On August 17 in Moscow, Abkhaz leader Sergei Bagapsh openly confirmed the political program of Abkhazia’s secession from Georgia and de facto merger with Russia. Speaking at a specially organized, widely covered news conference, he outlined a set of legislative, economic, and military measures to that end.
According to Bagapsh, the handing over of Russia’s citizenship of Abkhazia’s residents has almost been completed: 84% of the current residents have Russian citizenship, and 70% of the pensioners receive Russian state pensions. Both figures should reach close to 100% within the next six to 12 months, Bagapsh stated. In parallel with this, the Abkhaz legislature is engaged in consultations with Russian counterparts about bringing Abkhazia’s “laws” in line with the Russian Federation’s legislation. Bagapsh stopped short of identifying those Russian legislative consultants, and his percentage figures did not take into account the ethnically cleansed Georgians, who had formed a plurality of Abkhazia’s pre-1993 population.
The merger of “Abkhaz citizenship” with that of Russia has advanced far enough for Abkhazia to request Russian authorities to accept the transfer of Abkhaz common-law convicts to serve their sentences in Russian prisons. Pleading poverty, the Abkhaz “parliament” chairman, Nugzar Ashuba (a Bagapsh supporter in the Abkhaz internecine rivalries) made that proposal in the course of the visit to Russia.
According to Bagapsh, Abkhazia is entitled “as any country” to possess an army. Abkhazia does not criticize Western assistance to Georgia’s army and it claims by the same token the right to receive Russian military assistance for the Abkhaz army, he argued. According to him, the army numbers 10,000-12,000, not counting reservists. Abkhazia covers some 20% of its military budget (implying that Russia covers 80%), and 70% of Abkhazia’s military personnel have Russian citizenship, he said. Moreover, “An influx of military specialists from Russia is under way. These are mainly middle-rank personnel … we gladly accept vehicle drivers, naval petty officers, border troops personnel” (Interfax, August 17).
That remark suggests that Moscow and Sukhumi may prepare to create and station “Abkhaz border troops” on Abkhazia’s “borders” and create a fledgling “Abkhaz” coast guard, in addition to the army. Bagapsh also reserved the right for Abkhazia to “invite” senior military officers from Russia if necessary. He omitted the fact that Abkhazia’s “defense minister,” “chief of staff,” and some other non-Abkhaz senior officers are seconded from Russia’s military to the Abkhaz army. Under the command of those two Russian generals this week, the Abkhaz “permanent battalions” along with reservists are conducting the largest military exercise since the 1992-93 Russian military intervention against Georgia in Abkhazia.
Russia and Abkhazia intend to reopen and use in their interests the “Abkhaz” section of Georgia’s state railway irrespective of Georgia’s position, Bagapsh told the news conference. Russian state-connected companies will cover the costs, estimated at $130-150 million. Technicians from Russian Railways initiated that work last week. Similarly, Russian companies are scheduled to begin on September 10 the reconstruction of the main motor highway in Abkhazia, from the Russian to the Georgian “border,” without regard to Georgia.
A delighted Bagapsh announced that Russian tourism in Abkhazia this season is set to approach “Soviet-era levels,” with more than 1 million vacationers ensuring more than 50% occupancy of Abkhazia’s accommodation capacities, despite those facilities’ admittedly dilapidated state. Bagapsh displayed confidence that Russian tourism would become the main source of sustenance to Abkhazia’s economy. He did not mention the fact that Russian state and private entities are buying up choice properties in Abkhazia on the cheap, and without regard to Georgia’s rights as legal sovereign or the rights of those lawful owners who have been turned into refugees.
Bagapsh displayed no interest in a political settlement with Tbilisi other than some form of recognition of Abkhazia’s secession. As a first step in that direction, he called for the signing of a Georgia-Abkhazia “agreement on security guarantees,” which he said might be signed along with economic agreements by himself with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. As he did earlier this month (Regnum, August 8), Bagapsh again challenged Saakashvili to “take a historic opportunity” and recognize Abkhazia’s secession from Georgia.
Repeatedly during the news conference, Bagapsh referred to the goal of Abkhazia’s accession to the Russian Federation as an “associated unit.” He and his Russian handlers know that such an option is both unrealistic and unnecessary. Moscow encourages Sukhumi (and also some of Moscow’s own, officially licensed hardliners) to raise this dramatic prospect in order to make the gradualist steps and demands appear moderate by comparison. Those steps and demands are directed toward the incorporation of Abkhazia by Russia de facto, without requiring risky or controversial precedent setting in international law, and without shaking the international community out of its complacency.
(Interfax, RIA-Novosti, Prime-News, August 17, 18; see EDM, August 1, 10, 16)