Sergei Bagapsh, the self-styled president of Georgia’s breakaway region of Abkhazia, arrived in Moscow on March 11. The visit, originally scheduled for March 3, was postponed as many as three times. The trip was reportedly rescheduled due to Bagapsh’s 56th birthday, holidays in Moscow, persisting political instability in Abkhazia caused by the recent attempt to assassinate Abkhaz prime minister Alexander Ankvab (see EDM, March 3) and rekindled disagreement between Bagapsh and Raul Khajimba, Abkhazia’s vice-president.
Moscow had forced Khajimba on Bagapsh after Abkhazia’s disputed 2004 presidential election. The two men disagreed over the composition of the new cabinet. The newly created anti-Bagapsh “People’s Forum,” made up of 15 organizations, also disliked the way that Bagapsh had formed the government. In order to shore up his position at home before the Moscow trip, Bagapsh repeated the method he had successfully exploited during the heated election campaign.
Bagapsh arranged a meeting with the Council of Abkhaz Elders, an informal but highly influential body in Abkhazia, to be attended by Khajimba, Ankvab, and parliament chair Nugzar Ashuba. The formal reason for the meeting was to discuss ongoing problems in Abkhazia. Pavel Ardzinba, chair of the Elders’ Council, declared, “The unity of Abkhaz society must be the main task.” Bagapsh tried to assure the elders that there is no rift between him and Khajimba. “We are engaged in work and not in intrigues,” he stressed. However, Khajimba and Bagapsh traveled to Moscow separately.
The Kremlin reportedly dislikes Bagapsh’s relatively independent approach to Abkhazia’s future. Before his departure, Bagapsh tried to assuage Moscow by announcing plans to set up a referendum on associate membership in the Russian Federation. However, on March 11 the Russian State Duma voted down the relevant amendments to the Russian constitutional law proposed by the Rodina faction. The initiative sought to simplify procedures for incorporating new territories into the Russian Federation.
Although Bagapsh emphasized the economic content of his visit and met with Russian business leaders and Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, he also held talks with Yuri Zubakov, deputy secretary of the Russian Security Council.
The Abkhaz delegation did not meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Kremlin likely did not want to further aggravate Georgian-Russian relations, which were already strained after Tbilisi’s recent demand that Moscow withdraw Russian bases from Georgia (see EDM, March 14 and 15).
At a March 15 news conference, Bagapsh had messages for both Moscow and Tbilisi. Commenting on the vote in the Russian parliament, Bagapsh warned, “The Duma would do better to think first and then put the issue to a vote.” He said that Abkhazia is not anxious to join Russia.
Bagapsh also suggested that Abkhazia restart top-level negotiations with Tbilisi, but with a focus on economic cooperation instead of political issues. He named railways and energy as top priorities. Bagapsh reported that he had discussed the restoration of the railway branch from Russia to Armenia via Georgia and Abkhazia while in Moscow. As Kommersant noted on March 16, restoring this key transportation artery would connect Russia with Abkhazia and military bases in Armenia.
Several of Bagapsh’s proposals bore traces of Kremlin influence. He suggested transforming the Russian military base in Gudauta into a Russian-Georgian anti-terrorist center and objected to replacing Russian peacekeepers in Abkhazia with troops from Ukraine or any other source. “The Russian base in Abkhazia is a stabilizing factor…We do not intend to admit any forces but the Russian ones,” Bagapsh stressed. He also repeated statements about continuing to confer Russian citizenship and Russian passports on the Abkhazians and military preparations against possible aggression from Georgia.
Bagapsh likely wants to assure Moscow of his full loyalty, but at the same time he does not want to burn bridges with Tbilisi. His message about resuming talks and boosting economic cooperation were well received in Tbilisi.
On March 16, Gela Charkviani, spokesperson for President Mikheil Saakashvili, told a briefing that the Georgian President is ready to meet Bagapsh either in Tbilisi or Batumi (the capital of Ajaria) without any preconditions. Bagapsh’s last visit in Tbilisi was in 1998, when he was prime minister of Abkhazia.
Most Georgian politicians, including Parliamentary chair Nino Burjanadze, are amenable to Bagapsh’s proposals. The chair of the Parliamentary Committee for Foreign Relations, Constantine Gabashvili, said that Georgia must take steps in this direction and might even refrain from discussing political issues — including the status of Abkhazia — at this stage. But Vakhtang Khmaladze, co-author of a think tank proposal to create free-economic zones and trans-border economic cooperation on both sides of the Enguri River separating Abkhazia and Georgia, said the project has been shelved even though the government favored it.
Meanwhile, the respective militaries are taking matters into their own hands. On March 16, Abkhaz defense minister Sultan Sosnaliev reported that Abkhaz forces had prevented Georgian warships from seizing a Turkish vessel heading to Sukhumi. Georgian border officials denied the charge.
(Inter Press, March 9; 24 Saati, Izvestiya, March 10; Regnum, March 3-9; Rosbalt, March 4; Strana.ru, March 3; RIA-Novosti, March 14; Interfax, March 15, 24 Saati, Lenta.ru, Kommersant, Regnum, March 16)