RUSSIA AND ABKHAZIA DISPUTE BORDER DELIMITATION
A territorial dispute has recently worsened the relationship between Moscow and its committed ally in the South Caucasus, Georgia’s separatist republic of Abkhazia, whose independence was recognized by the Russian authorities less than three years ago. In an attempt to delimitate its state borders with Abkhazia, Moscow recently came up with a plan envisaging the de facto annexation of ca 160 square kilometers of Abkhaz soil, an initiative fiercely opposed by official Sukhumi. While Moscow would benefit from such territorial expansion ahead of the Sochi Olympics, forcing Abkhazia to cede territory could damage Moscow’s relations to Abkhazia as well as its other allies in the South Caucasus.
BACKGROUND: The dispute concerns a piece of land in Abkhazia’s northwestern district of Gagra around the highland lake Ritsa. Part of this territory, the village of Aigba, is situated along the shores of the borderline river Psou. Since Soviet times, Aigba has been divided into two parts, the southern part belonging to autonomous Abkhazia in Georgia and the northern part situated within the administrative borders of Russia’s Krasnodar region. The Abkhaz side insists on maintaining border delimitations made during the Soviet period. In May 2010, the Abkhaz Parliament even adopted a legal act to this end. Yet according to Russia’s most recent claim, the question of to whom those territories in the Gagra area should belong was discussed as early as in the 19th century and that they must be accepted as part of Russia. According to centrally placed sources, the Russian side did not make overly serious efforts to underpin its territorial claim by either legal or historical arguments during the Abkhaz-Russian negotiations taking place in Moscow in March.
In the interwar period, Abkhazia’s unique combination of a lovely Black Sea coastline and Caucasian mountains coupled with a mild subtropical climate made it a favorite relaxation resort for prominent members of the Communist Party and the top brass of the Soviet Army. Over the last decade, the interest in real estate in Abkhazia has been rising within the Russian elite, especially since it is far less expensive than the overpriced neighboring Sochi area where property is almost twice as expensive as in Moscow. Yet attaining land in Abkhazia is legally prohibited for foreigners.
In fact, the main value of the disputed area is its location only 15 kilometers from the village of Krasnaya Polyana, the core location of the 2014 Sochi Olympics. In addition, Russian officials informally argue that securing control of this piece of land would further enhance the security of the Sochi Olympics, which will be a tough task for federal security forces over the years to come (see the 04/13/11 issue of the CACI Analyst)
IMPLICATIONS: The Russian initiative had the effect of an exploding bomb among Moscow’s partners south of the Psou River. There is a general consensus within Abkhaz society that not a single inch of Abkhaz soil may be passed over to either Russia or Georgia, since the Abkhaz people has paid too high a price for it. Importantly, the regime of President Sergey Bagapsh lacks the public support to justify such a transfer, especially since that piece of land has historically been considered Abkhaz. Whereas agreeing to the Kremlin’s demand of last year to give up the dacha resorts of Stalin, Beria, Khrushchev, Gorbachev and others, in total comprising over 600 hectares, was largely justifiable for the Abkhaz authorities since “after all, it has always belonged to them”, the current requirement is hardly acceptable to Abkhaz society.
The Abkhaz are generally aware of the immense support Russia provided for them in the early 1990s, helping them to overthrow what they considered Georgian occupation. They are also grateful for Moscow’s assistance in the brief 2008 warfare in the Kodori valley and the Gali district, the remaining Georgian strongholds in Abkhazia, which resulted in what they consider the final liberation of the Abkhaz homeland. As of today, around 70 percent of Abkhazia’s budget is made up of direct Russian investments, and the remainder of Abkhazia’s economy relies on the tourist business heavily oriented toward Russians and the export of a limited agricultural produce to Russian markets. All natural gas and oil is imported from Russia. It is believed that 80 percent of Abkhazia’s population and almost all Abkhaz of productive age possess Russian passports and Abkhaz pensioners routinely attain their pensions from Russia. Russian currency is used within Abkhazia’s borders. Russian army and intelligence officers are in command of the Abkhaz army which depends entirely on a supply of military equipment and ammunition from Russia. Importantly, Russian military bases reside on Abkhaz soil and there is a general consensus in Abkhaz society that Russia’s backing is instrumental in preventing Georgia from attempts to restore control over the breakaway territory.
