Europe Report Nº202
26 February 2010
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The historically coveted region of Abkhazia has become even more dependent on Moscow since Russia’s controversial recognition a year and a half ago. Russia is financing half the region’s budget, and against vigorous Georgian protests, it is spending $465 million to refurbish existing and build new military installations in the picturesque Black Sea coastal area. Virtually the entire population holds Russian citizenship, and almost all trade is with the northern neighbour. It will take constructive, creative thinking on the part of Georgian, Russian, Abkhazian and international actors alike to restore even a modicum of confidence between the parties to the conflict. Given Abkhazia’s unrealistic insistence that Georgia recognise it as independent and the equally unrealistic prospect that Sukhumi will acknowledge Georgia’s sovereignty, the two parties should focus on creating economic and humanitarian links without status preconditions in order to benefit both, build stability and give momentum to a long reconciliation process.
Abkhazian officials concede that the entity’s “independence” is in effect limited by the asymmetrical nature of its relationship with Russia but do not see their deepening dependence on Moscow as a threat. “Independence is a means to an end, and not an end in itself”, a high-ranking official told Crisis Group. “We have the amount of independence that meets our security and economic needs”.
In return for recognition and aid, Russia obtained highly prized military-strategic assets in Abkhazia, damaged Georgia’s drive to join NATO, demonstrated its anger at Western nations for their recognition of Kosovo and underlined its antipathy towards the government of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. Perhaps most notably, Moscow has shown that in certain circumstances it can flex its muscles unilaterally without suffering significant political costs. Relations with the U.S., NATO and the European Union (EU) are essentially back to normal, even though Moscow has failed to implement important elements of the ceasefire agreements concluded at the end of its August 2008 war with Georgia by President Medvedev and French President Sarkozy, the latter acting as the EU Presidency.
Abkhazia’s international status is far from settled. With only three countries other than Russia considering it independent from Georgia and no chance of any EU member-state or other major international recognition in the near term, the conflict is unresolved and could again destabilise the southern Caucasus. As many as 212,000 ethnic Georgians remain forcibly displaced, and whereas some ethnic Georgians have in the past been able to return to the Gali district, Abkhazian officials most recently stated that no returns to other parts of the entity will be authorised. Questions also linger as to how solid a long-term asymmetrical relationship between Russia and Abkhazia might be. Some, especially ethnic Abkhaz, who number less than 100,000 in the entity, are wary of becoming overly reliant on Moscow economically, politically, and culturally, or essentially being assimilated.
The chances for meaningful progress between Tbilisi and Sukhumi were slim even before the 2008 war and have been further eroded. Tbilisi sees the conflict as a matter of Moscow occupying and annexing its territory, while the Abkhazian authorities see Russia as a guarantor of security. Diplomatic relations between Moscow and Tbilisi have been cut. The bitterness between the two governments is deeply personalised and emotional. Beyond occasional discussions in Geneva called for by the ceasefire agreements, there is no real process or forum for Russia, Georgia and representatives from Abkhazia and South Ossetia to find solutions to even day-to-day issues.
The Georgian authorities should show their constructiveness by not trying to isolate Abkhazia, even though Moscow’s flouting of the ceasefire agreements makes this a bitter pill to swallow. It remains uncertain, given their military and economic dependence on Moscow, how much room for independent manoeuvre the de facto authorities in Sukhumi have to deal with Georgia. The long-awaited “State Strategy on the Occupied Territories: Engagement through Cooperation” unveiled by Tbilisi in January 2010 partly reflects new thinking. Though the initial reaction from Abkhazia has been dismissive, the plan contains some concepts that, if followed through, could start the two sides on a more promising course.
This report gives a snapshot of the state of affairs in Abkhazia today, particularly the extent of Russian involvement. Future reporting will deal more extensively with opportunities for finding common ground, as well as present more detailed analysis of refugee and IDP and other issues.
To all sides:
1. Ensure the free movement and operation of international and local humanitarian organisations to and within Abkhazia, without status or other political preconditions.
To the Government of the Russian Federation:
2. Implement fully the terms of the 2008 ceasefire agreements, which oblige Russia to reduce troop levels to those mandated before 8 August 2008, and withdraw from previously unoccupied areas.
3. Refrain from building permanent Russian military installations in Abkhazia.
4. Disavow as inconsistent with international conventions and norms recent statements by the authorities in Abkhazia that they will not allow return of the up to 212,000 still displaced Georgians.
5. Do not claim that Abkhazia is part of the “Olympic zone” or emphasise its participation in the organisation of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games.
6. Engage with any Georgian government to defuse tensions, including the current one with which Moscow has no formal relations.
To the Government of Georgia:
7. Cooperate with the EU, UN and NGOs engaged in projects in Abkhazia; streamline formalities for project implementation; and make changes, as needed, to the “Law on Occupied Territories” to facilitate such activities.
8. Continue, without setting status preconditions, to offer the Abkhazians measures that allow them to develop ties beyond Russia, including a free trade zone in the Gali and Zugdidi districts and the re-opening of trade and transport links, such as regular bus, ferry and air connections.
9. Support initiatives aimed at broadening the dialogue between Georgian and Abkhazian officials and civil society groups.
To authorities in Abkhazia:
10. Use opportunities to engage with Georgia in direct dialogue at any level, and reconsider Georgian offers to open economic, transport and trade links.
11. Pass the necessary legislation to regulate the status of ethnic Georgians living in Abkhazia (mainly the Gali region); allow free movement by persons in that region across the administrative border with Georgia; and develop a plan outlining under what conditions and when IDPs will be allowed to return to other parts of Abkhazia.
To the EU, UN and other international actors:
12. Continue to implement humanitarian, confidence-building, economic integration and democracy building projects in Abkhazia and finalise agreements with Tbilisi and Sukhumi to make quicker decisions on project implementation.
13. Continue or renew contacts with authorities and civil society groups in Abkhazia – including by travelling there – without implying legitimisation or recognition of Abkhazia as an independent state or otherwise undermining Georgian sovereignty.
Sukhumi/Tbilisi/Istanbul/Brussels, 26 February 2010