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Markedonov: 'Politics is the art of the possible'

Sergei Markedonov

Demis Polandov - Ekho Kavkaza

PRAGUE --- The Parliament of the self-proclaimed republic of Abkhazia has received from Moscow a draft of a new treaty with the Russian Federation on union relations and integration. Abkhaz parliamentarians will work on this document for a period of two weeks in order to present their version of the agreement. The document covers a wide range of issues - from defence, security to the social sphere. We shall discuss this agreement live with the political scientist Sergei Markedonov from Moscow.

Demis Polandov: Sergei, the theme of a new treaty surfaced in Abkhazia back in the spring. Both during and after the May events supporters of former President Alexander Ankvab said that his removal from office was directly linked with his due to his reluctance to sign such a treaty with Russia (at that juncture it was called an Association Agreement with Russia), that Ankvab refused to renounce the sovereignty of Abkhazia. Then this topic vanished during the election campaign, and here we are discussing an agreement on alliance and integration. You have probably already familiarized yourself with it. What do you think, wouldn’t the signing of the document in its current form possibly mean the loss even of the relative independence that Abkhazia has today in relations with Russia?

Markedonov: Speaking about the situation in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and about the unrecognized republics of the post-Soviet space in general, I would not make a fetish of any treaties. Much develops in the format not of the legal, but of the practical plane. Well, this treaty will appear. From the point of view of most of the international community, it has no force whatsoever, insofar as most of the international community recognizes Abkhazia as part of Georgia. As for the asymmetric relations between Russia and Abkhazia, they existed before the agreement, and I think they will continue to exist afterwards. For that reason, what  is important is not so much some specific formulation in the text,  as the real problems on the ground. And they are as follows: after Russia recognized the independence of Abkhazia in 2008, there are very serious contradictions between Abkhazia’s aspiration to build  independent statehood and its real and growing dependence on Russia in terms of security, defence, economic development, social support, etc. .The question is how to resolve this contradiction and how to keep in check the extreme poles of this contradiction?

Demis Polandov: Why then is a new treaty necessary, if in principle the paper is not so important in this case as the real relationship?

Markedonov: Good question. Politics is always the sphere of the symbolic. True, if there are no symbols, it will be perhaps business, maybe some kind of mafia activities, et.c. Where there is symbolism, that is where politics begins. The post-Soviet space is currently experiencing a very serious transformation of the former status quo. The previous assumptions that existed prior to the Ukrainian crisis, to the Crimea, have been discarded, they are being re-evaluated. This situation has been accelerated by the signing and ratification by the Georgian Parliament of the Association Agreement with the European Union - a kind of demonstrative, symbolic idea that Georgia is moving towards the West. Understandably, this signing has not yet brought about any radical change, visas have not been abolished for Georgian citizens, Georgian diplomas are not recognized in Europe, and many other things - but a certain symbol has come into being. I think that Moscow and Sukhum are now trying to find some kind of symbolic response to this as proof that Abkhazia is making a different choice - let's call it the Eurasian integration or the pro-Russian vector. I think that this treaty reflects what we could call these post-Crimea, post-Ukraine  realities.

Demis Polandov: Sergey, it is difficult all the same to compare Georgia's Euro-Atlantic integration and this treaty, because we are talking about totally different levels of integration. In fact, we can say that if you look at the agreement in the defence sector, specifically the points that relate to the borders, you can in fact say that the Russian border has been moved to [the river] Inguri. You said that on the one hand, this is a formality, but, on the other hand, the international community does not recognize it, but it's hard to imagine that anyone can ignore this fact.

Markedonov: The Russian FSB Border Directorate for Abkhazia was created, as far as I remember, back in 2010 without any agreement. Didn’t this mean the border had been moved? It did.

Demis Polandov: Yes, we can almost say that. But once the Psou river no longer marks the border, and the draft treaty contains such a formulation, that free access, except for matters of security ...

Markedonov:  Those are cautious wordings. There is no mention of the complete abolition of the Russian-Abkhaz border, many gaps remain to be filled.  Even if we talk about the previous treaty, it will not be annulled in connection with the new contract. What’s more, Moreover, in the section setting out the motivation it says that the treaty is being adopted to develop and deepen and so on [the previous one]. Of course I don’t mean to compare Georgia’s European and Abkhazia’s pro-Russian integration -there are different mechanisms and motivations here - I'm talking only about the symbolism. This is a kind of demonstration that Abkhazia makes a different choice, it is not linked to Georgia and Georgian foreign policy priorities. For that reason I would not say, the way many of my colleagues in the shop in Russia do, that the pro-Russia option is the natural one for Abkhazia. Politics is the art of the possible. As long as the pro-Western vector will be clearly linked with Georgia, there will be no competition of specific geo-political or foreign policy ideas in Abkhazia as long as dead link between Georgia and the pro-Western vector exists. As soon as it ceases to exist or is somehow concealed for various reasons, then we'll talk again and return to this issue.

Demis Polandov: I agree with you that there are indeed some cautious formulations. For example, I did not notice in the treaty a point on opening up, for example, the Abkhazian real estate market to Russia. There are numerous references pointing to additional agreements. What do you think, what is Russia’s goal in this integration? Are there forces within the Russian authorities who would like the total integration of Abkhazia, simply to incorporate it into Russia?

