Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Abkhazia Cleaves Closer to Russia

Abkhaz leadership mulls closer military ties with Moscow, as tensions with Tbilisi mount.
By Inal Khashig
A senior Abkhaz official has told IWPR that his unrecognised republic needs a military cooperation pact with Russia.



His remarks come as the Georgian-Abkhaz peace process grinds to halt and the region moves closer to a resumption of conflict.



De facto foreign minister Sergei Shamba said that Abkhazia needed strong security guarantees to protect it from the risk of invasion by Georgia. He clarified, however, that he had been misquoted by the Russian newspaper Izvestia and was not calling for Abkhazia to come under full Russian military control.



“In my interview to the correspondent from Izvestia, I said that Abkhazia is ready to sign a military cooperation pact with Russia and not, as the journalist interpreted my words, that ‘Abkhazia is ready for Russia to take its territory under military control in exchange for security guarantees’.



“A pact of this sort could be in Russia’s interest, bearing in mind the upcoming [Winter] Olympic Games [in Sochi in 2014.] At the same time, it would give us a strong guarantee of our security. That’s what I said and had in mind.”



In the past few days, Russia has sent additional soldiers to join its CIS-sponsored peacekeeping contingent in Abkhazia, increasing troop numbers there to 2,542. The new troops were warmly welcomed in Abkhazia with people in the southern Tkvarchel region, where they were deployed, greeting them with flowers. Georgia and western countries have strongly objected.



“Because of the seriousness of the situation, we regard it as necessary to increase the size of the peacekeeping contingent to the level of 3,000 men, as foreseen by the council of the heads of the CIS,” said Shamba. “This will be a big guarantee of our security and that war will not resume.”



All these developments are part of a process whereby Abkhazia is distancing itself from both the West and the United Nations and moving into a much closer embrace with Russia.



On May 6, a series of public meetings were held in Abkhazia supporting recent Russian initiatives to lift economic sanctions on the republic and upgrade official contacts with the republic. The meetings were held on the eve of Vladimir Putin’s departure as president of Russia and there were loud expressions of gratitude for the support he had given Abkhazia during his eight years in office.



A resolution adopted at one of these meetings said, “We are grateful to Russia for the principled and balanced position which it has adopted in the UN Security Council which does not allow Georgia to hope for an unpunished resumption of hostilities against sovereign Abkhazia”.



A few days earlier, on April 30, parliamentary deputies called on de facto president Sergei Bagapsh to pull out of UN-sponsored negotiations and to cease cooperation with Britain, France, Germany and the United States which have been assisting the peace process.



The resolution said that the four countries from the so-called “Group of Friends of the Secretary-General” (the fifth country is Russia) had taken a pro-Georgian position with their condemnation of Moscow’s recent moves to support the unrecognised republic of Abkhazia.



“This unequivocally shows that the member states of the Group of Friends are more concerned with supporting economic and political pressure on Abkhazia than an objective and constructive resolution of the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict. By supporting the economic sanctions regime, the representatives of the Group of Friends of the Secretary-General of the UN, are denying the people of Abkhazia the right to dignified development of their country.”



The only one of the 35 deputies to oppose the resolution was independent member of parliament Batal Kobakhia. “Rejecting the negotiation process under the aegis of the UN and other mediators will only damage us as within this format Abkhazia is an internationally recognised party in the conflict,” he said.



Despite parliamentary speaker Nugzar Asuba’s explanation that they were not urging Abkhazia to pull out of the peace process altogether, Kobakhia was not persuaded to change his mind.



Abkhaz politicians have also expressed their anger against UNOMIG – the UN mission for the conflict in Abkhazia – and western countries for failing to condemn the flight of unmanned drones over Abkhazia. The Abkhaz say they have shot down two of these drones, on March 18 and April 20, and say that Tbilisi is in contravention of international agreements and is planning war. Tbilisi said one of the drones was shot down by a Russian MiG jet.



“According to the basic Moscow agreement of 1994 flights by any military aircraft of the conflict parties in the security zone are forbidden,” said Garri Samanba, head of the Abkhaz parliamentary defence committee. “We warned both Georgia and the international mediators a year ago that these flights should stop and said that otherwise we would shoot them down.



“UNOMIG is silent and evidently that is inspiring Tbilisi to make further provocations, as [Georgia’s president] Mikheil Saakashvili has said that Georgian planes flew before above Abkhazia and will continue to fly.”



A few days after the parliamentary resolution, on May 4, the Abkhaz said that they had shot down two further drones. The Georgians denied this and called the statement a “Russian provocation”.



Shamba said his government was disillusioned with western countries.



“All this time we patiently asked the international mediators to influence the Georgian side,” said Shamba. “But they did not do this. Moreover, an interview by Georgian parliamentarian Targamadze suggests that the flights by the unmanned Georgian aircraft were agreed with the UN mission, which is a mediator in the Georgian-Abkhaz peace process.



“So the question put by our parliament to the president – to suspend negotiations with Georgia under UN mediation – demands serious consideration.”



Inal Khashig is editor of Chegemskaya Pravda newspaper in Abkhazia