Abkhaz Wary of Georgia's Western Drive

The breakaway republic fears the implications of Georgia’s NATO ambitions.

Abkhaz Wary of Georgia's Western Drive

The breakaway republic fears the implications of Georgia’s NATO ambitions.

Sunday, 3 December, 2006
Political leaders in Abkhazia view the prospect of Georgia entering NATO with deep anxiety, with government officials saying such a move would be a grave threat to their own hopes of achieving independence, and warning that it could spur them to move even closer to Russia.

“Above all, we see ourselves as a country allied with Russia,” said Sergei Shamba, foreign minister of the unrecognised republic. “It’s well known that NATO expansion in our region runs counter to Russia’s interests.

“If Georgia joins the North Atlantic Alliance, recognition of Abkhaz independence will become more difficult since the kind of support Georgia will get from NATO members will be of a different order; it will carry more weight.”

Abkhaz officials say that in such an eventuality they would be forced to take counter-measures, which many believe would mean closer integration with the Russia state.

“We need to agree a legal format for the relationship between Abkhazia and Russia before this decision [Georgian membership of NATO] is taken,” said Astamur Tania, one of the leaders of the Abkhaz opposition. “The [Abkhaz] parliament recently passed a resolution on the matter, describing it as an ‘associate relationship’ between Abkhazia and Russia.”

Tania was formerly a political advisor to Abkhazia’s first president Vladislav Ardzinba, under whose leadership the concept of an “association” with Moscow first took shape.

Tania was critical of Tbilisi’s “intensified dialogue” with NATO, saying, “This has made Georgia think that its foreign policy enjoys the full backing of NATO members. There is another factor to be considered: with NATO support, Georgia will upgrade its armed forces, and there’s no guarantee that these units won’t be used against Abkhazia or South Ossetia.”

Citing the case of Kosovo, which many believe will be granted independence next year without the consent of its former parent state, Serbia, Tania expressed fears that Georgia would try to preempt that decision by ensuring that its claims to Abkhazia and South Ossetia were resolved in its favour beforehand. He warned that in the case of Abkhazia, “there’s a great danger that the resolution [sought by Georgia] will be a military one”.

“Georgia is in a hurry to speed up its admission to NATO,” said Natella Akaba, a former member of Abkhazia’s parliament. “Tbilisi is clearly worried that the mechanism that will lead to recognition for Kosovo has been activated. The Georgian authorities are well aware that once Kosovo is recognised, attitudes towards other unrecognised states will change drastically, and Abkhazia’s chances [of full independence] will dramatically increase.”

The authorities in Sukhum maintain that for them, international recognition is not contingent on the outcome in Kosovo, since they argue that Abkhazia has a stronger legal and historical claim to sovereignty. But they are keeping a close eye on developments in the Balkans, and the possible response from Tbilisi.

Stanislav Lakoba, secretary of Abkhazia’s Security Council, says he does not expect Georgia to begin the procedure of joining NATO until 2008 at the earliest.

Tamaz Ketsba, director of the non-government group Civil Society–Man of the Future, argued that Georgia was facing a “problem of time” with the prospect of recognition for Kosovo set against its own NATO ambitions.

This, he warned, might force the Georgian to seize the initiative through military action. “Georgia might be given an easy ride and admitted to the alliance despite its unresolved conflicts, but once that happens, NATO members… are unlikely to give their assent to a military operation in Abkhazia or South Ossetia,” said Ketsba. “Given Russia’s political interests in the region, there will be no green light for any military operation.”

To ward off a possible Georgian offensive, the Abkhaz army has been conducting military exercises almost every month, involving both regular units and reservists, most of them veterans of the 1992-93 war.

“It’s all a matter of motivation,” said Deputy Defence Minister Merab Kishmaria. “Unlike the Georgians, we have nowhere to retreat to - the Abkhaz have no other homeland than this. I assure you that despite our limited resources, we won’t give in to the Georgians. All the more so since we have experienced a victorious war with Georgia – that gives us heart, and could demoralise the enemy.”

Akaba was the only Abkhaz commentator interviewed by IWPR who took the view that Sukhum could live with Georgia’s accession to NATO.

“If NATO takes a decision based on principle to admit Georgia without Abkhazia and South Ossetia, it could have a stabilising effect in the region,” she said. “But NATO is unlikely to make such a move.”

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

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