Akhra Aristava: "First recognition, and then trade and economic relations"
Ekho Kavkaza -- The visit of the President of Abkhazia, Aslan Bzhaniya, and the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Inal Ardzinba, to Belarus, as well as the Abkhaz-Belarusian relations, have been commented on by economist Akhra Aristava, who lived and worked in Minsk for twelve years. He believes that the country's leadership made a mistake and violated the continuity of the foreign policy course during this visit.
Did you follow the visit of the President of Abkhazia, Aslan Bzhaniya, to Belarus and his meeting with Alexander Lukashenko? Do you understand the purpose of this visit?
Most likely, this is a courtesy visit. There was a visit of Alexander Lukashenko to Pitsunda and a return visit of the President of Abkhazia to the Republic of Belarus. Additional comments were given by the Minister of Foreign Affairs (Inal Ardzinba), who said that the focus is on establishing trade and economic relations, primarily. Unfortunately, there is a loss of continuity in politics.
What contacts were there before, what was their essence, and why is the continuity broken?
Contacts, of course, existed. I attended a meeting in 2001 between the deputies of the People's Assembly of the Republic of Abkhazia and the deputies of the National Assembly of the Republic of Belarus. The discussion was about which path to take next. The deputies of the National Assembly of the Republic of Belarus firmly and confidently stated that the Republic of Abkhazia would achieve recognition of independence, as all the grounds for it were there. And only after the recognition of the Republic of Abkhazia, it would be better to talk about trade and economic relations.
The first president of Abkhazia, Vladislav Ardzinba, despite the severe blockade, insisted on recognition first and then on trade and economic relations. After Vladislav Ardzinba, in 2008, there was a meeting between Sergey Bagapsh and Alexander Lukashenko. Then too, Lukashenko suggested opening a trade mission, but Bagapsh did not agree. The question was about the recognition of the independence of the Republic of Abkhazia. That is, the policy was consistent, and there was continuity. Unfortunately, in 2011, after the sudden death of Sergey Bagapsh, many professionals left the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Abkhazia. And foreign policy issues and the work of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs are primarily issues of professionalism.
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I'll give you one example: when there was an earthquake in Chile, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Abkhazia donated tents to the Chilean people and citizens who lost their homes before the United States government did. And all the tents had the coats of arms and flags of the Republic of Abkhazia. By the way, Maxim Gvindzhia headed the Ministry of Foreign Affairs then. And now, when there were earthquakes in Turkey and Syria, we all saw what the reaction was.
Why did the first president of Abkhazia and the second president of Abkhazia insist on recognition first?
Because it made sense, it showed that Abkhazia would not make any concessions on the issue of sovereignty and independence, that it was a closed issue for the Abkhaz people. Today, when talking about trade representation, the status is lowered in the negotiation process. And why did the deputies of the National Assembly of the Republic of Belarus, I don't remember which session, directly say that this is the path of Taiwan, the path of Northern Cyprus, and Abkhazia should not go down this path and establish trade relations, because then it will be very difficult to achieve recognition of independence! And why open trade representation now when there is no recognition, this is a big mistake. We know that negotiations were underway with many Latin American and African countries that were close to the issue of recognising our independence.
How will they react now?
They will think that this is enough for Abkhazia. That is why I said earlier that this is unprofessionalism and there is no firm policy, no continuity.
Do the Republic of Abkhazia and the Republic of Belarus have trade and economic relations today?
Yes, they do. These relations have been in place since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and they have always been warm. I believe you may recall that the Republic of Belarus strongly opposed the decision to blockade the Republic of Abkhazia by CIS countries, and Alexander Grigoryevich Lukashenko was particularly outspoken on this matter. Following the lifting of the blockade by the Russian Federation in 2000, trade relations between the Republic of Belarus and Abkhazia improved significantly. This is evident from the wide range of Belarusian goods available in our retail chains, such as refrigerators, gas stoves, and food products. In fact, we even have several stores called "Belarusian Products".
Do Belarusian goods go to Abkhazia from Russia or directly? What is the route?
The trade goes directly, there are contracts and agreements. That is, logistics and delivery go through Russia, but the contracts are all direct from the Republic of Belarus. Until 2015, there was a large flow of tourists. There was a study by the Center for Strategic Studies under the President of Abkhazia in 2009, at that time we had about 80% of tourists from Russia, about 14% from Ukraine, about 5% of the tourist flow was from the Republic of Belarus and 1% from other countries.
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Akhra, a message recently appeared that the President of Abkhazia issued a decree to extend visa-free travel. Please explain what the current regime with the Republic of Belarus is and comment on this decree.
This is again the consequence of unprofessionalism. The fact is that in 2014, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs prepared a draft law and submitted it to parliament (at that time, the Minister of Foreign Affairs was Viacheslav Chirikba). In 2015, I worked in the government, but unfortunately, we did not have time to react, and it was adopted. The draft law stated that a visa regime would be introduced with all countries except the Russian Federation. No matter how hard we tried to fight it, the only amendment we managed to make to the law was that the regime would be established by the President of the Republic of Abkhazia.
The law reduced the tourist flow from Ukraine and the Republic of Belarus by more than 10%. Abkhazia's losses from this law amounted to from one to 1.5 billion rubles per year. That is, if citizens of Ukraine and the Republic of Belarus previously accounted for almost 19% of the tourist flow, now 95% of the tourist flow is made up of Russian citizens, and only 5% are from other countries. Such a colossal mistake was made!
There was a balance in trade with the Republic of Belarus; tourists from the Republic of Belarus spent significant amounts in Abkhazia, and the Republic of Abkhazia bought a large range of goods from Belarus. After the adoption of this law, we had a trade imbalance: we buy goods in the Republic of Belarus, but the number of tourists from there has decreased tenfold. Naturally, this law is very damaging; it played a negative role. All international agencies reported that Abkhazia was introducing a visa regime with all countries, as if we were North Korea. We are a tourist country, but unfortunately, a big mistake was made, especially against the backdrop of the fact that the Republic of Georgia passed a law on occupied territories. This situation needs to be corrected, the law needs to be repealed or revised. Unfortunately, in one law, two directions were mixed up. This law attempted to regulate relations with labour migrants, but instead, it hit the tourism industry. Two completely different laws should have been written to regulate relations with labour migrants and external political and economic directions.
What are the prospects and what kind of relationship does the Republic of Abkhazia have with the Republic of Belarus?
There are great prospects, but the question of recognition of independence needs to be brought to the forefront again because in 2008, if you remember, Alexander Lukashenko drew attention to the fact that if he recognises Abkhazia, there will be a large array of Western sanctions, and he will suffer. Now there is already a large array of Western sanctions in fact, so I do not see any obstacles in today's situation to recognise the Republic of Abkhazia, and then move on to establishing trade, cultural, and sports relations. We have a 2014 agreement between the Russian Federation and the Republic of Abkhazia. In the preamble of the agreement, the Republic of Abkhazia defined its vector as Eurasian integration. And in the same agreement, it is written that Abkhazia is striving for broad international recognition, and the Russian Federation will assist and support it in this. The question of broad international recognition should be the number one issue!
This interview was published by Ekho Kavkaza and is translated from Russian.