Abkhaz Opposition Fear Growing Russian Influence

Issue likely to dominate December elections, but in reality Abkhazia’s options constrained by dependence on Russia.

Abkhaz Opposition Fear Growing Russian Influence

Issue likely to dominate December elections, but in reality Abkhazia’s options constrained by dependence on Russia.

Abkhazians have ceased to worry about renewed war with Georgia since Moscow recognised their independence a year ago, but now opposition politicians fear their government is surrendering hard-won freedoms to Russia.

Russia and Nicaragua are the only countries that consider Abkhazia to be an independent state, following its unilateral declaration of independence from Georgia in 1991, meaning initial hopes that the Black Sea territory’s foreign policy could be “multi-vectoral” - looking towards Russia, Europe and Turkey - have been stillborn.

In the year since the August war between Russia and Georgia, Abkhazian president Sergei Bagapsh has signed deals giving Russia control over the border with Georgia proper, the Abkhazian railway network and airport, as well as rights to search for oil off its coast.

“We are constructing our independent state. We are dependent on Russia in the same way every European member of NATO depends on NATO for its security,” Bagapsh said.

“Abkhazia cannot on its own restore its railway and exploit it.”

But his opponents are not so sure, and are newly confident under the leadership of Raul Khadzhimba, who ran against Bagapsh in closely-fought elections in 2004 and served as his vice-president until he resigned in May. He is now planning to run again in new elections set for December.

Khadzhimba accuses Bagapsh of selling out Abkhazia’s interests, and pushing through ill-thought-out agreements for short-term commercial gain. He spoke at a congress of the opposition Forum of Abkhazian National Unity on July 24, leading it to adopt a strongly critical motion.

“The authorities have taken the new realities, not as a basis for strengthening our statehood, but as a signal for realising their own material interests. Such an approach strips our people, which bought its independence at great cost, of any chance of free development. We think that the current leadership remaining in power poses a real threat to the existence of our state,” the congress said.

A few days earlier, on July 21, the party was joined in opposition by the Aruaa union of veterans, the ERA party, the Popular Party and the Akhyatsa group, which all issued a joint statement saying, “The statements of the president reveal a complete ignoring of the constitutional structures of Abkhazia, and the loss of any sense of measure or reality.

“We are convinced that the incompetent authorities, not giving thought to the consequences of their actions, present a real threat to the statehood and people of Abkhazia.”

The issue of Russian influence is likely to dominate the December elections, but in reality the government of Abkhazia’s options are highly constrained by its dependence on Russia for trade and access to the outside world.

Half the state’s budget is a gift from Moscow, 95 per cent of trade goes across Abkhazia’s northern border, most inward investment is from Russia, and holidaymakers – who support most of Abkhazia’s economy – are almost all from Russia.

Apart from that, most Abkhazians have Russian passports, and local pensioners receive Russian pensions, which are ten times larger than they would get from Abkhazia.

This means that even opponents of Bagapsh are forced to recognise that Russia is Abkhazia’s only significant partner.

“We support a close military-political union with Russia. This is exactly why we spoke out with this criticism of the border agreement, which has many inadequate elements likely to cause problems in the future,” Khadzhimba said.

Inal Khashig is founder and editor of the independent newspaper Chegemskaya Pravda in Sukhum, which is known as Sukhumi in Georgian.
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