barack Obama reiterated U.S. support for maintaining Georgia’s territorial integrity, but stopped short of directly criticizing Russia’s actions there. Vice President Biden visited Georgia later that month, but did not give in to Georgian requests for additional military support or an American monitoring presence along the Abkhaz and South Ossetian borders.
Yet while Russia’s actions in Georgia may have sent a clear message to NATO officials, Lipman said it has not dissuaded other former Soviet bloc countries from strengthening their ties with the West, nor has it forced them to play into the Russian political agenda.
“The trend recently has not been in Russia’s favor — especially since the war in Georgia when the countries of the former U.S.S.R. realized that Russia can use force and were certainly scared and very nervous. And yet this did not push them into recognizing the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.”
Russia may not have been able to tighten its grip on the “near abroad” by making an example out of Georgia, but it certainly has solidified its influence over South Ossetia and Abkhazia — and the once-isolated regions are welcoming the investment tied to that influence to pull themselves out of poverty.
The Abkhaz and Russian governments signed a treaty in March allowing Russia to station nearly 4,000 troops in Abkhazia for up to 49 years. Russia will also base several naval vessels in the Abkhaz port of Ochamchire, and Abkhaz Defense Minister Merab Kishmaria said Abkhazia will continue to negotiate with Russia over the possibility of making Abkhazia the new port of harbor for the Russian Black Sea fleet, which has leased the Ukrainian port of Sevastopol until 2017.
And in June, Russia vetoed an extension of the U.N. mission in Abkhazia — one of its largest — because Georgia would not approve a name change for the mission designating it as operating in Abkhazia rather than Georgia. While both sides voiced their appreciation for the United Nations efforts in the past, neither Georgia’s Yakobashvili nor Abkhazia’s Kishmaria expressed major concerns with the mission’s cancellation, the latter calling it “not a tragedy.” The Abkhaz defense minister added that the absence of the U.N. mission will make it easier for Abkhazia to enforce the boundaries of its airspace. “Before it was hard to shoot [Georgian spy drones] down. Now it will be easy,” Kishmaria said.
Putin meanwhile has said that the mission is welcome back as long as it recognizes “the reality” of Abkhazia’s independence.
To bolster that independence, Russia has not only entrenched itself in Abkhazia militarily, it has also greatly increased its humanitarian assistance. One of the major projects currently being undertaken is to restore a highway and railway between the de facto Abkhaz capital, Sukhumi, and the nearby Russian resort town of Sochi.
Like Sochi, which will host the 2014 Winter Olympics, Sukhumi was a popular travel destination during the Soviet years and still receives thousands of Russian tourists every summer. Bagapsh noted that Abkhaz officials expect close to 1 million tourists in 2009.
The Abkhaz leader said he is optimistic about the level of state and private investment in Abkhazia, but admitted it is coming primarily from a single source — Russia. “We will speak with all who are interested. However, so far, there are not many such investors, because there is extreme pressure from the United States, the European Union. I’m a politician. I understand. Such problems are not resolved right away,” he said.
Bagapsh also said that because Abkhazia, which has a population of about 200,000, will not be able to afford dozens of embassies around the world, even if more countries recognize it, so Russia will continue to represent Abkhaz interests abroad.
One country with which Abkhazia does plan to associate with directly, however, is Iran, Bagapsh noted. While talks were still in the preliminary stages, he said the two governments are in the process of establishing “a normal economic relationship.”
But most experts say full independence for either Abkhazia or South Ossetia is a pipe dream (only Russia and Nicaragua have formally recognized their independence), though a more immediate worry is the stationing of Russian personnel in South Ossetia just 30 miles outside the Georgian capital, especially if a future conflict erupts. Another major cause for concern has been Georgia’s status as a major transit country for energy resources.
Europe imports a quarter of its oil and natural gas from Russia, but gas disputes with Ukraine have caused Russia to cut off natural gas supplies to the continent several times. As such, European countries are seeking to diversify energy sources and have found Georgia to be a key link in accessing natural gas in the Caspian Sea region. Consortium members signed an agreement in July to proceed with plans to build the .1 billion Nabucco pipeline project, which would bring natural gas into Europe through Georgia.
Russia is pushing ahead with its own pipeline project, South Stream, to deliver gas to Europe via Turkish waters, bypassing Ukraine altogether. Russia recently scored a victory in its competition with Nabucco (which also needs Turkey’s support) when Turkey granted the Russian natural gas giant Gazprom use of its territorial waters in the Black Sea, in return for cooperation on possible electric and nuclear power plants.
Moscow is also clearly going ahead with its strategy to entice South Ossetia and Abkhazia away from Tbilisi. “The Abkhaz people will succeed in reviving their economy as Russia continues to give systemic economic and political and, if necessary, military support,” Putin said during his August visit to Sukhumi. Asked if that meant another confrontation with Georgia, he told Abkhaz media, “Given today’s Georgian leadership, it is impossible to exclude anything.”
About the Author
Nicholas Clayton is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.