Yet it would be an oversimplification to state that the Russia-Abkhazia relationship is harmonious. Many Abkhaz are increasingly dissatisfied with Moscow’s ruthless interference in “independent” Abkhazia’s internal affairs, an attitude revealed especially during local elections when the Kremlin frequently took rigorous steps to ensure that its favorites lead the country. Instead of its desired independence, Abkhazia increasingly resembles a Russian autonomous province as the country’s economy, politics, and social life are dominated by Russia. The Russian language has regained its Soviet-time status of lingua franca in the country, including in its official sphere, and an increasing share of Abkhaz youth are unable to speak their native tongue. Importantly, a certain level of tension exists between Abkhaz and Russian tourists and newcomers, whom the former consider as arrogant and lacking respect for the natives. In addition, many young Abkhaz return to their homeland from work and studies in Russia having experienced significant anti-Caucasian sentiments.
For the Abkhaz, their one-sided orientation toward Russia is born out of necessity. They claim that their fear of renewed Georgian aggression and subsequent reprisals is what forces them into Russia’s firm embrace. In off-the-record talks about the bitter collective memories of the late Soviet period and the 1992-1993 war, Abkhaz generally confess that for them, being a de facto part of a larger “Russian Empire” where their distinct ethnicity and indigenous roots in the area are at least recognized would be a lesser evil than being a part of a smaller “Georgian Empire” with its strong nationalism and attempts at assimilation. For the Abkhaz, a people of around 100,000 whose share in the current ethnic composition of Abkhazia makes up perhaps one third even following the expulsion of the vast majority of ethnic Georgians from the republic, this seems to be the most compelling argument.
CONCLUSIONS: Some Abkhaz claim that the time has come to pay the Russians for their support in the struggle for independence. For independence from Tbilisi, not Moscow, others add skeptically as it is obvious that Abkhazia in its isolation from the outside world and commitment to preventing a Georgian comeback depends completely on Russia. Indeed, should Russia cut the supply of energy, budget support, or close its borders with Abkhazia, the latter would face state collapse overnight. This fact is very well understood in both Sukhumi and Moscow. It is therefore likely that some sort of face-saving compromise might be achieved, perhaps by granting Russia an exclusive land loan of the disputed area for a few decades, a step that might be rhetorically motivated by Russia’s security concerns related to the North Caucasus insurgency.
The Kremlin’s most recent enterprise vis-à-vis Sukhumi is a warning signal not only to Abkhazia but also to South Ossetia and Armenia, Russia’s other allies in the South Caucasus, indicating Moscow’s readiness to strong-arm even its closest partners. In this perspective, unlike the opinion of some Abkhaz commentators, Bagapsh’s recent visit to Turkey cannot be viewed as an attempt by Abkhazia’s elite to create a multifaceted foreign policy. Without Russian approval, the Russian citizens Bagapsh and his colleagues would not have been technically able to leave Abkhazia or enter Turkish soil. Thus, the visit did not aim to reduce Abkhazia’s dependence on Russia, but was perhaps part of a prospective wider deal with Moscow. In fact, Moscow had no clear reason to raise territorial claims against Abkhazia, and even if they prove successful, this kind of attitude toward its remaining allies in the region will hardly be beneficial in the long run.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Dr. Emil Souleimanov is assistant professor at the Department of Russian and East European Studies, Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic. He is the author of “An Endless War: The Russian-Chechen Conflict in Perspective” (Peter Lang, 2007).