Putin Aide Surkov Pressures Abkhazia Into Joining Russian Sanctions Against Turkey

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 17 Issue: 2

On January 12, the government of Abkhazia published a statement that paves the way for the breakaway Georgian region to join Russian sanctions against Turkey. The move further reduces Abkhazia’s political autonomy and pushes it into Moscow’s arms. Bilateral trade between Abkhazia and Turkey in 2014 was estimated to be $200 million, only a little less than the $290 million in trade between Abkhazia and Russia. Estimates of the size of the Abkhaz diaspora in Turkey range from 200,000 to one million people, while there are only about 120,000 ethnic Abkhaz in Abkhazia itself. Since there are no direct transportation links between Turkey and Abkhazia, Russia is the only possible transit point that members of the Abkhaz diaspora can use to travel to the territory. However, Russia reintroduced a visa regime for Turkish citizens, which means members of the Abkhaz diaspora who want to visit Abkhazia will have to obtain Russian visas and will face additional hurdles during their visits (Kavkazskaya Politika, January 14).

Abkhazia will receive no benefits for joining Russian sanctions against Turkey; yet, the territory followed Kremlin orders. Russia officially recognized Abkhazia as a sovereign state along with South Ossetia, another breakaway Georgian territory, in 2008 following the short but bloody war between Russia and Georgia. No other significant country other than Russia recognized either Abkhazia or South Ossetia. Hence, Abkhazia heavily depends on Russian military and financial support.

Acting in the capacity of a Russian presidential aide, Vladislav Surkov played a pivotal role in persuading Abkhazia to join the sanctions. Surkov claimed Moscow realized that Abkhazia and Turkey had many ties and tried to implement only targeted sanctions against Turkish companies. The current president of Abkhazia, Raul Khajimba, who is a former employee of Russia’s security services, reassured Abkhazia that the sanctions would not harm its economic interests (Sputnik-abkhazia.ru, December 29, 2015).

Meanwhile, many Abkhazians, including politicians, were startled by the government’s decision to join the Russian sanctions regime. A local parliamentary deputy, Beslan Tsvinaria, said the sanctions would hit the Abkhaz diaspora in Turkey and undermine Abkhazian efforts to gain greater international recognition among other countries despite Georgian opposition (Ekhokavkaza.com, January 12). Other Abkhaz say that they do not like being manipulated by Russia. Along with a “stick,” Surkov also offered the Abkhazians a “carrot”—about $50 million in Russian financial assistance (Kavkazskaya Politika, January 14). At the same time, Moscow promised to finance increased pensions for Abkhazian residents who hold Russian passports (Sputnik-abkhazia.ru, December 29). However, some Abkhazians doubt that Russia will keep its promises, given how quickly Russian finances are deteriorating.

Amid the rising Russian-Turkish tensions, some Turkish airlines, such as the budget carrier Pegasus Airlines, have started to experience difficulties in servicing their flights to Russia and the North Caucasus. On January 5, the company was forced to suspend flights to Russia, because its crews had not been granted Russian visas (Lenta.ru, January 5).

The fact that the government in Sukhumi acted against Abkhazia’s interests is not the biggest puzzle in this breakaway region’s move to join the Russian sanctions against Turkey, given that regional authorities receive adequate financial assistance from Moscow and depend on Russia for their security. Rather, the puzzling aspect of the move is how much effort Moscow is willing to make to keep tiny Abkhazia under its tight control.

Vladislav Surkov currently has the modest title of aide to Vladimir Putin. For some time, Surkov’s influence in Putin’s administration seemed to be waning. However, his recent meeting with US Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland in Kaliningrad, where the two sides discussed Ukraine, indicates that Surkov’s influence in the Kremlin remains considerable, given that the Ukrainian question is arguably among the most important issues for Russian foreign policy (Unian.info, January 15).

It turns out that the person who was dispatched to resolve issues of the highest priority for Russia and President Putin was at the same time participating in arm-twisting the Abkhazian government to pressure it into severing ties with Turkey. Abkhazia apparently plays a significantly more prominent role in the thinking of the Kremlin than commonly assumed. The Kremlin is likely thinking about Abkhazia’s strategic location on the Black Sea coast, along with Crimea, which makes both territories especially valuable for the Russian government. Thus, Moscow is prepared to invest a lot of effort to push for greater control over these areas. Rationality is not necessarily a part of the Kremlin’s calculations in Abkhazia, apart from the logic of continual territorial expansion and control. Moscow may be sensing that its financial capabilities will soon plummet drastically and is attempting to finalize its ownership of Abkhazia to the extent possible.

Despite Russia’s efforts to remove the last barriers to Abkhazia’s annexation, the Abkhazians still resist allowing foreigners (predominantly Russians) from buying real estate in the republic without restrictions. The Abkhaz are scared of turning into a minority in what they see as their republic (Ekhokavkaza.com, January 6).