On July 31, a Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry statement approvingly confirmed that a Russian company has begun maintenance work on the Sochi (Russia)-Sukhumi (Abkhazia) railroad. That railroad is legally Georgian, but is controlled by Russia and the Abkhaz. The Russian move violates the March 2003 Russian-Georgian Sochi agreement, whereby restoration of the railroad in Abkhazia may only proceed in parallel with the safe return of Georgian refugees to Abkhazia, beginning with the Gali district. Moscow and Tbilisi have reaffirmed this linkage many times since then. Meanwhile, there has been no progress on the return of refugees. Thus, unilateral Russian actions on the railroad violate the Sochi agreement and affect the credibility of Russian President Vladimir Putin, a signatory to the agreement.
That linkage remains a centerpiece of Georgian policy, as reaffirmed in late July by Georgia’s president, prime minister, and foreign affairs minister during meetings with Armenia’s leaders. Yerevan is keenly interested in reopening that railroad, but respects Georgia’s position that links this issue with the refugee issue.
Moscow’s July 31 statement totally reinterprets the Sochi agreement. Postulating that the agreement’s “main goal was to promote trust between Georgia and Abkhazia,” and blaming Georgia for the deadlock on the refugee issue, Moscow now argues that progress must be sought where feasible, namely on the railroad issue. Such arguments suggest that Moscow feels free to reinterpret agreements with weak parties as it sees fit (Interfax, July 31, August 2)
On July 26 through 29, the Russian-armed Abkhaz military held a staff-and-command exercise that rehearsed emergency mobilization of 15,000 reservists, and ended with battalion-level combat practice. The exercise also included what Abkhaz authorities described as coast guard boats recently acquired from a [unnamed] third party.
Those boats, however, apparently failed to react on July 31, when a Georgian coast guard cutter machine-gunned a Turkish-owned, Abkhaz-flagged cargo vessel, which failed to respond to warning signals, one nautical mile off Sukhumi. The vessel, engaged in unauthorized trade, had entered Georgia’s waters from Russia’s, and limped into Sukhumi, damaged but without injuries to crew. The Abkhaz authorities claim coastal waters as “Abkhazia’s territorial waters.” On August 1, citing this incident as an excuse, Abkhazia suspended its participation in the Russian-mediated talks with the Georgian government (Interfax, July 27-August 2).