Don’t Forget Abkhazia

17 03 2006

Georgian Messenger
17 March 2006

While Georgia and Russia focus their efforts on addressing the potential for renewed conflict in South Ossetia, a series of provocative events and statements coming from Abkhazia should not be overlooked.  In fact, a number of mixed messages from Abkhazia are ripening the region’s political environment for advances toward peace.  Unfortunately, Tbilisi might be too preoccupied or temperamental to take notice.

For more than a decade, Abkhazia has been siphoning resources and support from Russia for no other reason than because Russia continues to offer them.  Ethnic Abkhazians have no more allegiance to Russia than they do to Georgia; after all, Abkhazia was also subject to the iron fist of Soviet rule.  Yet after breaking off from the rest of Georgia, Abkhazia desperately needed a pillar to rest on, and Russia provided that—again, not out of loyalty to Abkhazians, but merely to maintain its influence in the rapidly westernizing south Caucasus and Black Sea region.

Since then, officials in Sokhumi, the Abkhaz capital, have been juggling various agendas and realities by filtering them through a unique public relations paradigm.  In the long term, by nearly every calculation, it is very much in Abkhazia’s interest to reintegrate with Georgia, rather than reintegrate with Russia or become independent.  With Russia straying further from democratic norms, the colossus would only swallow and assimilate Abkhazia, much like it did to a number of Russian states just north of Abkhazia.  Georgia, on the other hand, is on a direct (albeit slow) path toward westernization, with all the economic and political benefits that accompany such a transition.

Sokhumi knows this, and in particular Sergei Bagapsh, the unrecognized Abkhazian president, sees that a healthy revival of his nation’s economy is tied to its reintegration with Georgia.  As a result, Bagapsh wants to be courted by eager Georgian officials to get as much as he can for his constituency.  Specifically, Bagapsh knows he has no bargaining power (in Tbilisi) without Russian backing, but Moscow would never support a regime intent on abandoning it for negotiations in Tbilisi.  As a result, Abkhazian officials have to express loyalty to both Russia and Georgia, but each in a different way.

Consider that in various interviews, Sergei Bagapsh threatened that Abkhazians would defend South Ossetia (Georgia’s other separatist region) if the nation was provoked.  He has also said that some of Georgia’s recent behavior amounts to “pure terrorism”, and warned that Abkhazia would defend its own borders if its Russian peacekeepers ever withdrew.  As if to prepare for such a scenario, it was quickly announced that more than 4000 Abkhazian reservists are to be called up by Sokhumi for a three-day training exercise on March 21—joined by two motor-rifle brigades, the air force, artillery and other special units.

Yet in other recent interviews, Bagapsh indicated that Tbilisi could lure Abkhazia back to the republic with Georgia’s “economy and wisdom, [not its] rattling swords.”  And unlike nearly all of his official Russian and Ossetian counterparts, Bagapsh even said he was confident that the conflicts in Georgia would not escalate.

Amidst these same developments, Abkhazia is making significant improvements to its infrastructure.  Free public transportation now connects the Gali region (on the Abkhaz side) with Zugdidi (on the Georgian side); after 13 years of darkness, four regions of Abkhazia are now powered by the recently renovated Adzyubzha substation; and an agreement was just reached on the rebuilding of the railway systems linking Russia with the Caucasus, through Abkhazia.  At the power plant’s reopening, Bagapsh said he was certain other Abkhaz assets would be renovated and that “more labor resources should be involved in the energy sector.”

One of Russia’s greatest assets in the region has been Abkhazia’s function as a mostly depopulated, undeveloped and isolated buffer between Russia and the south Caucasus.  So any substantive economic development in Abkhazia threatens Russia’s regional control.  Moscow, however, can tolerate these improvements, provided that Abkhazia continues to provide Russia with the most important kind of loyalty in Moscow’s lexicon: loud threats of violence against Georgia.  As a result, Abkhazian officials are quietly improving their state’s economy and infrastructure, hoping later to have enough bargaining power on its own that it will not need Russia to survive, or even thrive.  Only then would Sokhumi consider reintegrating with Georgia; but in the meantime, Abkhaz officials are barking at Georgia as loud as they can.

Quite remarkably, this strategy is working.  Bagapsh’s military threats against Tbilisi made great headlines throughout the Georgian and Russian media, while improvements in Abkhazia were hardly noticed.  In other words, Bagapsh’s military threats reassure Moscow, and his talk of the Georgian economy reassures Tbilisi.  Except Georgian officials are not getting this message; they only hear the threats.

The fact that Sokhumi is even mentioning a potential reintegration with Georgia is quite significant, if only because, in contrast, South Ossetian officials are explicitly demanding reintegration with Russia.  What’s more, Abkhazia is Moscow’s love-child—a tropical paradise and geopolitical asset to Russia’s regional influence.  And yet Bagapsh is still receiving Russian praise and official summons to visit the Kremlin, despite his subtle hints—through word and gesture—to Georgia.

In comparison, Moscow views South Ossetia as merely a useful thorn in Tbilisi’s side, something to keep Georgian officials busy and hamper their strides toward NATO and eventually EU membership.  Unlike Sokhumi’s balanced messages, South Ossetian officials are not showing any kind of loyalty to Georgia or its ideals.  More importantly, Abkhazia’s improving infrastructure—coupled with Bagapsh’s simultaneous statements about Georgia’s own potential for economic development—illustrate an opportunity (perhaps even an invitation) for Tbilisi to harness Abkhazia’s progressive momentum.

Tbilisi’s ability to entice Sokhumi (as Bagapsh indicated) is dependent on Georgia’s overall influence in Abkhazia, which becomes both cheap and easy as Abkhazia returns from its decade-long, incommunicado blackout.  Yet Georgian officials for years have continued an economic blockade on the Abkhaz border with Georgia, as a superficial expression of Georgia’s anger at the unruly breakaway province.  In the information age, however, blockading Abkhazia becomes less valuable and more detrimental to Georgia’s goals with every passing week.

With more electricity and transportation, Abkhazians could watch more televisions, listen to more radios, buy more western products and embrace more tenets of western culture.  For many societies this is not the case, but unlike Fidel Castro’s Cuba, for instance, Abkhazia is already showing a preference for western values and development—and without ever having been pummeled with liberal propaganda.  Compared to Russia, Georgia is in a much better position to encourage both Abkhazian development and culture simultaneously; they merely need to discover this for themselves.

If Georgia provides the television and radio programs, and minimizes the difficulties for Georgia-Abkhaz commercial ventures, Georgia can imprint on the Abkhaz consciousness a direct association between prosperity and western values.  But the longer Georgia waits, the weaker this association will be; and by the time Tbilisi finally opens the border, Abkhazia will have already developed its palate for the practice of independence, and not just its principles.

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