Moscow Tries to Seduce the Circassians and Abkhaz With Plans for New Highway

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 16 Issue: 23

On November 24, Russia’s TASS state news agency announced the signing of the international project for building a highway connecting Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachaevo-Cherkessia to Abkhazia. The new highway would cut across the Caucasus Mountains and connect the central North Caucasus to Abkhazia in the South Caucasus. The plan is to build an airport in the vicinity of Nalchik, Kabardino-Balkaria’s capital, and a sea port in Ochamchira, a city on the Black Sea coast of the breakaway Georgian region of Abkhazia. The new infrastructure project is thought to connect elements of the existing infrastructure in the North Caucasus and the South Caucasus to create jobs and improve the overall economic situation in the area. Cost estimates for the project are $2.7 billion. The signatories are the Chinese corporation China Railway Group Limited and the Russian company Regionalnye Proekty (Regional Projects). The latter is affiliated with the Russian state corporation Vnesheconombank, which is supposed to fund the project, to start in 2016 and conclude in 2025. Delegations from Abkhazia, Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachaevo-Cherkessia were present at the signing of the memorandum in Moscow and all hailed the agreement. Karachaevo-Cherkessian, Kabardino-Balkarian and Abkhaz authorities pledged to support the project, citing hopes to reap benefits from increasing tourism and boost related services and businesses (TASS, November 24).

Although the project emphasizes Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachaevo-Cherkessia, the highway could potentially connect the entire North Caucasus to Abkhazia and the Black Sea, using the shortest route possible.

Despite all of the project’s benefits, it is unlikely to be implemented any time soon given Russia’s current and the projected financial problems as well as the politics. The resurrection of the so-called Sukhumi Military Road (Voenno-Sukhumskaya Doroga), which connected Abkhazia to Karachaevo-Cherkessia until 1946, has been floated by Moscow and Circassian activists several times in the past several years. But even when the financial situation of Russia was relatively stable, the project encountered formidable political obstacles (Kavkazsky Uzel, July 6, 2010).

The North Caucasians were happy to support the project in general, but the Abkhaz had strong reservations about the project. The previous president of the breakaway Georgian region, Aleksandr Ankvab, officially declared he was against building the highway. The Abkhaz are a small ethnic group and have feared being swept away by much larger neighbors, including the more numerous North Caucasians and, above all, ethnic Russians. So, a highway connecting Abkhazia to Russia was seen by many in the former as a threat rather than a benefit. The awareness of the Russian threat was even more acute in Sukhumi as talk about the “integration” of Abkhazia and Russia intensified. Even now, after Moscow managed to install Raul Khajimba, a much more docile head of Abkhazia than previous leaders, the Abkhazian government has some reservations. “Abkhazia was a mere observer at the ceremony for the signing of the memorandum and does not bear direct responsibility,” said Abkhazia’s vice president, Vitaly Gabnia. “However, we are interested in the project, support it and are prepared to take part in the working group. After the working group concludes its work, we will show the agreement to the [Abkhazian] public” (TASS, November 24).

Moscow has its own reasons not to build a highway that would connect Circassian lands to Abkhazia and, potentially, to the outside world via the Black Sea ports. Circassian activists have been increasingly vocal about their rights and inclined to strengthen ties to their ethnic kin outside the North Caucasus and Russia. Moscow is unlikely to be willing to facilitate links between the Circassians and the outside world, especially given that Turkey, which has a large Circassian population, is nearby.

Still, it is interesting that Moscow has periodically raised the issue of building such a highway even though it has never intended to build it. Given the current financial situation, Russia is less likely than ever to build the highway. Any Russian plans extending beyond 2016 up to 2025 should not be taken seriously at all, given how unpredictable the country’s economic state is. Russia’s primary motivations regarding the reconstruction of the Sukhumi Military Road include the long-term goal of annexing Abkhazia and the short-term goal of appeasing the North Caucasian elites. In Moscow’s thinking, the North Caucasian elites, especially, the Circassians of Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachaevo-Cherkessia, would be so thrilled by the prospect of new revenues related to the highway project that they would convince the Abkhazian government to lift the few remaining restrictions to Russia taking over Abkhazia. Thus, on the one hand, the North Caucasian elites would be happy about the prospects of receiving future revenues themselves while, at the same time, they would do the Russians’ job of convincing the Abkhazians to surrender their remaining limited political autonomy to Moscow. An additional bonus for Moscow is to signal the Chinese government that it welcomes Chinese companies in the country, even though the financing of this particular project is, ultimately, highly unlikely to proceed.