Richard Berge | Special to Abkhaz World
26th of August 2011 marks the day three years ago when Russia recognised Abkhazia as an independent state, but it also marks the day when the breakaway territory goes to the polls in snap presidential elections to elect a successor to the late president Sergei Bagapsh. On the aniversary of the 2008 August War, most of the media and commentariat on the Caucasus have focused primarily on Georgian-Russian relations and the conflict between these too countries, declining to look at the parallel conflict between Georgia and its breakaway territories, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Many in Georgia and among its western allies have become accustomed to viewing these two territories as “black boxes” where no meaningful political processes take place, and derogatory epithets like “occupied territories” and “puppet regimes” are routinely employed to describe these two territories. However, as anyone who has done serious research on political issues in the breakaway territories and in Abkhazia in particular can attest, the above characterisations are at best misleading, and at worst downright false.
Taking Abkhazia as an example, the term “occupied” poorly reflects the reality on the ground, as Russian troops present there are neither tasked with ruling the territory, nor with patrolling the territory, or policing the populace. Abkhazia has its own de facto government and state institutions, including an elected parliament with the power to make laws and an executive branch with an elected president to carry them out. According to journalists and NGOs operating in Abkhazia, the territory also has a vibrant civil society, political opposition and media, and Abkhazian elections are often described as one of the few in the post-Soviet space with actual diversity of choice and which outcome cannot be predicted in advance. As a consequence of this, Abkhazia as a territory was ranked as “partly free” by Freedom House in 2010, in the same category as Georgia.
The epithet “puppet regime” is not very accurate for Abkhazia either, where in the 2004 presidential election the electorate rejected the candidate put forward by Moscow to elect the late Sergei Bagapsh as president, even under the threat of civil war and massive Russian economic and political pressure. Abkhazia has also resisted numerous attempts by Russia to influence social and political life in the territory, and one of the most came in spring 2011, when Abkhazia declined to transfer a 160 sq. km. swath of the north western Abkhazian border to Russia in preparation for the 2014 Sochi Olympics, and the populace rallied at the New Athos monastery to defend the independence of the Abkhazian church from the Russian Orthodox Church, along with the right to continue to appoint their own clerics and conduct the church services in the Abkhaz language.
Regarding foreign policy, Abkhazia is no Kremlin tool either. Although all three candidates running in the current presidential election, including former Moscow protégé, Raul Khajimba, stress the importance of continued good ties with Russia, they are also interested in diversifying Abkhazia’s contacts, including with Europe and the West – and under the under the right conditions – with Georgia. Paradoxically, the very policy of isolating and ignoring Abkhazia that the West and Georgia have pursued for many years, and which has only intensified since the 2008 August War, has resulted in the Georgian and western influence on political events in Abkhazia being practically nil, and the possibilities of reaching a negotiated solution to the conflict between Georgia and its breakaway republics being as remote as ever.
Both the West and Georgia should see the anniversary of the 2008 August War and the elections in Abkhazia as an opportunity to reevaluate their perception and approach towards the breakaway republics, and to reengage both with their populations and with the de facto authorities in these territories. Otherwise, the prospect of lasting peace and stability South Caucasus might once again prove elusive.
Richard Berge holds a BA in Politics and Georgian language from the School of Oriental and African Studies at University of London, and a MA in Politics, Security and Integration from the School of Slavonic and East European Studies at UCL. He has worked for the Norwegian Embassy in Baku, Azerbaijan in 2009 and the European Centre for Minority Issues in Tbilisi, Georgia in 2010, focusing on human rights, freedom of information and minority rights in both countries. He is currently looking to publish his MA thesis on the political situation of the Armenian minority in Abkhazia.