On December 1, Russia’s government introduced a set of blockade measures against Abkhazia for the declared purpose of preventing the inauguration of president-elect Sergei Bagapsh, victor over the Moscow-backed candidate Raul Khajimba in Abkhazia’s October 3 presidential election. Gennady Bukayev, an aide to Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov, announced the sanctions at a news briefing in Moscow.
The measures, mainly economic but also apparently entailing some military aspects, include: cutting off the railway connection between Abkhazia and Russia; severely restricting cross-border passage for Abkhaz residents and transport at checkpoints manned by Russian border troops on the so-called “Russian-Abkhaz border” (legally a section of the Russia-Georgia border); quarantining the transport of Abkhaz-grown citrus fruit to Russia at that border; placing Russia’s coastal navy on alert along that border’s maritime sector; and preparing for a complete blockade, “If further unlawful actions by Bagapsh result in a further deterioration of the situation in Abkhazia.”
Bukayev was explicit about the sanctions’ political purpose: “The Russian leadership supports the legitimate Abkhaz president Vladislav Ardzinba’s decision to stage a new election for Abkhazia’s presidency. Bagapsh and the criminal organizations that back him are trying to seize power by force of arms. The Russian leadership has made its earnest decision in order to prevent the escalation of violence and ensure the safety of Russia’s citizens. These measures are not directed at the people of Abkhazia and will be lifted as soon as the situation stabilizes” (Interfax, NTV Mir, December 1).
It was apparently on November 25 that the Kremlin decided to step in forcefully and reverse the momentum in Abkhazia toward recognition of Bagapsh as winner and his scheduled inauguration on December 6. Consequently, and characteristically, Moscow’s rhetoric is now “criminalizing” the president-elect, notwithstanding the fact that he has been declared winner by Abkhazia’s electoral commission, legislature, high court, and other bodies that Moscow itself had all along touted as Abkhazia’s lawful bodies. The invocation of “Russia’s citizens” is key to the above-referenced statement. Having conferred its citizenship en masse to Abkhazia’s residents, Russia has until now used this fait accompli to claim rights of protection over them. Now, however, Moscow uses the same argument in claiming a right to impose sanctions on “its” citizens. In sum, Russia reserves the right to deal with “its” citizens as it sees fit. The message to Abkhazia is that “stabilizing the situation” means overturning the election of Bagapsh as a condition for lifting the Russian sanctions.
The sanctions’ impact could be devastating. Employment in Russia (often in the shadow economy) and cross-border shuttle trading are survival matters for Abkhazia’s residents. In winter, citrus fruit exports to Russia are the main source of revenue. The “temporary” sanctions are timed precisely to the citrus harvest in Abkhazia and the pre-Christmas peak of Abkhaz citrus sales in Russian cities.
Governor Alexander Tkachov of Krasnodar Krai (adjacent to Abkhazia) had called for the imposition of sanctions on November 22-23, publicly urging that the border be closed in response to the political situation in Abkhazia. He added a call for stopping the payment of pensions to Abkhazia’s freshly baked Russian citizens, unless Bagapsh yields ahead of December 6 (Itar-Tass, Interfax, November 22-23). Tkachov’s statements often seem out of line because he belongs to the establishment’s ultra-nationalist fringe. However, it sometimes turns out that he heralds government decisions shortly before these are officially announced. For example, in August 2003 he urged the construction of the dam in the Kerch Strait toward Tuzla Island, encroaching on Ukraine’s territory — a move that soon turned out to be Russian government policy. In June 2004, Tkachov threatened that Cossack and other “volunteers” would be sent to South Ossetia against Georgia; they were indeed sent and advertised by Russia’s authorities shortly afterward.
The economic sanctions are clearly designed to pressure Bagapsh’s supporters into withdrawing their support and accepting Ardzinba’s decision to stage a new presidential election. But even the Russian government functionary Nodar Khashba, a native Abkhaz recently installed as prime minister in Sukhumi to support Ardzinba and Khajimba, opposes the sanctions. Within hours of the Russian government’s announcement, Khashba told Russian media, “Ordinary inhabitants, an overwhelming majority of whom are Russia’s citizens, must not be made to suffer.” Khashba announced that he would appeal to the Russian government to rescind the sanctions, implying at the same time that Moscow’s political demands should be met (Itar-Tass, December 1).
In Sukhumi, the outgoing and deeply ailing president Ardzinba — or those acting in his name — and hard-line pro-Moscow groups are using the argument that a Bagapsh presidency would irreparably damage Abkhazia’s relations with Russia (the sanctions are cited as evidence) and conversely, overturning the election result and staging a new election are prerequisites to restoring relations with Russia. Ardzinba’s November 29 proclamation, and an accompanying statement by paramilitary groups supporting him, vows to stop Bagapsh supporters from duplicating in Abkhazia the current events in Ukraine or the earlier ones in Tbilisi, Ajaria, and Serbia that led to regime change (Apsnypress, November 29).