De Facto Abkhaz Leader Risks Being Hoist With His Own Petard
Just one month after his inauguration as de facto president of the breakaway Georgia region of Abkhazia, Raul Khajimba is facing a storm of protest against the new draft treaty on union relations and integration that Moscow submitted two weeks ago for discussion to the Abkhaz parliament.
The Coordinating Council of opposition parties that Khajimba headed had called for the signing of such a treaty in late May, at a point when the outcome of its efforts to oust then-President Aleksandr Ankvab was still unclear.
The draft treaty could also jeopardize the efforts of Georgia's ruling Georgian Dream coalition that came to power two years ago to build more cordial and cooperative relations with the Russian Federation. On October 17, the Georgian parliament denounced the draft as a blatant attempt by Russia to annex Abkhazia, which effectively won its de facto independence from Georgia in a war in 1992-93. The Russian Foreign Ministry in turn rejected the Georgian parliament statement as "unfounded and dangerous speculation."
For the past six years, since the Russian Federation formally recognized Abkhazia (and the Republic of South Ossetia) as independent states in the wake of the August 2008 Georgian-Russian War, relations between Russia and Abkhazia have been based on a framework treaty on friendship, cooperation and mutual assistance, augmented by dozens of more specific interagency agreements. Many Abkhaz question the need to adopt a further treaty on closer integration that they fear would undermine their hard-won (if widely unrecognized) independent status and curtail the powers of the army, which many Abkhaz regard as one of the pillars of national identity.
The Abkhaz objections focus primarily on those articles of the new draft treaty that propose the creation of a joint group of forces, to be headed in the event of war by a Russian, and of a center that would coordinate the work of the two polities' interior ministries to counter crime and terrorism on Abkhaz territory; closer cooperation between their border-protection agencies, which has been widely construed as effectively abolishing border controls between Abkhazia and the Russian Federation and thus making the border between Abkhazia and the rest of Georgia Abkhazia's sole external border; and bringing Abkhaz customs regulations into line with those of the Eurasian Economic Union that currently comprises Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Armenia (presumably as a first step toward accepting Abkhazia as a member of that union).
Abkhaz commentator Aslan Basaria argued that those provisions directly contradict the preamble of the draft treaty, which affirms the need "to preserve the state sovereignty of the Republic of Abkhazia." Basaria predicted that if the draft is signed in its current form, "all that will remain of our country's independence will be the name 'Republic of Abkhazia.'"
Most of the Abkhaz parliament's 35 deputies similarly believe that many articles of the draft treaty could lead to "the loss of sovereignty," Abkhaz parliament speaker Valery Bganba told RFE/RL's Ekho Kavkaza on October 14. Bganba characterized the general perception among lawmakers as "close to negative, to be honest."
The political party Amtsakhara that supports former President Ankvab adopted a progressively more categorical stance. In an initial statement on October 14, its leaders noted their disagreement with many (unspecified) articles of the draft and advocated a broad public discussion, questioning at the same time the viability of the October 27 deadline for presenting objections and alternative formulations.
The party then quoted speakers at a general discussion on October 16 at which representatives of other political parties were also present as saying that "the new draft treaty cannot be regarded as a basis that can be changed and amended," but should be rejected out of hand. Instead, the party's governing council advocated that the September 2008 treaty should serve as the basis for a new treaty.
Four days later, on October 20, Amtsakhara addressed a more detailed refutation of the treaty to Khajimba personally. It dismissed outright his stated rationale that the new geopolitical situation, in particular Georgia's closer cooperation with NATO and the Association Agreement it signed in June with the European Union, necessitates the immediate conclusion of a new treaty with Russia, pointing out that the various provisions of new draft treaty will take effect only one year after it is signed, and in some cases only after three years.
Apparently in response to that pressure, Khajimba made a televised address to the nation on October 22 admitting that he too disagrees with some articles of the draft treaty and denying that Russia has presented Abkhazia with "an ultimatum." At the same time, he argued that "creating a common outline of defense, strengthening the border with Georgia, creating conditions for the free movement of people and goods across the Russian-Abkhaz border, facilitating customs procedures -- all this is in our interests."
Khajimba further stressed that Russia is the only strategic ally Abkhazia has, and that no one has the right to make "groundless accusations" or "try to discredit the idea of intensifying bilateral cooperation."
Amtsakhara responded the following day to that implicit criticism with a statement reaffirming its commitment to "eternal friendship" with Russia.
As noted above, it is conceivable that the signing of a new treaty redefining Abkhazia's relations with Russia was a key component of an agreement concluded in late May between the Coordinating Council headed by Khajimba, and senior Russian politicians Vladislav Surkov and Rashid Nurgaliyev, who had been sent to the Abkhaz capital, Sukhumi, to resolve the crisis triggered by the Coordinating Council's concerted efforts to force Ankvab's resignation.
The Coordinating Council had pressured Ankvab for months to accede to a list of key demands that included the dismissal of then-Prime Minister Leonid Lakerbaya and several other senior officials and the creation of a new government of national unity. A revision or renewal of the September 2008 framework treaty on friendship, cooperation, and mutual assistance did not figure among those demands, however.
On May 29, two days after Ankvab had fled the presidential palace and reportedly taken refuge at the Russian military base at Gudauta, and hours after talks between the Coordinating Council and Surkov, Russian President Vladimir Putin's point-man for Abkhazia, the Coordinating Council released a statement arguing that the only way for Abkhazia to preserve its independence and be able to defend itself was by acceding to the Russian-led process of integration of the former Soviet republics. Specifically, the statement advocated concluding a new treaty on closer integration and the creation of a common defense and security space, and affirmed an "interest" in joining the Moscow-led customs union, the predecessor of the Eurasian Economic Union.
In the event, the two emissaries from Moscow did nothing to help Ankvab retain power. At least one Abkhaz commentator has construed the new draft treaty as "Moscow calling in its debts."
It is not clear whether the original October 27 deadline for fine-tuning the text of the draft treaty has been quietly ditched in order to give Khajimba more time for maneuver. Even if it has, he is in an unenviable situation, constrained to walk a fine line between delivering on whatever deal he may have cut with Moscow in May and not alienating his supporters at home. It should be remembered that Khajimba defeated his closest challenger in the early presidential ballot necessitated by Ankvab's forced resignation by a margin of just 559 votes.
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