Now that separatist Abkhazia had been tied to Russia through an essentially federal pact, setting up a train link to the rest of Georgia may be the next stop in Vladimir Putin’s plan for cementing Russian hegemony over the region.
Strictly from a pragmatic point of view, in theory, everyone along the route could potentially benefit from it, including Georgian exporters. Landlocked, semi-blockaded Armenia would benefit the most from such a link to its main trade-partner, Russia.
But many Georgians fear that giving the green light to the project would reduce their chances for negotiating the return of hundreds of thousands of IDPs to Abkhazia and, also, precariously increase Georgia’s economic dependence on Russia. That could spell a potential threat to the country’s longheld EU and NATO ambitions, the thinking goes.
And signal a wider battle for the post-Soviet space as well. In response to Abkhazia’s agreement-signing with Moscow, Georgia has made a cry of creeping annexation of its territory, and the US and EU have denounced the document as a violation of Georgia’s territorial integrity.
The move fits in with the trend of the changing political order in the post-Soviet space, with countries and regions pulling in opposite directions of associating with the European Union or Russia.
The signing in Sochi by Putin and fellow former KGB'er, Raul Khadjimba, Abkhazia's de-facto leader, has touched off an outcry in Tbilisi. From the Georgian perspective, the pact marks the virtual annexation of its territory and the ultimate failure of the current Georgian government's latter-day policy of reconciliation with Moscow.
“Despite the many constructive steps… no progress in political terms has been achieved with Russia,” the Georgian foreign ministry announced in a statement. “Together with the Georgian government and the Georgian people, we will resist this absurd move,” said Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili.
There are not too many mechanisms in Georgia’s diplomatic or economic arsenal for resisting Russian expansionism other than requesting the international community to pressure Moscow away from its perceived attempts of stealing another piece of land.
Two self-proclaimed statelets that are widely viewed as creatures of the Kremlin, Novorossiya and South Ossetia, seem to be really hitting it off.
Oleg Tsarev, the speaker of the assembly representing the Ukrainian separatist entity, the People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk in Ukraine, recently visited Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian capital. There, he expressed thanks for Ossetian support for the ongoing separatist campaign in Ukraine.
“We would not have made it, had it not been for the support of the Russian and South Ossetian people,” said Tsarev. Many South Ossetians have volunteered to fight on the side of the Ukrainian separatists and appear in video dispatches from the war zone. “They are heroes who will remain in our memory forever,” Tsarev told South Ossetia’s separatist leader, Leonid Tibilov.
De-facto President Tibilov said that his South Ossetia hopes to provide military assistance to Ukrainian rebels on a regular, not volunteer basis. To cement their separatist bonds, Tibilov awarded Tsarev an order of friendship during the latter’s visit.
South Ossetia also plans to strengthen ties with Moscow, the benefactor it shares with Novorossiya, through a new bilateral agreement. That pact would potentially pave the way for Ossetia’s annexation by Russia. Details of the pact, prepped by presidential administrations of Russia and South Ossetia, are unknown. But the agreement should take relations “to a qualitatively” new level, intimated Tibilov’s chief of staff, Boris Chochiyev. South Ossetian officials have repeatedly expressed desire for the territory to become a part of the Russian Federation.
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Abkhazia's de facto president Raul Khajimba at the Kremlin in August. (photo: Kremlin)
As Russia and Abkhazia negotiate closer ties, the Abkhazian side is signaling that it is no Crimea and that it has no wish to be annexed into its neighbor and patron.
A draft of a proposed "Treaty on Alliance and Integration" between the two parties was released in October and caused a substantial outcry in Abkhazia, where many objected to what they said was in effect a sacrifice of their sovereignty to Moscow. Abkhazia won de facto independence in the early 1990s after a war with Georgia, and although Russia today is essentially Abkhazia's only ally and protector, Abkhazians remain ambivalent about Russia's heavy hand in their affairs.
Last week, Abkhazia released its own proposal for the agreement. It makes some substantial changes, starting with the name: it replaces "Integration" with "Strategic Partnership." And it gives Abkhazia more control over the joint armed forces and "unified defense space" that the agreement envisages.
The new public draft comes after Abkhazian officials acknowledged that the proposal -- like nearly all agreements between Russia and Abkhazia -- was drafted by Russia and signed by Abkhazia. But government officials in Sukhumi say they're not working that way any more. At an October 17 public meeting on the agreement, covered by local newspaper Chegemskaya Pravda (not online, via BBC Monitoring) Deputy Foreign Minister Irakli Khintba said:
While Russia is on a land-grabbing binge, South Ossetia hopes Moscow will not forget about its aspirations, too. The region’s separatist leadership is drawing up an agreement meant to insert the disputed territory into the Russian Federation.
The agreement is influenced by a recent integration plan that Moscow offered to South Ossetia’s separatist twin, Abkhazia, but reportedly goes far beyond it. Both regions maintain de-facto independence from Georgia and almost existentially rely on backing from Russia. Abkhazia, however, insists on some ground rules in its relationship with Moscow, such as keeping space for sovereignty.
The particulars of the changes made by the Abkhaz remain under wraps, but, reportedly, they took out the clause on bilateral simplification of naturalization of each other’s citizens. Also, reportedly, axed was the most contentious part that proposed to allow Russians to take the command of a joint military force in times of war in Abkhazia.
But if the Abkhaz found the Russian integration plan overbearing, the South Ossetians believe that such a deal would not be going far enough. “The version of the agreement, which is being prepared for signing between Russia and Abkhazia, would not reflect all the yearnings of the South Ossetian people, their aspirations for the Russian Federation,” said the region’s de-facto parliamentary speaker, Anatoly Bibilov.
