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Dependence Day, by Tom Balmforth

Russia Profile

Bagapsh Might Not Really Be a Moscow Puppet, but His Current Isolation Gives Him Little Choice

On a trip to Moscow on Wednesday Sergey Bagapsh, the president of the rebel region Abkhazia, inked a raft of deals with his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev, including one that will establish a joint military ground force in the breakaway Georgian republic. Georgia winced and NATO wagged its finger. The ten bilateral deals, apparently signed to improve Abkhazia’s security, include plans to upgrade an existing Russian base. Bagapsh also said the breakaway republic hopes to join the Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia Customs Union.

Days after president Bagapsh was inaugurated for his second term as president of the breakaway Georgian republic, he embarked on a three-day visit to Moscow. He was received by Dmitry Medvedev at the Kremlin yesterday to commemorate 200 years since Abkhazia, on one of a number of past occasions, was absorbed into the Russian empire.

In the run-up to this historic moment, the leader of the breakaway republic made some appropriate – and somewhat far-fetched – suggestions of how to further interweave Russian and Abkhaz futures, for instance bringing Abkhazia into the Belarus, Russia and Kazakhstan Customs Union (even though neither Minsk nor Astana have recognized Abkhazia as a sovereign state). Bagapsh also suggested that restrictions might be lifted to allow Russians to buy up Abkhazia’s prize real estate on the shores of the Black Sea where the Soviet elite used to go on vacation, the Kommersant news daily reported.

During the meeting, the leaders signed in a raft of deals on bilateral cooperation between Russia and the rebel region, recognized only by Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela and speck-on-the-map-in-the-middle-of-the-Pacific-Ocean Nauru.

Among other things, the presidents agreed to renovate the existing Russian military base at Gudauta, 37 kilometers north of Sukhumi, where 1,700 Russian troops are presently stationed. According to the deal, the base on the shores of the strategically important Black Sea will then host a “joint” ground force for the next 49 years. The accord will be renewed automatically every 15 years from then on, Itar-Tass reported.

The ten accords were promptly condemned by a disgruntled West. “All agreements reached between Russia and the regions of Georgia are invalid,” said Carmen Romero, the deputy spokesperson for NATO. Meanwhile Irakli Tuzhba, a spokesperson for the Abkhazian Foreign Ministry, insisted that the base and Russian troops are necessary to provide security.

Alexei Malashenko, a Caucasus expert for Carnegie Moscow Center, said he wasn’t at all surprised by the news, but that it guarantees Russia’s future in the country. “This basically is a permanent treaty. It means that Russia will remain on the territory of Abkhazia as a military presence,” said Malashenko.

There are currently 4,000 Russian military servicemen stationed in Abkhazia, Tuzhba said, but when asked how this will change with the establishment of a base and a joint ground force, he declined to comment. “I think the contingent will be increased if it becomes necessary, but there is no need at the moment, so the military contingent is not increasing,” he said.

Both Medvedev and Bagapsh were full of warm rhetoric during their press conference and keen to use weak points in cooperation as building blocks in their relationship. While for instance admitting that the $130 million bilateral trade between Abkhazia and Russia is somewhat paltry, Medvedev said “it is only the beginning, the first phase in developed trade links and the starting point for further work.” In fact the two leaders hope to sign in a further 22 deals to expand cooperation, they said. Bagapsh even revealed that Abkhaz railways will soon come under the full management of the Russian Railways company.

So is Abkhazia happily slipping from shaky pseudo-independence, unrecognized by the vast majority of the international community, into increasing dependence on Russia? Although this appears to be the only way to interpret the events of Wednesday, it would be misleading to see Bagapsh as a Moscow puppet, said Sergey Markedonov, an independent political analyst and expert on the Caucasus. This has been clear, he said, since Bagapsh won Abkhazia’s presidential elections in 2004, despite the Kremlin directly backing his rival. But the trouble for Bagapsh at the moment is that he has no other option, said Markedonov: “if five or six European countries did support Abkhazia, then maybe Bagapsh would favor European integration.”

“[Abkhazia] is not going to beg anyone to recognize it,” Bagapsh said on Tuesday. So far Russia has kindly undertaken the job of lobbying for Abkhazia’s “legitimacy.” But it was a dubious amount of legitimacy that was bestowed upon Abkhazia’s sovereignty when Moscow coaxed Nauru, an island of 11,000 people, into recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia in return for $50 million (150 million rubles) of humanitarian aid.

These additions are bound to do little to change Abkhazia’s situation, so does Sukhumi have to continue fully relying on Moscow? Abkhazia might find an alternative source of support in Ankara. Several analysts suggest that Turkey may come to recognize Abkhazia’s independence because of its large Abkhaz diaspora. “Turkey is ready to establish special relations with Abkhazia. I don’t know if they will recognize Abkhazia next year, but nonetheless they recognize the special position of Abkhazia,” said Malashenko.

To that extent, NATO members and Georgia are not the only countries to be wary of Russia expanding its military presence in Abkhazia. “I think Turkey is disappointed with this,” said Malashenko. Turkey has recently become increasingly influential in the Black Sea region. “The Kremlin sees Turkey as a big rival as far as all conflicts and problems in the region are concerned. Traditionally, Russia has played the role of mediator in the ‘frozen conflict’ of Nagorny Karabakh, but now Turkey is getting more involved,” he said. Whether Turkey’s hand could drag Abkhazia out of its total dependence on Russia is, however, still unclear.

Source: Russia Profile

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