Russia and the West: Fracture Points (Abkhazia)

In previous articles, I examined a series of points of strategic concern to policymakers both in Russia and in the West. As part of an ongoing effort to identify especially important geopolitical points of interest for Russian policymakers and strategists, I will be posting a series of articles with in-depth analysis on each location. In our first article, I address one of the two breakaway regions of the South Caucasus country of Georgia: Abkhazia.

In my effort to identify this important core group of strategic pressure points (of national interest to Russian strategists), I assess the likelihood for impact on Russian national policy using several variables: economic interest, geographic importance, and how Russian efforts to leverage their considerable influence on the governments of these near abroad states would effectively and positively impact Russian interest in each geographic area.

American policy makers are advised to take particular interest in recent Russian aggressive campaigns of interference and intervention in these regions. In conjunction with the annexation of Crimea this past April, Russian assertiveness amounts to an effort to leverage Moscow’s considerable historical ties to the Caucasus and Eastern Europe.

In my article Fracture Points (Eastern Europe), I examined a collection of important regions that are linked by their intrinsic value in both geopolitical and geostrategic terms. In operationalizing the term Fracture Points, I defined these locations through their commonality in value to both Russia and The West: geographical areas and regions comprising fissure points between Russia and the Western world. These areas represent geostrategically important terrain, regions straddling the demarcation line of the conflict. It is with this understood definition of these geostrategic points of pressure that we examine the next region on the list. The other Georgian breakaway region, Abkhazia, has escalated concerns from the European continent to Washington in recent months as well, though the media focus has been completely absent in reporting on the changes inspiring concern among policymakers and geopolitical analysts in Europe and the United States.

Last week, I wrote of the recent elections in Abkhazia. In ‘Presidential Election in Abkhazia and the Marginalization of Ethnic Minorities’, I state:

Abkhazia is located in northeastern Georgia. Abkhazia officially declared secession in 1999 with Russian support. While the international community still recognizes the territory as part of Georgia, Abkhazia (along with South Ossetia) was officially declared an “occupied territory” by the Tbilisi government in late August of 2008 after the arrival of Russian military troops. While the issue of Abkhazian independence and autonomy, its administration by the newly independent former Soviet Republic of Georgia in 1991, and its present status as an “unrecognized state” goes back generations, for our purposes here I will focus upon the period following the declaration of the region as an “occupied state” in mid-2008. You can find an exceptional video examination of Abkhazia’s history, culture, and politics here. Following the Russo-Georgian war in 2008, Georgian authorities and government officials regularly accused Russia of supplying the separatist campaign in Abkhazia with weapons and money. While Russian troops remain in Abkhazia, separatist leaders have had a difficult time establishing international legitimacy for statehood. Only Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Narau officially recognize Abkhazia as a state. (SOFREP, August 30)

The future of stability in the South Caucasus pivots quite powerfully along the demarcation lines between ethnic groups that, until the fracturing of the Soviet Union in 1991, were kept in lockstep with a common national strategy under the direction of the Kremlin in Moscow. As the post-Soviet space spins towards its future, it will be affected powerfully by catalyzing events in places such as Ukraine, Moldova, the Caucasus, and the states of Central Asia. The stability of the South Caucasus region in particular, resting largely upon natural resource management and economic development, could move along the same path that the post-war Balkans traveled last decade. With the inducement of membership in supra-national organizations such as the European Union and NATO dangling over the collective heads of states such as Georgia, incentive to democratize and stabilize will be high. However, disincentive exists for states whose national policies and strategic interests run counter to that of Moscow. In this respect, it will be important to regard the Bear as a threat to stability in the South Caucasus and southeastern Europe.

Gg-map

Georgia and its breakaway regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

While Russian strategists have been largely pre-occupied with the conflict in Eastern Ukraine, signs of their interest in the South Caucasus region have been evident this year as well. On June 1, Abkhazian President Alexander Ankvab (considerably more Georgian-friendly than many separatist leaders preferred), stepped down, ostensibly ousted by large-scale protests following his failure to cede to the demands of separatists. In a May 5 ultimatum which demanded the dismissal of his government and the installation of radical reforms, President Ankvab was cornered by political opponents into ceding to the demands of a powerful separatist movement that was demanding radical reforms to established laws in the breakaway region. Following the political turmoil, Ankvab was unable to maintain his grip on power. He resigned June 1. Another curious event colored the Abkhazian unrest a new shade on August 1 when the head of the National Bank of Abkhazia was killed in a car crash. While no further details were made available on the cause of the crash this incident occurred just weeks prior to the snap presidential election of August 24. Just a week later, the acting president, Valery Bganba, forced out Interior Minister Otar Khetsia, adding more intrigue to the metastasizing ruling government in the capital of Sukhumi.

