Commentary: The View From Sukhumi

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 1 Issue: 80

Led by the Jamestown Foundation, a group of international analysts and journalists held in-depth talks recently in Sukhumi with self-styled “prime minister” Raul Khajimba, “minister of foreign affairs” Georgii Otyrba, and other Abkhaz representatives.

The Sukhumi leaders are citizens of Russia and seem imbued with a sense of loyalty to the Russian state, which has allowed their clients to run the local shadow economy. They exuded self-confidence, certainty of Russian support, and a satisfaction bordering on smugness. Their attitude is based on Russia’s muscle-flexing in the region and a belief that their intransigent positions need not be revised, as they are paying off.

Khajimba and other Abkhaz interlocutors ruled out a return of Abkhazia’s ethnic Georgian population. They claimed that the Georgians had simply left, not been ethnically cleansed. (Before the brutal 1992 conflict, Georgians constituted 45% of Abkhazia’s population, compared to 17% ethnic Abkhaz.) In the discussions with Jamestown, the Abkhaz leaders insisted that those Georgians’ “return to their homeland in Georgia” only showed that Abkhazia was not their homeland. The Abkhaz representatives divided those departed Georgians into three categories: 1) those who now live in Georgia — problem solved; 2) those who went from Georgia to Russia in search of work — also problem solved; and 3) those who eventually returned to Abkhazia’s Gali district with tacit Abkhaz permission.

The Abkhaz participants claimed that the last-named population group is not ethnic Georgian anyway, but consists rather of two distinct elements: Mingrelians and Georgianized Abkhaz. Such misleading claims are designed to excuse the Abkhaz leaders’ rejection of the return of most refugees, denial of Georgian-language education to those who did return to Gali, and attempts to promote a Mingrelian national identity artificially separated from Georgian identity.

Possibly reflecting narrow differences within their group, the Abkhaz leaders outlined two desired options regarding Abkhazia’s future legal status. One option is to join the Russian Federation outright; this did not seem to require elaboration during the meeting. Their other, equally palatable option (floated from time to time as trial balloons in Russia’s Duma and expert circles) envisages Abkhazia’s “association” with the Russian Federation. According to the Abkhaz leaders in this meeting, such “associate status” would include automatic dual citizenship, Russian and Abkhaz; allow Abkhazia’s residents to vote in elections to Russia’s Duma; include Abkhazia within Russia’s customs borders and the ruble zone; allow Russian and Abkhaz border troops to jointly guard “the border with Georgia”; and establish Russian military bases in Abkhazia for its “protection.”

The leaders professed optimism that Russian tourism could provide a solid economic basis for Abkhazia under that political dispensation. They indicated that “associate status” is their preferred choice, both on its merits and as a transitional solution toward outright accession to the Russian Federation. The accession option is almost certainly academic, while “association” with Russia is their operational goal for the medium-term. Meanwhile, the Abkhaz leaders appear fully aware of international political and legal constraints on Russia’s ability to put the “associated status” into effect. Content with present trends toward de facto absorption by Russia, Abkhaz leaders seem prepared to wait as long as necessary for the desired formal status.

Based on those confident expectations, the Abkhaz participants dismissed other constitutional options such as “wide autonomy in a federal Georgia” and a confederal relationship with Georgia. They refused to consider proposals made through the OSCE and UN and described international guarantees as “utopian” versus “genuine” Russian guarantees.

The Abkhaz leaders did not formulate their goals in terms of an ethnic-nationalist agenda, and they displayed little interest in conventional national-revival goals (language, education, statehood). Instead, they framed their argument in terms of loyalty to Russia as successor to the Soviet Union. On the whole, the discussion suggested that “ethnic conflict” is a misnomer for the situation in Abkhazia.

This discussion was held against a political backdrop that clearly encouraged intransigence. Over the summer Russian politicians Vladimir Zhirinovsky and Dmitry Rogozin separately descended on Abkhazia to demonstrate concern for the “rights of Russia’s citizens.” Zhirinovsky arrived aboard a Russian gunboat, which he turned over to Abkhaz forces as a gift. Russian state and private economic entities are rapidly taking over Georgian state properties in Abkhazia and establishing railroad and shipping links with the region, without permission from Georgia. The Russian departure point of those shipping and railroad lines is Sochi, where Russian President Vladimir Putin vacations.

Among the most striking features of the Sukhumi discussion was the Abkhaz leaders’ view that they need not factor the West in their political calculations. Clearly they expect a continuation of the Western passivity that has left Georgia essentially face-to-face with Russia in Abkhazia for a decade. They appear convinced that all significant issues will be decided in and by Moscow, with them and for them. Clearly, the West’s pallid role here, just as in South Ossetia, boosts these leaders’ self-confidence and obduracy.