Russia’s Ursine Embrace of Georgia’s Abkhazia Province: Ongoing Annexation with Larger Geostrategic Consequences

By Giorgi Kvelashvili

On February 16, the Russians summoned to Moscow Sergei Baghapsh, the leader from the occupied Georgian region, shortly after his inauguration as “president of Abkhazia.” The occasion, dubbed “a state visit”, was used by the Kremlin to impose on the impoverished and depopulated Georgian province ten new “agreements” meant to tighten Russia’s military grip in the strategically important Black Sea region.

The military aspect is just part of Moscow’s larger scheme, which, as the agreements explicitly show, also has significant political, economic, social and demographic dimensions. It is worth remembering that Georgia’s Abkhazia province is adjacent to Sochi, home to the 2014 Winter Olympics, which is seen by Russian Prime Minister Putin as an affair of utmost state importance. Putin has less than four years left to complete Abkhazia’s de facto annexation if he wants to avert Tbilisi’s protestations and international complications immediately before the Olympics.

Still, the agreements that the Russian leaders have signed with their client in the occupied Georgian territory could also be viewed as a blueprint for agreements they would aspire to conclude with Tbilisi should they succeed in overthrowing President Saakashvili’s liberal government, and in bringing pro-Russian forces to power in Georgia. The implications of this would first and foremost would mean a heavy Russian military presence all across Georgian territory and well beyond.

Out of ten agreements Moscow has now imposed on the regime it created in Abkhazia, one deals with the establishment of the “united Russian military base” at Gudauta, which, incidentally, must have been long closed in light of the provisions of the OSCE Istanbul Summit of 1999. The economic package of agreements allows Russia to “legitimize” the de facto takeover of the Abkhaz section of the Georgian railway system, establish direct air connection with Abkhazia without first seeking Georgian consent and monopolize the banking system in Abkhazia, which already has the Russian ruble as its currency and receives some subsidies from the Kremlin. The maritime cooperation agreement is to impose Russian rule over the Abkhaz segment of the Georgian Black Sea coastline and cooperation on migration, emergency situations and environment, and as part of the “social package,” Russia is to further incorporate Abkhazia into its social fabric.

Tellingly, during Baghapsh’s trip to Moscow, the State Duma—Russia’s legislative organ—released a statement marking the 200-year anniversary of the ukase issued by Russian Tsar Alexander I in 1810, the results of which turned Georgia’s Abkhazia principality into a Russian protectorate in the course of the Russian Empire’s gradual expansion to the Caucasus, and annexation of Georgian kingdoms and principalities in addition to the North Caucasus. This statement was made in an effort to reconnect the present-day development with the imperial experience of Tsarist Russia and to more precisely show the world what type of relationship the Kremlin aims to develop with the now “sovereign” Georgian province. The Duma declaration was understandably silent on the brutal massacres and deportations Muslim Abkhaz and Circassians were subjected to by Russian tsars throughout the 19th century in their bloody attempt to tame the Caucasus by changing its demographics.

Abkhazia, now almost depopulated as a result of yet another brutal ethnic cleansing, this time of hundreds of thousands of Georgians and other “alien elements” that Russia helped to coordinate in the early 1990s, could become re-populated again in the run-up to the Sochi Olympics. Under intense Russian pressure, Baghapsh is forced to give the Russians a right to acquire property in Abkhazia, while pledging to never allow Georgians to return to their homes except for the southernmost Gali district where Georgians living in ghettos are not even allowed to travel to other parts of Abkhazia. In light of the Russian policy legitimizing the result of the ethnic cleansing, Baghapsh recently stated: “[Efforts should be made] to help displaced [Georgians] to adapt to life in Georgia. That would be the right thing to do.” What a contrast given Russian leaders’ PR declarations that they love the Georgian people in comparison to the Saakashvili government.

There is no doubt that Moscow views Abkhazia as another Russian “republic” and Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian president, intentionally revealed this attitude at a press conference on February 17 when he said: “We are developing our interregional ties. The city of Moscow has been active in this respect, as have [been] some other Russian entities, especially those neighboring Abkhazia, Krasnodar Territory, for example. Other regions are also showing interest in developing relations [with Abkhazia].” Baghapsh’s words at the press conference, though, attested to yet another aspect of Russia’s expansionism. He said, “We began working on the agreements signed today a long time ago, before [the] recognition of our independence.” This statement unambiguously showed that even though Russia formally respected Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity before the August 2008 invasion, annexation efforts had been in full swing for “a long time” before the “recognition.”

As expected, Tbilisi’s reaction to the Kremlin’s Abkhazia annexation efforts was swift. The concluding part of the Georgian foreign ministry’s condemning statement of February 17 read, “the Kremlin regime should remember that they will answer for all committed crimes, including, and first of all, for criminal actions committed against Georgia, as its predecessor, the Soviet Union, answered for the crimes in Katin, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland and Afghanistan before the international community.”

Many in Georgia fear, however, that the international community is doing too little to stop Russia’s annexation of Abkhazia and allege that Moscow’s Abkhazia policy is just one small part of a larger scheme aimed at the restoration of Moscow’s domination over the whole of Georgia and the Caucasus. If Moscow’s attempts are not vigorously countered today, they contend, Russia will only intensify its efforts to bring about a regime change in Tbilisi, which would have serious geostrategic consequences not only for Georgia but the United States and the West as well.