Strategically located  along the coast of the Black Sea, sharing a border with Russia, Abkhazia sits just south of a proposed South Stream Pipeline that would transport valuable Russian energy resources to the European continent. It is in this respect that Abkhazia could represent strategic depth for Russian policymakers. A friendly government in Sukhumi could provide essential white space between Moscow and a prospective NATO member state in the South Caucasus: Georgia. It is in this context we should examine the specter of North Atlantic Treaty Organization enlargement, specifically with regard to prospective Georgian membership. The movement by successive Georgian governments to achieve member-state status in The Atlantic Alliance is especially important in building an analytical understanding of the value of Abkhazia. The still-unresolved conflicts in both Abkhazia and South Ossetia present a nagging, if not unique, hurdle in Tbilisi’s effort to ensure long-term Georgian security from Russian aggression in the form of the protective umbrella of NATO member-state status. Tbilisi’s interest in quelling dissent and defeating the secessionist campaigns in Abkhazia and South Ossetia is heightened by NATO’s refusal to admit states with festering insurrectionist and border conflicts. If Tbilisi is to ensure its future as a member of NATO, it must resolve the issues in its breakaway regions.

The dislodging of Abkhazia (and South Ossetia) from Georgia is part of a long-term Russian strategy to assert influence over key areas of the Caucasus. In fact, in the wake of the election in Abkhazia, news spread quickly of a rumored deal with Moscow by the end of 2014. What is less clear is what form that latent Russian support for Abkhazian independence will take. Will the Kremlin duplicate its effort in Crimea, moving to annex the secessionist region as part of Russia? Possible but unlikely. Though many Abkhazians identify more with their former rulers in Moscow than they do those in Tbilisi, the strategic value of asserting direct control over Abkhazia is considerably less than the Crimean peninsula. Russians apparently feel that an annexation of the territory would be less beneficial. The consequences for continued annexation of near-abroad regions and states would be definitively negative for Russian interests within the international system. Already beset by powerful sanctions strangling important sectors of the Russian economy, the Kremlin likely assesses that its ability to permanently absorb more territory along its southern and eastern borders is mitigated by international financial weaponry that has thus far proven detrimental to the outlook of the Russian economy. The efforts of the European Union and the United States to ratchet up pressure on a Russian economy (one built largely upon the export of natural resources) with sanctions could isolate President Vladamir Putin’s essential support circle in Moscow and scuttle the short-term economic success that he relies upon to sustain his grip on power.

Alternatively, it could elicit a surge of Russian nationalism.Thus, the parallels between the annexation of Crimea and the problem of Abkhazian secession from Georgia are relatively weak. Russia’s control over the Crimean naval port in Sevastopol both serves its strategic interest in projecting power outward towards the Mediterranean Sea as much as it does preventing NATO’s absorption of Ukraine and the establishment of a NATO naval base in the port. While Abkhazia represents strategically important territory for Russian policymakers, it is unlikely that those same Kremlin strategists would risk further alienation in the international community for a less valuable piece of real estate in the South Caucasus. There are alternatives to this scenario. In an effort to further move towards the protective embrace of Russia, Abkhazian officials could pursue a new border policy with their neighbor:

Whether via annexation or other means, merger with Russia is proving the separatist theme of the year in post-Soviet parts. South Ossetia, Abkhazia’s separatist sibling, also claimed by Georgia, already has expressed a longing for such a deal. The Abkhaz say they don’t want to go that far, but candidate Raul Khajimba, the presumed frontrunner, has pledged that, if elected, he’d be willing to get rid of the de-facto border between Abkhazia and its protector, Russia. “Open borders will allow us to resolve many questions in calmer conditions,” he told Russia’sGazeta.ru on August 20. There’s “[n]othing dangerous” about this for either side, he continued.  (Eurasianet.org, August 22)

International observers from the Unrepresented Peoples and Nations Organization (UNPO) conducted a Limited Election Observation Mission (LEOM), and observers from 23 countries, were invited to monitor the election. Unsurprisingly, Russians support for the secession efforts of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and independent state state status was registered via recent poll prior to the election:

Abkhazia and South Ossetia have been referred to independent states by 58% and 55% of Russian citizens, respectively, Levada Center sociologists told Interfax following a recent public opinion survey. The poll was conducted in 46 Russian regions at the end of July and involved 1,600 people. Fifty-two percent of respondents believe that Abkhazia should remain an independent state, 22% of those polled called Abkhazia a part of Russia, 25% said that Abkhazia should join Russia, 9% referred to the republic as a part of Georgia, and 8% said that it should enter Georgia. As far as South Ossetia is concerned, 51% of respondents said that it should remain an independent state, 22% referred to South Ossetia as a part of Russia, 24% of those polled said that South Ossetia should join Russia, 11% described as Georgia’s territory, and 8% said that it should join Georgia.  (Interfax, August 21)

So what is next for Abkhazia? Khajimba’s victory was sealed on August 25 with the official declaration of the outcome of the election announced:

The head of the region’s election commission, Batal Tabagua, told journalists on August 25 that Khajimba, who has unsuccessfully run for president three times since 2004, won 50.57 percent of the votes to avoid any runoff.

