Sergei Bagapsh, Eduard Kokoiti, and Arkady Gukasian, leaders respectively of Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Karabakh, spent most of this week meeting with Russian officials in Moscow. They also held a publicly reported meeting there among themselves on March 16. Transnistria leader Igor Smirnov was expected in Moscow for the March 16 meeting, but was advised at the last moment to delay his arrival. His public appearance in that meeting would have provided Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin with political ammunition against Russia’s “centrist” and leftist allies in Chisinau, who intend to unseat Voronin and force repeat elections when the new parliament convenes next week.
The three participating leaders made public a decision to convene a “summit” of the leaders of Transnistria, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Karabakh in April in Sukhumi. They cited “the tense situation around Transnistria and South Ossetia” as a justification for holding such meetings at this time. Bagapsh, Kokoiti, and Gukasian also met separately with the Russian presidential administration, government, military, and Duma officials without publicity.
Bagapsh, on his first visit to Moscow as leader of Abkhazia, reiterated the previous Abkhaz leadership’s position that economic cooperation issues must be resolved between Tbilisi and Sukhumi as a precondition to discussing any political issues; and that “Abkhazia’s political status can not and will not be a topic of discussion with Georgia,” because Abkhazia has already defined its status for itself, as Bagapsh told a news conference. (Interfax, March 16). Responding to Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s offer to meet with Bagapsh in Tbilisi or in Sukhumi, Bagapsh insisted that economic agreements would have to be prepared in advance for signing at such a meeting. Such emphasis on concluding economic agreements is a shortcut toward de facto equality of status between Tbilisi and Sukhumi while avoiding political negotiations.
Calling for reconstruction of the Abkhazia stretch of the railroad that runs from Russia via Georgia to Armenia, as envisaged by the 2003 Sochi agreements, Bagapsh ignored the Abkhaz authorities’ commitments under those agreements, which stipulated “synchronizing” railroad reconstruction with the organized and safe return of Georgian refugees. Furthermore, he announced that the process of handing over Russian citizenship to Abkhazia’s population would continue; and that returning Georgians would have to accept Abkhaz internal passports, with “dual Georgian-Abkhaz citizenship,” a possibility to be discussed. Bagapsh himself has “Russian citizenship and Abkhaz citizenship,” he said.
Abkhazia would “not allow any peacekeeping troops other than Russian to be deployed;” and, should Georgia exercise its legal right to ask the Russian “peacekeepers” to leave, an Abkhaz force would instantly be forward-deployed in their place,” Bagapsh warned. He also invited Russia to use the Gudauta military base permanently as an “anti-terrorist center.” (Russia has unilaterally re-designated Gudauta a base for “peacekeepers.”) During Bagapsh’s Moscow visit, the Abkhaz authorities announced that their coastal guard vessels had chased a Georgian cutter out of “Abkhazia’s territorial waters” and escorted a Turkish cargo ship safely to Sukhumi.
Bagapsh’s hard line is not necessarily his last word. He may have felt under pressure to please Moscow on his first visit there as Abkhaz leader — a position he owes to one faction of Russian intelligence services. While in Moscow he was flanked by his more hardline deputy and rival, Raul Khajimba, who is the favorite of another faction in Russia’s intelligence services. Moreover, Bagapsh was speaking in the wake of the assassination attempt on his ally, Alexander Ankvab, who is a moderate among Abkhaz leaders.
The Kremlin timed the secessionist leaders’ visit deliberately to overlap with Georgian-South Ossetian talks, held on March 16-17 in Moscow in the framework of the Joint Control Commission (JCC) under Russia’s “mediation.” The timing appeared designed to demonstrate that Russia can now overtly pursue a duplicitous policy — “mediator” in conflicts, as well as protector of secessionists — with impunity.
Georgia’s State Minister and representative to the JCC, Giorgi Khaindrava, was reduced to commenting plaintively about the secessionist leaders’ meeting, “What can I say about the creation of a separatist movement? I feel sad that this policy is being persisted with, and I don’t think that it would be to Russia’s benefit.” He went on to express concern that the holding of the secessionists’ summit in Sukhumi “could bring the negotiating processes close to collapse.” Nevertheless, Khaindrava promised not to bring up this issue in the JCC meeting. Although failure to bring up this issue in the JCC rewards the Russian “mediators’ ” duplicity, South Ossetian representative Boris Chochiev repaid Khaindrava’s restraint by accusing him of “interfering in the internal affairs of sovereign republics.”
Throughout the week, Russian government officials from Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov on down (with German Gref dissenting) warned that the government is considering imposing economic sanctions on Moldova, in response to the Duma’s two recent resolutions accusing Moldova of hostile actions against Transnistria.
(Interfax, March 15, 16, 17)