Ukraine Crisis Imperils Abkhazia

Experts believe that Moscow is now aiming to divert resources, given the heavy costs of its ongoing invasion.

Ukraine Crisis Imperils Abkhazia

Experts believe that Moscow is now aiming to divert resources, given the heavy costs of its ongoing invasion.

Monday, 9 May, 2022

Russia’s decision to gradually decrease state funding for Abkhazia and South Ossetia have fueled fears of an imminent socio-economic collapse in the breakaway republics.

The territories have long been reliant on Russian subsidies and experts believe that Moscow is now aiming to divert resources, given its ongoing invasion of Ukraine.

A major development has been the message from Russia’s deputy economy minister Dmitry Volvach, delivered during a meeting with the de-facto Sokhumi authorities on March 9, that the territories would now be expected to contribute further to their own budgets by easing regulations and creating a more investment-friendly environment.

A key way to do this would be to ease the regulations on selling land within Abkhazia, which successive local administrations have insisted can only be sold to de facto citizens.

“As you may know, no one on earth can buy real estate or own private property on Abkhazian territory,” said Paata Zakareishvili, a former minister for reintegration and conflict resolution. “A person needs to be a de-facto citizen of Abkhazia to do this. This restriction is unsettling for the Russian government.”

Zakareishvili noted the common belief that Sergei Bagapsh, the de-facto president of Abkhazia from 2005-2011, was assassinated by Russia after he refused to change this policy.

“From the Russian side, the recent move was a hint for Abkhazia to begin attracting investments,” he continued. “No investor – including Russia – will invest their money in Abkhazia if they do not have a guaranteed protection of their private property.”

According to Zakareishvili, this is the time for the Georgian side to begin talks with the Abkhaz side on an arrangement in which the de facto government will have the right to sell land for 50 years or so.

“We need to give them the impression that we will preserve their mythic, non-market values – someone needs to talk to them about this. This cannot happen over phone or TV, but it needs to happen through a secret meeting via someone they can trust in order to start new relations. Unfortunately, there isn’t anyone in our government that the Abkhazians trust.”

Temuri, a 62-year-old history teacher from Gali, said that there were 5,000 Russian soldiers and officers in Russia’s military base on the Black Sea in Gudauti.

“They have mainly withdrawn military equipment, tanks, battalions and artillery pieces right now,” he continued. “A distant relative lives close to the Gudauti military base, and I know from them that 75 per cent of the existing equipment has been taken away. With the pace that Russia is losing its forces, however, it is possible that the remaining 25 per cent will also be withdrawn. It is easier for them to move military equipment from Abkhazia than from Siberia and the far East. They are also withdrawing from the Gali region, and probably around 60 per cent is left there.”

According to him, Volvach’s visit had caused widespread debate in Abkhazia.

“Lots of funding came from Russia – 15-20 per cent of which was used, the rest went to Abkhazian bureaucrats and became a source of corruption,” Temuri continued. “Russia got Abkhazia used to a [free ride] after the Abkhazia war. This region was completely reliant on Russian subsidies. The Georgian side will have to help now – we await a complete catastrophe here which will affect us Abkhazians and Georgians equally.”

Temuri said that some 60 per cent of Abkhazia’s budget came from Russia, with only around 40 per cent coming from local revenue. If Russian money ceased to flow, then Abkhazia would no longer be able to function. State employees would not be paid their salaries and pensions would be frozen, with funds from the local budget going only to absolute necessities.

“In total, around 42,000 people are employed in Abkhazia, 18,500 of which are in the public sector, or budgetary organizations. There is no analogous situation in any country on planet earth. How can almost 50 per cent of the employed population be getting salaries in the public sector - this is a parasite-like approach towards a state and its budget,” he said.

Following the Russia-Georgia war in 2008, Russia moved its first military units into the Gali region and began building army bases. In total, there are now eight such bases in the Gali region now; six bordering the river Enguri, one is in the provincial capital and another in the village of Okumi.

In addition, Russia signed an agreement with Sokhumi on November 21, 2016 giving it full military control over Abkhazia.

According to media reports, Russia is now withdrawing its troops from the territories it controls in Georgia and moving them to fight in Ukraine. For instance, military equipment and tanks were reported to have recently been moved from occupied Gudauta in Georgia, where Russia’s 7th military base is currently located, to the south of Ukraine.

Military expert Lasha Dzebisashvili said that Russia was being tested in Ukraine and need to focus all possible resources on the invasion, including troops and equipment from the occupied territories.

“There are no specific details – only one document exists that proves the withdrawal of heavy military equipment from Abkhazia,” said. “We cannot make any conclusions on how their military presence has been reduced and how many have withdrawn in total – that is for the intelligence services [to know].” 

He emphasized that residents of Abkhazia should not fear that Georgia would take advantage of the current situation to attack the territory.

“This is complete nonsense, absurdity,” he continued, adding, “Without any preparation and with an international environment that is completely working against us – Russia is enraged at Ukraine, has used all of its armed forces, and has no brake to do whatever it wants to do – raging war with our limited military will place us on the same footing as Russia. It would be a reckless venture.”

Nonetheless, Zakareishvili warned that Tbilisi was not taking a robust enough stance on Georgia’s geopolitical position.

“First and foremost, we should be speaking with Turkey, Washington, Brussels and Ankara on NATO membership. Yet, we say nothing – Turkey is the leader, Russia is getting weaker… It’s important that we talk to Turkey about how, with Georgia’s help, every resource can be used to reduce Russian presence on the Black Sea.”

Dzebisashvili also said that Tbilisi’s supposedly cautious approach to the crisis was misguided.

“In a situation where we have been in the same place as Ukraine and are one of the reasons that Russia could start another war against Ukraine, we see that the Georgian government is not doing anything to strengthen Georgia’s security and defence capabilities,” he concluded.

This publication was prepared under the "Amplify, Verify, Engage (AVE) Project" implemented with the financial support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Norway.

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