Tbilisi has accused Moscow of plans to pull a Crimea in breakaway Abkhazia through a treaty that proposes a merger of military forces, coordination of police and an alignment with the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union.
On the surface, it may seem that Abkhazia's fate could not be any more tied to Moscow than it already is. The Russian military is the only outside guarantee of the region's de-facto independence from Georgia, while the Russian market provides an economic lifeline. But for all that, Abkhazia is actually serious about its claim to independence from everyone, Russia including.
In an interview with Ekho Kavkaza, the speaker of Abkhazia's de-facto parliament, Valery Bganba, complained that the document "in many places" amounts to a "loss of sovereignty."
The cornerstone of the treaty is the formation of a collective military force, with Russia appointing an ad-hoc command in times of crisis. Many Abkhaz think such force is necessary to repel any attempt from Georgia to retake the territory; an event which Abkhazia has been expecting ever since its 1992-1994 war with Tbilisi. Many believe that events in Ukraine have increased the likelihood of such an attack.
In a move that many Georgians believe bodes ill for their remaining links with breakaway Abkhazia, the region’s new de-facto leader, Raul Khajimba, has stated he wants to eliminate all crossing points but one into Georgian-controlled territory.
“The national border with Georgia on the Enguri River will be reinforced,” RIA Novosti quoted Khajimba as saying in reference to what most of the rest of the world sees as an administrative boundary line between Abkhazia and the Tbilisi-controlled region of Samegrelo.
“There should be only one checkpoint for reasons of national security,” Khajimba told an assembly of his party, the Forum of People’s Unity of Abkhazia.
For now, there are five crossing-points – four pedestrian and one vehicular – operating across the Russian-policed administrative boundary between breakaway Abkhazia and Samegrelo.
Residents of Abkhazia’s ethnic Georgian-dominated Gali region regularly use these so-called official crossings to travel into Samegrelo, the best local place for shopping, and where most have family or friends.
“Russian border guards often turn a blind eye if we show them an Abkhaz or Soviet passport or residency documents provided by the local administration and they let us herd livestock to pastures on the Georgian-controlled side,” one Gali resident told Ekho Kavkaza.
Scotland’s dabbling in secessionism has been closely watched in the ex-Soviet Union, the Shangri-La of separatism. From Transnistria to Karabakh to Crimea, all eyes have been on the UK recently, in hopes that the Scottish example would change hearts and minds about claims to independence.
In South Ossetia, approaching, on September 20, the 24th anniversary of declaring itself independent from Georgia, many were inspired by the “peaceful and civilized” conduct of the Brits. Abkhazia produced a video, in which a group of people unfurl a giant Scottish flag to the sound of Mel Gibson bellowing “Freedom!” in Braveheart.
Yet with Scotland’s September-18 vote to stay with the United Kingdom these public expressions of separatist-solidarity with Scotland have suddenly fallen silent. Only Nagorno Karabakh, which itself has seen a referendum proposed as part of the solution to its differences with Baku, issued a statement, observing that “regardless of the result,” the Scottish referendum had shown that letting people decide their own fate is “the norm in a democratic society.”
South Ossetia is poised to join a "unified defense space" along with Russia and Abkhazia, further extending Russia's military presence into what is still legally Georgian territory. This budding alliance will both "follow the example of and oppose NATO," South Ossetia's ambassador to Abkhazia told the Russian newspaper Izvestia.
Last week Russian President Vladimir Putin met the newly elected de facto president of Abkhazia, Raul Khajimba, and one of the things they discussed was the creation of a unified defense space, i.e. the Russian military taking joint control of security in Abkhazia along with the Abkhazian security forces. Fellow Georgian breakaway republic South Ossetia is going to be part of that process as well, the ambassador, Oleg Botsiev, told Izvestia.
"Currently our side is working out the possibility with the Abkhazian side of concluding an agreement with Russia on joining South Ossetia to the single defense contour," Botsiev said, adding that it wasn't yet clear whether the agreement would be trilateral or if South Ossetia's agreement with Russia would be separate.
And he said South Ossetia's agreement with Russia would differ from Abkhazia's (though his explanation of how wasn't entirely clear): "Its creation is still being discussed, though it's already clear that included in it will be first of all a military component, and then the conditions for economic and information security of our region will be drawn up."
Abkhazia's de facto president Raul Khadjimba meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin outside Moscow August 27. (photo: The Kremlin)
The newly elected de facto president of Abkhazia Raul Khadjimba has made his first trip abroad, to Russia, where he discussed with President Vladimir Putin the deepening of ties between the two countries' militaries and security services. The two sides are discussing a "unified defense space" and uniting the Abkhazian armed forces with the Russian troops in the territory under a single command. This will be worked out in a new agreement to be completed by the end of the year.
Russia already has about 3,500 troops in Abkhazia, which broke off from Georgia after a war in the early 1990s. In the wake of the 2008 war with Georgia, Russia officially recognized Abkhazia as an independent country and has already made several moves to make its military presence more permanent.
"I know that you are a proponent of expanding the relations between Abkhazia and Russia and deepening integration processes: this concerns defence, security, law enforcement activities and fighting crime, as well as the economy and the social sector," Putin said at his August 27 meeting with Khadjimba. "With regard to matters relating to defence, the state border and socioeconomic issues, we have our own proposals, and they are within the Russian side’s line of vision, so to speak. As we move forward on these issues, we are ready to continue our dialogue and talk about these topics. I think that they will develop positively," Khadjimba replied.