Contested Caucasus: Abkhazia Enters The Calculations Of Great Powers

Stefan Wagstyl

Financial Times
July 14, 2008 Monday
London, England

Contested Caucasus

A post-Soviet ‘frozen conflict’ is heating up as Moscow, angered by
western recognition of Kosovan statehood and determined to prevent
Georgia from joining Nato, steps up its support for the breakaway
enclave, writes Stefan Wagstyl

Sergei Bagapsh, president of Abkhazia, rules his self-proclaimed state
from an office set amid palm trees, pines and giant magnolias on the
shores of the Black Sea.

It would be an idyllic location but for the nearby ruins of buildings
destroyed 15 years ago when Abkhazia split from Georgia in a civil war
that left 8,000 dead and forced 240,000 ethnic Georgians from their
homes. Sukhumi, the Abkhaz capital, is overshadowed by the damaged
hulk of the former regional assembly – a memorial to past violence
and a warning of what might happen should it return.

Mr Bagapsh, a 59-year-old former basketball player, Communist official
and businessman, has one political aim: Abkhazia’s international
recognition. He says: "I think everybody in this world wants to be
independent. Abkhazia is no exception . . . We want to build a small,
democratic, law-abiding state of our own."

It is a tough task. Abkhazia’s claims are rejected by Georgia and
not recognised by any country, not even neighbouring Russia, despite
its general support for Sukhumi. Georgia, backed by the west, insists
that Abkhazia remains Georgian, in line with international law.

The dispute is complicated by growing east-west tensions in the
Caucasus. The US and most European Union members support Georgia’s
efforts to escape Russia’s influence and integrate with the west,
including joining Nato. The west is also worried about the security
of pipelines taking Caspian oil and gas across the Caucasus to
Turkey. Meanwhile, a resurgent Russia sees the region, including the
pipelines, as a key test of its capacity to reassert itself in the
former Soviet Union. Not for nothing was Condoleezza Rice, the US
secretary of state, in Tbilisi last week – warning both Georgia and
Russia to avoid "provocative behaviour".

Abkhazia is one of three "frozen conflicts" left unresolved after the
Soviet Union’s collapse. Like the two other separatist territories –
South Ossetia, also in Georgia, and Transdnistria in Moldova – Abkhazia
has struggled to survive isolation. Sporadic United Nations-sponsored
talks have gone nowhere.

But this year, Abkhazia’s frozen conflict has turned hot. Abkhazian
and Georgian troops almost went to war in late April to early May,
with each blaming the other for "provocations" on either side of
a ceasefire line monitored by UN observers and guarded by Russian
peacekeeping troops. Tbilisi accused Moscow of becoming involved on
the Abkhaz side after a Russian jet was filmed downing an unmanned
Georgian reconnaissance drone.

Sukhumi and Tbilisi stepped back from the brink. But during the past
month Abkhazia has been hit by four explosions, including one in the
southern town of Gali, near the Enguririver ceasefire line, when four
people were killed. Abkhazia blamed Georgia and Georgia retorted that
Abkhazia staged the blasts to blacken Georgia’s name. Violence spread
to much smaller South Ossetia, where two men died in clashes between
separatist and Georgian forces. Russia sent fighter jets over South
Ossetia, later saying it had done so to stop a Georgian attack in a
statement that Tbilisi condemned as "an unprecedented acknowledgement
of aggression".

The escalation has been driven by international developments. First,
leading EU states and the US recognised Kosovo, the breakaway Balkan
state, in the teeth of opposition from Russia, which warned of the
consequences for other separatist regions. Next, Georgia and Ukraine
requested "action plans" that would lead to Nato membership. Fearful
of Russia’s reaction, the alliance at its Bucharest summit rejected
the bids – but agreed to reconsider them in December, leaving Moscow
furious. Finally, with energy prices rising fast, western states,
Russia and China have redoubled efforts to boost access to central
Asia’s oil and gas.

Moscow has reacted by intensifying support for Abkhazia, mainly to
increase pressure on Georgia. It stepped up economic co-operation begun
after Vladimir Putin became president in 2000; it formally dropped a
long-standing sanctions regime; it authorised Russian state entities
to open contacts with Abkhazia; and it boosted its military presence
by sending 500 paratroopers to reinforce its 2,000 peacekeepers –
and a further 400 railway troops, ostensibly to repair Abkhazia’s
coastal line.

Moscow insisted the deployments were a response to Georgian military
preparations, including the reconnaissance drone flights. Tbilisi
denied planning a war and accused Russia of playing with fire. In
an investigation of the downed drone incident, the UN mission found
both sides infringed the ceasefire and urged "restraint". UN officials
worry fighting could start by accident, with unforeseeable effects. Tom
de Waal, a writer on the Caucasus, says: "An incident in Gali could
trigger a Georgian response, which could trigger a Russian response,
which could trigger a US response. We would have a major international

For Russia, Abkhazia is a popular holiday resort, once favoured by
Joseph Stalin. The coast also offers Moscow a possible naval base if
the Black Sea fleet is ever forced from its rented port in Ukraine’s
Sevastopol. But Russia is wary of recognising Abkhazia’s independence,
fearing setting a dangerous precedent for minorities in its troubled
northern Caucasus. President Dmitry Medvedev does not want another