Markedonov: I don’t think they want to incorporate Abkhazia directly or for it to become a guberniya within Russia; they probably want to create the most favourable conditions for big business, the question you raised of liberalization; they probably also want to facilitate and strengthen Russian positions in the field of security and defence; but not Abkhazia’s entry into the Russian Federation. After all, Russia has been working with Abkhazia for years, and it must be admitted that along the way there have been mistakes, blatant infringements. I think both the positive and the negative experience teach that Abkhazia is vastly different from South Ossetia. In particular, this concerns the Abkhaz’ anxiety with regard to their own statehood. Yes, today many people may laugh and say that it is not full statehood. Indeed, if statehood is not fully recognized, doubts and criticism may arise, but, be that as it may, such aspirations exist. Quite recently I was at a roundtable in Sukhum on Russian-Abkhaz relations and I deliberately quoted specific definitions by representatives of Abkhazia, and there were affirmations that Abkhazia values its statehood, that it is an inalienable right, [a source of] pride, etc. I am not aware of such anxiety in the South Ossetian case. That is why I think the realization that such anxiety exists will cool hot heads, because whether we like it or not, I repeat, politics is the art of the possible, and there are many restrictions for all those who “want” and “dream.”

Demis Polandov: I would even add that especially now, any discussion of this agreement will be very difficult. Judging by what Abkhaz Internet users are currently writing – the perception is quite critical - and they analyze individual points, for example, the point about a separate Coordinating Centre for the Ministry of Internal Affairs raised questions. It is understandable why a joint military grouping is needed in case of aggression, and so on, but people cannot understand why the Interior Ministry structures need to be merged. I would like to ask you a question which is slightly expands our theme: there is a clause in this agreement on defence, and what specifically interests me is how all this will be agreed  with the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the system of collective security which includes Russia and a number of states of the post-Soviet space. The fact is that [the draft treaty]  says that if one of the contracting parties is subjected to aggression by any state, it is considered as an aggression against the other contracting party as well. Suppose we take the absolutely hypothetical situation, that the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict resumes due to the actions of Georgia, and Russia immediately declares itself the victim of aggression. How will the other CSTO members react in this situation? Isn’t Russia presenting the participating countries of this Union and the integration processes in the post-Soviet space generally with a fait accompli, despite the fact that they do not recognize Abkhazia?

Markedonov:  The answer how they will react is more or less clear – the same way they did in August 2008, that is they will watch carefully who is winning and defend their own interests. There’s no other alternative. I think that this item was introduced specifically for Georgia – it is a signal in the event of trying to defrost the conflict. If until 2008 this was the realm of guesswork, will Russia will support [Abkhazia] or not, it is now abundantly clear: Russia’s status as a patron country is clearly declared. What will be the attitude of the other CSTO member states? Again, in the first instance they will give priority to their own interests, they will not be over the moon about such things but after all, Russia is not inviting the CSTO member states to accede to this treaty – it’s a Russian-Abkhaz treaty. From the point of view of Kazakhstan and Belarus, it’s as though it didn’t exist, because neither Minsk nor Astana, nor even Yerevan or Dushanbe recognize the existence of Abkhazia as an independent state foreign policy actor. I think they will simply ignore this situation, and Moscow itself, in fact, will not try to force the CSTO to take any part in resolving Abkhaz problems - this is a bilateral Russian-Abkhazian format, the format of asymmetric cooperation, and it does not extend to the CSTO as an institution.

Demis Polandov: Sergei, what will all this lead to in terms of Eurasian integration? It is clear that these processes are gaining momentum, they came to some kind of culmination, but Abkhazia and South Ossetia are still on the sidelines. That document states that within a given time frame legislation and so on must be brought into conformity with the position of the Eurasian Council,  but can we say that there is a real possibility that Abkhazia and South Ossetia could be formally recognized within the next 1 ½ to 2 years by the states of the Eurasian Union?

Markedonov: I would not be so optimistic, speaking of a culmination of Eurasian integration. These are just the first steps. Many questions concerning the ultimate goals and the strategic objectives of Eurasian integration have not been formulated in an intelligible way.

Demis Polandov: Well, at least it’s happened, for a long time there were doubts whether it actually would.

Markedonov: Of course, but these are just the first steps. We see that these steps are in fact quite difficult. We can look Armenia’s experience in its accession to the EAEC - this too was not spontaneous, and there are undercurrents there too, both within Armenia itself and in the attitude of the other EAEC members to the new partner who is joining. There are many difficulties of its own, because, from my point of view, the Eurasian Union and Eurasian integration clearly register a couple of things. The first is that the CIS as a model for Eurasian integration is a thing of the past, the recent summit showed that apart from the shared theme of victory in World War II there are in fact no special mechanisms to hold it together, such as a common past. Putin himself has called the CIS the instrument of a civilized divorce, but you can’t build a strong family on a divorce.  There is a realization that something new is needed, a circle of selected allies, which will actually try to solve common problems, rather than waste time on arguments and discussions, which is why certain problematic republics of the former Soviet Union are being cut off. But as yet there are more questions than ready answers about how everything should end as a result.  As for Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the rhetoric of Eurasian integration will of course persist, but I don’t think that these specific  republics will be recognized and included in the Eurasian Union. Even Belarus, which, incidentally, is formally a member of the union state with Russia, i.e. the highest degree of integration - it's not even the Eurasian Economic Union, it’s a union state.

Demis Polandov: So you think that here in the medium term nothing will change here?

Markedonov: I think that there are all sorts of extraordinary circumstances that you and I are not factoring in. A year ago, hardly anyone would have been so bold as to suggest a change in the status of Crimea. Anything can happen, but I do not think that for, let’s say, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Armenia, the status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia will undergo any serious change, unless some extra-ordinary changes take place.

This interview was published by Ekho Kavkaza and is translated from Russian. 

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