Abkhaz Delight at Closer Ties With Russia

Officials in Sukhum believe Moscow’s new policy towards them is helping them move further away from Georgia.

Abkhaz Delight at Closer Ties With Russia

Officials in Sukhum believe Moscow’s new policy towards them is helping them move further away from Georgia.

Abkhazia has reacted with delight to Moscow’s decision to open up much greater political and economic cooperation with the unrecognised republic.

On April 16, outgoing Russian president Vladimir Putin issued orders to create “mechanisms for the comprehensive protection of the rights, freedoms and legal interests of Russian citizens living in Abkhazia and South Ossetia”, and to allow Russian organisations to cooperate officially with the de facto government institutions in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, both of which broke away from Georgian rule after bloody conflicts in the early Nineties.

In his annual address to the Abkhaz parliament on April 22, President Sergei Bagapsh hailed the developments as a breakthrough for the republic.

“The instructions that Russian president Putin recently gave his government signal an end to the most serious constraints on cooperation between Abkhazia and Russia,” said Bagapsh. “Now our country can look forward to cooperating on an entirely legal basis with all Russian state structures, and on a wide range of activities.”

Bagapsh added, “We are looking forward to further, very significant steps from the Russian government, in the spirit of these recent developments.”

Two hours earlier, in an early indication of what the new moves will mean, the mayors of the Abkhaz capital Sukhum and the distant Siberian city of Ulan-Ude signed an agreement on economic cooperation.

On April 23, Bagapsh left for Moscow where he said he would discuss “a whole package of economic matters – and not just economic ones.”

There is speculation that Russia may open an official “representative office” in Sukhum.

The Abkhaz are hopeful that economic agreements will mean an inflow of investment and new construction projects for the 2014 Winter Olympics, which will take place just over the border in Sochi.

As economist Beslan Tsnaria said, “The construction materials – roadbuilding materials, sand, granite and so – which Abkhazia can supply to Sochi are extremely attractive in terms of price, quality and transportability. “

Tsnaria said Sukhum’s vast Babushera airport, which has been out of commission since the war of 1992-93, could again become a major transport hub for Russian planes.

In Abkhazia, there was widespread speculation that Moscow would respond to western recognition of an independent Kosovo by coming out more strongly in support of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in their ongoing struggle with Tbilisi.

In March, Moscow decided to withdraw from the sanctions imposed by the Commonwealth of Independent States against Abkhazia in 1996. This limited step was received with great disappointment in Abkhazia, which had been hoping for much more – possibly even full recognition as a sovereign state.

“Hopes for independence have been wiped away with the lifting of the embargo,” said a headline in one of Sukhum’s independent newspapers.

Bagapsh acknowledged this sense of disappointment in his address to parliament, saying, “I know that this decision sowed some disappointment in parts of our society – everyone was expecting immediate recognition of our independence. But we shouldn’t forget that our friends and partners have international obligations.”

Liana Kvarchelia, a leading non-governmental activist and analyst, welcomed the lifting of sanctions, saying it showed how Russia was prepared to step in where other international actors feared to tread.

“For all the talk of the geopolitical implications of lifting the blockade, one extremely important point that gets lost is that lifting the sanctions amounts to a partial restoration of justice for the people of Abkhazia,” she said.

“Today, alas, no one is ready to restore justice if it does not suit their geopolitical aims. What stopped Georgia, for example, from displaying the political will to be the first to end sanctions? What stopped the European Union or the United States from saying clearly that sanctions against Abkhazia do not help resolve the conflict and from demanding they be lifted?”

Kvarchelia said ordinary Abkhaz understood that they were part of bigger geopolitical games and that future actions by Moscow might be disappointing.

“Many Russian politicians don’t conceal the fact that they see the lifting of sanctions and closer cooperation with Abkhazia as an instrument designed to blunt Georgia’s desire to join NATO,” she said.

Currently, however, the mood in Abkhazia is one of optimism.

In government buildings, Abkhaz officials can be heard discussing in detail Moscow’s new doctrine, which suggests that “for now”, the republic will be offered almost everything short of formal recognition.

The “for now” wording implies that full recognition might be granted if Georgia is accepted as a member of NATO, a possibility which was implicitly agreed at the NATO summit in Bucharest earlier this month.

Inal Khashig is editor of the Chegemskaya Pravda newspaper in Abkhazia and co-editor of IWPR’s Panorama newspaper.

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