Will Abkhazia Become the ‘Georgian Monaco?’

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 20 Issue: 9

(Source: Т - Ж magazine via OC media)

On December 28, 2022, Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili remarked that the breakaway Autonomous Republic of Abkhazia, which has been under Russian control since 1993, “has huge potential for turning into another Monaco and Abkhazian capital Sukhumi—into the new Monte Carlo” (Tabula.ge, December 27, 2022). In this, the Georgian prime minister underlined: “In general, I wish to say that our shared goal should be the unification of our country. It is the prime aim and idea, around which our nation and country should all be united.” He further argued, “[Abkhazia’s and South Ossetia’s economies] are fully subsidized (by Russia) and … it is a missed opportunity for our Abkhazian and Ossetian brothers and sisters. In the case of unification, we could invest about $10 billion in the first three years in Abkhazia and Samachablo [South Ossetia, another breakaway region of Georgia].”

Garibashvili also mentioned that Abkhazia’s state budget, as it currently stands, is no more than $200 million. He added that the Georgian government has already “conceptualized” the framework for such an approach. “We had a discussion around this matter at the Economic Council Meeting. … Abkhazia has great potential to become the second Monaco and Sukhumi the second Monte Carlo.”

He immediately added that Tbilisi’s policy toward Abkhazia would be “a gesture of reconciliation. … Our intention is to resolve the conflict only with peace, to end this horrible tragedy and to reconcile to make sure that all live together in a strong Georgia—a European Georgia,” the Georgian leader concluded (Tabula.ge, December 27, 2022).

The Abkhazian authorities did not comment on the Georgian premier’s statement, though Garibashvili’s promises became the main topic of emotional discussion on the breakaway republic’s social media channels. In the past, subsequent Georgian leaders have tried to lure Abkhazians back with promises of “a comfortable life in the future Caucasian Switzerland,” though this “Switzerland” was never built.

The “silence” from the Abkhazian government on this matter can be explained by the fact that Moscow closely monitors Sukhumi’s reaction in these circumstances. In truth, Abkhazia is completely dependent on Russia for its economic, financial and military-political needs. As such, the popular and influential Abkhazian journalist, Inal Khashig, who often “voices” the position of the Abkhazian authorities on key issues, published an article in the weekly newspaper Chegemskaya Pravda, in which he expressed a negative attitude toward Tbilisi’s initiative. Even so, at the same time, Khashig formed a “road map for Georgia” if the Georgian government really hopes to build support among the Abkhazians (JAMnews. December 29, 2022).

To this, Khashig points out, “Before offering the Abkhazians, as a free society, Monaco with Monte Carlo, Georgians must repeal the Georgian law ‘On the Occupied Territories.’”—the law adopted by the Georgian parliament in 2008 after the Russian invasion of the country. This legislative act declares Abkhazia and South Ossetia “occupied territories.” Khashig promises that, after the repeal of the law, Abkhazians “will think whether to be Monaco or not. It is unlikely that they will agree [with the Georgian proposals], but they will look at Georgia a little differently than they have been, at least for the past 30 years” (JAMnews. December 29, 2022).

Georgian experts were no less skeptical of Garibashvili’s statements. Paata Zakareishvili, who served as the Georgian state minister for reconciliation and civil equality from 2012 to 2016, said in a January 6 interview with this author that Garibashvili “made a serious mistake” by mentioning Monaco and Monte Carlo: “Monaco is an independent state and Monte Carlo is the capital of this independent state,” Zakareishvili contended. According to the former state minister, thus, comparison with Monaco can be interpreted as Tbilisi’s consent to change the status of Abkhazia as de jure part of the Georgian state (Author’s interview, January 12).

Another independent expert, economist Paata Sheshelidze, is sure that the announcement of Abkhazia as a “potential Monaco” is wishful thinking: “Firstly, even if one believes that Georgia can attract such huge investments for the development of Abkhazia, it is not clear where investors will invest their capital—in the region or Georgia? Today, the sovereignty of Tbilisi does not extend to this region.” The expert also drew attention to another critical factor: “Georgia is not very attractive for investors due to many problems, including centralization” of government decision-making (Author’s interview, January 12).

And yet, an additional perspective was offered by David Avalishvili, an expert with the independent analytical outlet Nation.ge, in a January 12 interview with this author: If we consider Garibashvili’s statement in the context of recent events in the region, as well as Russian-Abkhazian relations and the war in Ukraine, then the Georgian prime minister clearly played “his game” (Author’s interview, January 12).

According to Avalishvili, throughout Russia’s all-out aggression against Ukraine, Georgia, together with Azerbaijan, has become a crucial transit corridor and transport hub for the wider Eurasian region (see EDM, September 15, 2022). Consequently, Baku and Tbilisi initiated new transmission lines to deliver energy to Europe, and international interest in these alternative routes is growing (see EDM, November 30, 2022).

Thus, Georgia is becoming more attractive to the Abkhazians. Even if the Abkhazian authorities do not recognize this, simple statistics confirm that increasing numbers of Abkhazians “go to Tbilisi to receive medical care, study at universities or buy luxury goods; these goods are much cheaper in Georgia than in Russia,” Avalishvili concluded (Author’s interview, January 12).

However, a much more important factor may be the growing disagreement between Moscow and Sukhumi on the question of real independence for Abkhazia from Russia. Completely dependent on assistance from the Russian Federation, the Abkhazian authorities, nevertheless, stubbornly refuse to comply with several non-negotiable demands of the Russian authorities.

One is the refusal to transfer the state dacha in the famous seaside resort of Pitsunda into Russia’s possession. This is part of the reserve with an area of 184 hectares and a relic park covered in Pitsunda pine trees. Putin wants this estate as a possible summer residence (Amerikishhma.com, July 20, 2022).

Additionally, Moscow is demanding that the energy sector of Abkhazia be transferred to Russia and that Sukhumi grant permission to Russians to freely buy apartments in Abkhazia (Georgianjournal.ge, February 9, 2022). If the Abkhazian authorities continue to refuse, Moscow is hinting that the breakaway republic will face an existential challenge: no salaries, no pensions, no restoration of infrastructure, no loans and no Russian tourists.

Garibashvili is well aware of this situation. By voicing comparisons with Monaco, he sends a clear message to the Abkhazians: While Georgia cannot offer them everything, it does have much of what Russia offers, sometimes at cheaper prices. Moreover, none of the Georgian leaders are demanding a “dacha” on the Black Sea coast for themselves.

Indeed, it will be revealed in the near future whether the Abkhazian leaders can rely on Tbilisi’s promises to curtail Putin’s “appetite” by signaling that Abkhazia already has an alternative to Russia: neighboring Georgia.