Russia Builds Abkhazia Role

Russia Builds Abkhazia Role

DECEMBER 14, 2009


Mostly Unrecognized Breakaway Georgian Region Relies on Big Neighbor
for Protection and AidArticle Comments more in

SUKHUMI, Georgia — Russia is steadily building its military and
economic presence in Abkhazia, more than a year after the brief war
that cost Georgia the tiny-but-strategic Black Sea coastal region.

Two Russian coast-guard ships arrived to keep Georgian vessels out of
the waters off the port of Ocamchire Friday, a day before the first
presidential poll in Abkhazia since Russia recognized its declaration
of independence in August 2008. The only other countries that
recognize Abkhazia are Nicaragua and Venezuela. The rest of the world
ignored the election, which Georgia labeled a farce.

Abkhaz officials insist that the region, whose subtropical climate and
gorgeous coastline made it a summer playground for the Soviet elite,
isn’t being annexed by its bigger neighbor, and Russia says it
respects Abkhazia’s autonomy. But both sides admit Abkhazia couldn’t
survive without Russian money and protection.

"We’re not worried that Russia is using us for its own geopolitical
ends. Russia is a friendly country for us and it was our initiative to
ask them for help after they recognized our independence," said Sergei
Bagapsh, Abkhazia’s de facto president, who won a second term in the
first round with 59.4% of the vote, preliminary results showed Sunday.

Russian observers declared the election was fair and transparent, but
opposition candidate and ex-KGB agent Raul Khadzimba, runner up to Mr.
Bagapsh with 15.4% of the vote, said there had been irregularities and
threatened to challenge the result.

Russia needs to keep a peaceful Abkhazia, which borders key oil and
gas transit routes, under its wing. A vicious ethnic war in the early
1990s, when the region first broke away from Georgia, decimated its
tourist industry and has left crumbling hotels along the capital
Sukhumi’s once-elegant seaside promenade and abandoned Georgian houses
throughout the lush countryside. Yet its border is just 19 kilometers
from Sochi, the Russian Black Sea resort that will host the 2014
Winter Olympics.

There are 3,000 Russian troops in Abkhazia now, including 1,000 border
guards and 2,000 mostly at a tent military base in Gudauta 37
kilometers northwest of Sukhumi. There is a provision in the current
defense cooperation agreement for around another 1,800 to arrive
within the next year, said Garry Kupalba, Abkhazia’s deputy defense

Another two coast-guard vessels will arrive in Ocamchire by the end of
December and the plan is for Gudauta to be expanded to a full-scale
Russian army base with a complete infrastructure and permanent living
quarters within two or three years, said Russia’s ambassador to
Abkhazia, Semyon Grigoriev.

"Of course, there is Russian political and military influence and of
course, there is economic influence because of the big financial
assistance we’re giving. But we take Abkhaz independence very
seriously," he said.

The currency in use throughout Abkhazia is the ruble, most people
there speak Russian rather than Abkhaz and international telephone
codes were recently changed from Georgian to Russian prefixes.

Russia allocated two billion rubles ($66.5 million) to Abkhazia’s
budget this year, 57% of the total, and will match that figure in
2010, said Kristina Ozgan, Abkhazia’s economy minister. The region
needs to develop its tourist and agriculture industries and, although
80% of current investment comes from Russia, it would welcome it from
anywhere, she said.

An estimated 200,000 Georgians fled Abkhazia during the 1992-1993 war
and the most recent census in 2003 put the population at just 215,000.
Of that number, around 90,000 are Abkhaz, Mr. Bagapsh said, with the
rest Armenians, Russians and Georgians.

The de facto government says there are more than half a million ethnic
Abkhaz in Turkey, many of whom were forced out by Russia in the 19th
century. It says it hopes security and the first signs of economic
development will lure some of them back, but so far only around 2,000
have returned.

"Demographics are our big problem. We preserved our statehood, our
language and our ethnicity, but we suffered great human losses," said
Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba.

Russia’s biggest oil company, OAO Rosneft, has signed a cooperation
agreement with Abkhazia and began oil deliveries this year, said Mr.
Grigoriev. He added that Russia’s state gas monopoly, OAO Gazprom,
might show interest in expanding to Abkhazia.

Ms. Ozgan hopes Abkhazia can capitalize on its coastal location
between East and West to become a trade and travel hub.

"We could be a little Silk Road," she said.