For Moscow, the key is Georgia and its pro-western president, Mikheil
Saakashvili. Abkhazia and South Ossetia are levers with which to put
pressure on Tbilisi to slow its pro-west policies and drop its Nato
bid. Dmitri Trenin, deputy director of the Carnegie Moscow Center,
a think-tank, says: "Russia has no strong interest in Abkhazia
itself. Russia is telling Georgia: ‘If you join Nato you will pay a
very big price. You will never get back Abkhazia.’ "

For the west, the administration of Mr Saakashvili, despite his
domineering political tactics, is a rare example of democracy in the
region. His country also hosts the only pipelines transporting Caspian
oil and gas to global markets without crossing Russia. While Abkhazia
lies some way from those routes, conflict in Abkhazia could threaten
Georgia’s stability. Mr Saakashvili told the Financial Times last
week that Moscow’s approach was a challenge to the west. "Georgia is a
test case. Today Georgia. Tomorrow, Ukraine and then other countries
in the region that they [the Russians] see as falling within their
sphere of influence. They will be looking carefully at the western
reaction and will act accordingly."

Meanwhile, 15 years of separation is building a sense of independence
among Abkhazians. The 200,000-300,000 people, down from 525,000 in
Soviet times, make a living from tourism, farming and migrant workers’
remittances, mainly from Russia. Ethnic Abkhazians comprise about
a third of the population; the rest are ethnic Russians, Armenians
and, in the south, about 50,000 Georgians. Both sides’ propaganda
has widened the gap between Sukhumi and Tbilisi, particularly since
Mr Saakashvili took power in 2004.

Georgia says a settlement would require Abkhazia to return as an
autonomous region. Giga Bokeria, deputy foreign minister, says: "We
must maintain our territorial integrity." But Abkhazia says it is too
late – Georgia has too often resorted to unilateral action, notably in
2006, when it sent armed police into the mountainous Kodori valley, the
one place in Abkhazia still under Tbilisi’s control. Diana Kerselyan,
director of Sukhumi Media Centre, a non-governmental organisation,
says: "I can’t imagine a situation where Abkhazia goes back to
Georgia. It would mean the end for us and for our children."

In the south, ethnic Georgians are equally convinced separation
from Tbilisi is intolerable. Maia Kvaratskhelia, head of Avangard,
a community organisation, says Georgians feel cut off. "Young people
do not know where to turn."

Moscow’s support has increased, while the rouble circulates
freely. Links with Russia have increased to the point that Tbilisi
says Abkhazia risks being swallowed. The Abkhaz elite insists it will
remain independent but Rozita German, a radio journalist, concedes
that what she sees as Abkhazia’s liberal, multi-ethnic character could
face suffocation. "Russia is a threat as well as a support," she says.

Mr Bagapsh denies Georgian charges that he is Moscow’s puppet. He
came to power in 2005 after a disputed election in which Russia backed
his main opponent, Raul Khadjimba. The Kremlin eventually accepted a
compromise in which Mr Khadjimba became Mr Bagapsh’s deputy. This year,
Mr Bagapsh has welcomed western officials, including Javier Solana,
the EU foreign policy chief, who have come to help avert violence
and stem Russian influence.

Abkhazia’s economic challenges have eased since 2003, when Russia
opened the border, relaxed travel restrictions and increased
aid. Leonid Lakerbaya, deputy prime minister, says Russian charities
are financing the Rbs100m ($4.3m, £2.2m, EUR2.7m) renovation of the
road from Sukhumi to the Russian city of Sochi, the most important
route into and out of Abkhazia, while the Moscow pays pensions to
Soviet-era workers and contributes increasing amounts directly to
Abkhazia’s Rbs1.3bn budget.

Russian tourists are returning, with numbers rising from low
levels to 600,000 and climbing towards the Soviet-era peak
of 1m. State-owned resorts are being leased out and hotels are
opening. Trade is recovering, reaching Rbs4.7bn last year, according
to Mr Lakerbaya. Meanwhile, the economy has grown rapidly from a low
base, with average salaries climbing fivefold since 2002 to Rbs2,700
a month. With little industry, Abkhazia imports almost all consumer
goods, paying for them from tourist income and migrants’ remittances.

Growth is stimulating property investment. Beslan Butba, a 48-year-old
construction entrepreneur and Abkhazia’s richest man, is building a
retail centre, a $30m office block, a boutique hotel and studios for
his television channel, Abkhazia’s first private broadcaster. Like
other business people, he has his eye on the 2014 Sochi Winter
Olympics, which could bring a big influx of visitors and cash. He says:
"I want to show people you can get wealthy here."

Much remains to be done. Investment is concentrated in northern
resorts, while the modernisation of Sukhumi has barely begun and,
in the south, dilapidation is widespread. Georgian officials claim
Abkhazia is a den of organised crime and smuggling. But Sukhumi
officials say it is no worse than in Georgia – and the contraband is
focused around the Enguri river ceasefire line where both sides are
responsible for policing.

Legitimate business is hampered by Abkhazia’s uncertain status. Julia
Gumba, head of the Union of Women Entrepreneurs, with 400 members
and a magazine named Ladyboss, complains that trade suffers from a
non-recognition of Abkhazian documents, although she adds: "Slowly
things are getting better."

Whether that progress can continue is an open question. It will be
answered in diplomatic exchanges among Sukhumi, Tbilisi, Moscow,
Brussels and Washington – or in one intemperate incident on the Enguri.