Autonomous Republic: what was the political background of Putin's visit to Abkhazia, by Sergey Markedonov

putin and khadjimba

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) meets with Raul Khajimba, President of the Republic of Abkhazia, on August 8.

Sergey Markedonov

Unlike South Ossetia, which is interested in very deep integration with Russia, Abkhazia is trying to retain its special rights concerning republican resources and citizenship.

On August 8, 2017, Vladimir Putin paid a working visit to Abkhazia. This is the fourth visit of the Russian president to the republic since Moscow recognized its independence. However, this diplomatic trip stands out from the earlier ones. It was timed to coincide with the ninth anniversary of the start of the "five-day war", which significantly changed the situation in Transcaucasia. And the entire outward display of the Putin visit demonstrated that Moscow is not going to change the decisions it took in 2008. The Russian president publicly promised to maintain the independence and security of Abkhazia. Naturally, we are not talking about abstract principles, but about the political existence of the republic outside the Georgian political and legal orbit.

Two republics

But Putin's visit is interesting not only and not so much by reason of its symbolic content. The question arises, why the president chose Abkhazia, and not South Ossetia, for his visit. After all, nine years ago, the "small war that shook the world" (in the figurative expression of [the late] American diplomat and expert Ronald Asmus) began with the attack by Georgian troops on the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinval. Of course, after the signing of the Moscow Accords in 1994, the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict was frozen, Tbilisi's attempts to change the state of affairs were made repeatedly. Just take the "Small War in Gal" in May 1998, the raid in the Kodor Gorge in October 2001, or the incidents with drones in the spring of 2008. But in the days of "Hot August" nine years ago the Abkhazian front was not the main one, it merely aggravated the political situation of Georgia.

One supposes that there are several reasons explaining Moscow's special attention to Abkhazia. In comparison with South Ossetia, Abkhazian élites (in both power and opposition) are in favour of maintaining a certain independence from Russian control. A couple of years ago in a private conversation one influential local politician admitted to the author of this article that his republic "does not want to be a part of Greater Sochi". It is better that you will not tell! This does not mean that Sukhum is trying to manoeuvre between different centres of international politics. Such manoeuvring would be meaningless, because, except for Russia, no-one is offering the republic what it has thanks to the patronage of Moscow. However, unlike South Ossetia, which is interested in greater integration with Russia, even before joining it, Abkhazia is trying to retain its special rights concerning republican resources and citizenship. Hence the attempts to curb the penetration of Russian business into Abkhazia in spite of economic benefits, and a protective policy regarding granting Abkhazian citizenship, and unwillingness to open a real-estate market. It is significant that the word "integration", proposed in the first version of the text of the bilateral Russian-Abkhazian treaty, was excluded from the final version.

Autonomy and loyalty

Perhaps Moscow would agree to Abkhazian particularism, after all, even within Russia itself, there are many examples of a "special path". Especially in the North Caucasus, where Chechenia, led by Ramzan Kadyrov, is the most vivid precedent of this kind. A certain logic in this approach, despite the considerable costs, is available. Loyalty to Russian politics is worth some exceptions to the general rule, although a separate issue is how to control these exceptions. However, in the case of Kadyrov, one can appeal to a certain stabilization of the situation (it is already not the first year that the republic has not been the leader in the number of terrorist attacks). In Abkhazia, from day to day there are situations that raise unpleasant questions not only for the republican authorities, but also for Moscow. Reports of criminal incidents, the victims of which are tourists from Russia, were widely discussed by Abkhazian bloggers and civil activists. There have also been explosions in army warehouses, and complications in the relations between the government and the opposition, and yet the republic has been, and still is, characterized by pluralism and a high level of political competition.

Anyway, in December of last year during the visit of Raul Khajimba to Moscow Vladimir Putin instructed his Abkhazian counterpart: "... We very much expect that the situation will be under control, will not go beyond the legal field, because otherwise It is quite difficult to implement our plans for economic interaction. Naturally, when there is some kind of internal swaying, then it's not the time to talk of roads, hospitals, and schools."

The Kremlin is interested in Abkhazia, like South Ossetia, becoming a project proving the attractiveness of Russia for its current and potential partners and allies. And indeed, when you visit both republics and talk with people, you notice that for them the "Georgian stage" is history. And they would like to live in the present and the future, to complete the protracted transition from a state of "besieged fortress" to development. Human rights activists, students, and staff of the presidential administration are united in this. The issue is in the quality of management, personnel and decision-making.

The scenarios described above in all likelihood will fail to become the focus of information-attention in terms of the results of Putin's trip to Abkhazia. The front pages of newspapers and the headlines of news-agencies will be dominated by a comparison of the trip to Abkhazia by the Russian president and the recent visit be US Vice President Michael Pence to Tbilisi. In reality, both these visits only consolidate the status quo, which ended the "five-day war" nine years ago. The two former autonomies of Soviet Georgia have found themselves under the patronage of Russia, whilst "Georgia Proper", as Germany’s Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel styled it, has come under the protection of the collective West.

But the most important thing today is not the continuation of the victorious boastings that resounded in August 2008 but substantial changes in those parts of Transcaucasia that linked their future with Russia and its support. To paraphrase Ernest Renan, not only the nation but also political choice is a daily plebiscite. Relying on inertia and past merits in this business is a thankless task. It is necessary to learn to solve the problems of today and to respond to new challenges that were considered unimportant nine or 15 years ago against the background of ethnopolitical conflicts.

Sergey Markedonov
Associate Professor, Department of Regional Studies and Foreign Policy, Russian State University for the Humanities.

This article was published by and is translated from Russian. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of AbkhazWorld.




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