Abkhazian Official Hints Russia Using Its Territory to Avoid Western Sanctions

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 20 Issue: 70

Sukhumi railway station via Abkhaz World

In April, the administration of the puppet regime of Abkhazia practically confirmed that Russia had begun to use its territory to circumvent Western sanctions. In particular, the media leaked the comments of Alias Labakhua, the first deputy chairman of the so-called State Customs Committee of Abkhazia, who stated: “Recently, a train arrived to us, in which there were 62 containers. It was the transit of goods from the Russian Federation to Turkey. This is not the first sign, there were other transits, but in small batches, the route was checked, monitoring was carried out” (ekhokavkaza.com, April 6).  It is noteworthy that the Georgian authorities did not react to this news at all, but Ali Kaan Orbai, the Turkish ambassador to Georgia, categorically denied the possibility of such a transit: “Turkey does not recognize separatist Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region and does not establish official contacts with the de facto authorities of these regions of Georgia” (accentnews.ge, April 7). This is not the first time information has appeared in the media about the possible illegal transit of goods from Russia to Turkey through the occupied territory of Abkhazia; in June 2022, information on the transit of coal was discovered, for example. Understandably, there are an insufficient number of reliable sources to properly guarantee that Russia is using the occupied regions of Georgia to fill the gap created after the imposition of Western sanctions. On the other hand, there is arguably no reason Russia would choose not to do this, as Georgia and Turkey did not join Western sanctions against Russia. The possible use of occupied territories for this purpose indicates the desperate situation of Russia.

Apparently, the key role in this illegal transit of goods is played by a railway located on the territory of Abkhazia. The first stage of the process was restoring the road that leads from the Russian border to the capital of Abkhazia. This happened before the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008, and in 2015, Russia illegally began to restore the rest of the railway from the capital of Abkhazia to the settlement of Ochamchire, where one of the bases of the Black Sea Fleet was located in Soviet times, and where the Russian flotilla is still illegally based. According to Georgian experts of transport corridors, as of 2022: Russia has already restored the railway connection from Sukhumi to Ochamchire, the water area of the Ochamchire harbor has been deepened to 7 meters, 3 berths have been repaired and near Ochamchire a private terminal for containers is being built (interpressnews.ge, April, 26). In addition, Russia revived its plans to reconstruct the Sukhumi airport (interfax.ru, March 31), which ceased operation in 1993. Occupied Abkhazia, which has had no airport since then, has evidently managed to persuade Russia to help rebuild Sukhumi.

Along with Abkhazia, Georgia was also suspected several times of transiting goods to Russia that fall under the sanctions regime. Such reproaches are heard more and more actively both from political experts and officials. During his visit in Georgia several days ago, Francis Fukuyama, a prominent American political scientist, said that “there is sufficient evidence that Georgia is helping Russia… circumvent the sanctions imposed by Europe and the United States” (facebook.com, April 29).

On April 28, Ambassador James O’Brien, Head of the US Department of State’s Office of Sanctions Coordination, also pointed out the growth in the import of critical electrical equipment from Georgia to Russia, including chips and household appliances, which can have both civilian and military purposes in an interview with the Georgian edition of Voice of America, (amerikiskhma.com, April 28). On April 30, Georgian Defense Minister Juansher Burchuladze immediately reacted to the allegations: “These accusations need substantiation—all similar accusations that have been made so far, they have all been absurd and refuted” (interpressnews.ge, April 30).

Parallel to this, in April it became known that the leader of the Abkhazian puppet regime signed an order to partially lift the embargo on goods from Georgia, which was introduced in 2007. The goal of the Abkhazian ban was to emphasize their economic independence from Georgia; ordinary citizens were forbidden to transport even food products for their own consumption across the border. International sanctions against Russia forced the occupied administration to partially lift the embargo for individuals on a variety of products: seedlings; seeds and various planting material; domestic birds; pet food; agricultural machinery, equipment for the production of agricultural products; automobiles; spare parts and motor oils, etc. (jam-news.net, April 14).

It is noteworthy that half a year ago, food products with Georgian symbols began appearing in Abkhazian shops, depicting Georgian flags and a map of Georgia which included the territory of Abkhazia. This caused such a scandal that the prosecutor’s office of the puppet regime began investigating the case (jam-news.net, October 26, 2022). Economic problems are apparently pushing the puppet regime to weaken its twin goals of economic “sovereignty” and “independence” from Georgia. It is noteworthy that back in March 2022, shortly after the invasion of Ukraine and the imposition of sanctions, Moscow made it clear to the Abkhaz authorities that due to Western sanctions, Russia would be forced to gradually reduce its financial assistance to Abkhazia. Russian subsidies account for around half of Abkhazia’s budget. Back in the spring of 2022, during a visit to Abkhazia, the Deputy Minister of Economic Development of Russia, Dmitry Volvach, explained to the puppet regime that the Kremlin could no longer afford to be generous (jam-news.net, March 11, 2022).

At the same time, the present liberalization of the import of products from Georgia to Abkhazia can also contribute to the transformation of Abkhazia into a kind of transfer point for the transit of prohibited products from Georgia to Russia. But even without the possible use of the territory of Abkhazia for illegal transit, as local experts point out, the re-export of products manufactured in other countries, such as cars, and directly Georgian products, such as Georgian wine, has grown sharply. According to the Russian edition of “Komersant,” in the first quarter of 2023, Georgia became the second-largest supplier of wines to Russia after Italy (kommersant.ru, April 28).

At the end of April this year, it became known that, for example, the Russian bank “Tochka” launched foreign exchange transactions for entrepreneurs in Georgian Lari, in addition to US Dollars, Euros and Russian Rubles. The reason for this, according to representatives of Tochka, is the fact that Russia has become one of the main trading partners of Georgia. The Tochka representative noted: “Over the past year, the trade turnover between Georgia and Russia increased by 52 percent compared to 2021” (civil.ge, April 28). It looks very unreasonable when Georgia—which has all the conditions for strengthening trade and economic ties with the EU, thanks to a free trade agreement with the same—chooses the contrary, strengthening economic ties with Russia. This is especially heinous in the context of anti-Russian sanctions, greatly undermining the reputation of Georgian authorities in the eyes of Western partners; instead, Tbilisi is put on the same plane as the puppet regime of Abkhazia, filling the role of a Kremlin accomplice.