His main rival, Aslan Bzhania, gained 35.91 percent.

Mirab Kishmaria was third with 6.4 percent, followed by Leonid Dzapshba with 3.4 percent. 

Turnout was about 60 percent.

All four candidates have spoken out in favor of a close partnership with Russia, which provides financial support for Abkhazia and has stationed some 4,000 troops there. 

The election winner will replace Aleksandr Ankvab, Abkhazia’s de facto president who was forced to resign on June 1 following days of political upheaval.

Georgia has called the election illegal. 

Abkhazia is a Russian-backed separatist region that declared independence from Georgia. Russia recognized the region as an independent state following a short war with Tbilisi in August 2008. Only a few countries followed Russia’s lead. (RFE/RL, August 25)

For the rest of the South Caucasus, the election in Abkhazia could spin one of several ways. Russian encroachment upon the region is consistent and it is undaunted. Khajimba’s victory does nothing to change the Kremlin’s strategic objectives in whittling away at the sovereigntyof the Georgian state. As always, the geopolitical concerns of Russian policy strategists revolve largely around the matter of natural resource management, exploitation, and transport to market. An interesting consideration in this respect is the recent announcement by the defense ministers of Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey of joint military exercises.

Russia’s historical ties to Armenia are rooted in a common religion. Azerbaijan, though a majority Shi’a Muslim state, is largely preoccupied with the transportation of energy resources extracted from areas such as the Shah Deniz fields towards the Mediterranean and Europe. The confluence of interests among these states, combined with the constant interference of Moscow, makes for a unique and dangerous geographical pivot area in Eurasia. The potential for a significant conflagration exists and is augmented by the escalating conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh where Armenian and Azerbaijani military personnel have been trading intensifying fire across an trench-laden battlefield over the past few months. Baku’s immediate official announcement declaring its support for the “…sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia…’ was accompanied by a refusal to recognize the elections in Abkhazia. The interests of Azerbaijan and Georgia, though lacking a common thread of culture or religion, are bound by the necessity of transporting valuable natural resources, notably oil and gas, from the Caspian Sea basin to markets in Europe. Baku and Tbilisi sustain close ties and the involvement of the government in Ankara ensures that NATO member-states will have at least a modicum of influence in ensuring that Georgia and Azerbaijan remain committed to common goals. Armenia, especially in the context of its battle with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, is a useful ally of Russia. The ties that bind Moscow and Yerevan will be wound tighter as a result, even as the Kremlin poses as an impartial mediator in the Nagorno-Karabakh crisis. I will examine Nagorno-Karabakh in further detail in my next article on fracture points. For Russia, the opportunity to heighten their reach into the Caucasus is one that strategists in the Kremlin appear unable to avoid:

Abkhazia seeks to strengthen ties with Russia, but a full unification is not on the agenda, the chairperson of the Abkhazian Civic Chamber told Tass on Monday. “The majority in Abkhazia believe the country must remain independent, but maintain very close relations with Moscow, as we have a very big programme in security sphere,” Natella Akaba said. “We live in a restive region, we see geopolitical processes underway,” with Georgia refusing to sign a peace treaty with Abkhazia, she added. Focusing on relations with Russia after Abkhazia’s presidential election, she said “I think the agreements signed between Abkhazia and Russia don’t work in full”. “Russia is the only big state that recognized Abkhazia, it is our ally and there can be no alternative,” she added. Commenting on the recent presidential election, she said it had proceeded calmly with “just a few unpleasant incidents”. She also welcomed the fact that no second round would be needed, as “all in Abkhazia are a bit tired of political processes and want stability and certainty”. (Famagusta Gazette, August 25)

Khajimba’s victory could prove to be the defining move towards integration with Russia. Khajimba, a candidate in three previous presidential elections and believed by most observers of Abkhazian political developments to be in favor of Russian integration, was the benefactor of the removal of over 100,000 ethnic Georgians from the voter rolls. Khajimba will need to identify rifts in his constituency, address perceived injustices to specific minority ethnic groups, and pursue a remedy to repair relations with Tbilisi.

In our next article, I will examine Nagorno-Karabakh, the conflict’s potential impact upon energy resources and the global market, and how a war between Armenia and Azerbaijan could affect states around the world.

(Photos courtesy of Dmitry Averin at Wikimedia Commons. The writer wishes to thank both Kalitor and AJ for links and analysis)

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Eric Jones

Eric Jones

Director, Co-founder, and Editor in Chief at Foreign Intrigue. Eric researches and writes about international affairs and US foreign policy, particularly Europe, Russia, the Balkans, the Caucasus, Central Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. You can email Eric at Eric.Jones@Foreign-Intrigue.com. Follow Eric on Twitter via @Intrigue_Jones. Follow Foreign Intrigue on Facebook here: https://www.facebook.com/ForeignIntrigue.