In the shadow of the Ukraine war: what's next for Abkhazia?
Russia's war of aggression against Ukraine, which broke out at the end of February 2022, has deeply shaken the foundations of the international security system, including the European one. It is basically the beginning of a new edition of the Cold War between the U.S.-led West and the Kremlin, which, following the lightning-fast invasion of Crimea in March 2014, has entered its long-lasting and sacrificial phase with an uncertain outcome. The effects of the new military and geopolitical confrontation are also being felt by those states that feel caught between the fronts. In the South Caucasus region, the negative effects of the war in Ukraine are primarily affecting Georgia, which is considered to have a Western orientation. Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, the country has endeavored to exercise restraint and is attempting a delicate balancing act between the parties to the conflict.
However, unlike Georgia, its breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which were recognized by Russia as independent states after the 2008 Caucasian War and practically occupied, have clearly sided with their "big brother" and important protecting power. This brief analysis pays particular attention to Abkhazia's position on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, its possible implications for the region's political status and economy in the foreseeable future, the resulting impact on Abkhazian-Russian relations and Georgia's stance in the light of political developments in recent years.
Ukraine war and the Russian factor
Only one day after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Aslan Bzhania, the self-proclaimed president of the Republic of Abkhazia, signed a decree recognizing the independence of the separatist republics of Donetsk and Lugansk. A few days later, the Foreign Ministry published a statement expressing solidarity and unreserved support for Moscow's military actions. It was Russia's "legitimate right" to protect the Russian-speaking population in eastern Ukraine against the "violence and mass crimes" of Ukrainian nationalists (EurAsia Daily 2022). This stance was reaffirmed at a demonstration organized by the Abkhazian government on 11 March 2022 with more than 2,500 participants.
The war in Ukraine also overshadowed the "parliamentary elections" held on 12 March 2022, which were not recognized by the international community (Belkania 2022). Only 51% of eligible voters took part in the elections. The turnout required for the elections to be valid was as low as 25% in some constituencies (Kawkaskij Uzel 2022). Domestic politics became a minor matter in the early days of the war. Unlike the government, Kremlin's actions in Ukraine did not generate the expected enthusiasm among the Abkhazian public. However, there was no collective opposition to Russia's destructive warfare. Although most people consider the excessive use of force by the Russian side to be unjust, only a few would like to see Moscow fail or even be defeated in this campaign. There are great fears that the new geopolitical situation with a defeated and weakened Russia could lead to a reconquest of the breakaway province by Georgia. In order to prevent "possible provocations" by Tbilisi, the Abkhazian armed forces were even put on combat readiness by decree on 28 February 2022 (Netgazeti.ge 2022), despite assurances from the Georgian side that a military campaign against Abkhazia was out of question.
From the Abkhazian perspective, the dwindling sense of security is the biggest negative effect of the Russian war adventure in Ukraine. These concerns are fuelled by reports of the Kremlin's setbacks on the front. The fact that the Russian army, which had actually planned to invade Kyiv within a few days, has been put under such pressure is causing unease in Sukhumi and raises the question of the extent to which Russia's military support can still be relied upon in an emergency.
The Abkhazian government and public are also very concerned about the unprecedented economic sanctions that the West has imposed on Russia since the beginning of the war as the separatists utterly depend on the financial support from Moscow. Its almost complete exclusion from the global financial system, the exodus of foreign companies, devaluation of the rouble and, last but not least, enormous was expenditures for have enormously restricted Moscow's financial room for maneuver. The transfers from Russia are used to finance the Abkhazian budget and pay wages and pensions, among other things. Just one month after the start of the war, Russia's Deputy Minister of Economy, Dimitri Volvakh, dampened the Abkhazian government's hopes of a continuation of the previous monetary generosity during his visit to Sukhumi. The separatists should therefore prepare themselves for hard times. However, the risks of a possible loss of power in the satellite regions are far too great for the Kremlin entourage. Therefore, the "warnings" from Volvakh were to be interpreted as a kind of pressure against Sukhumi to carry out "reforms" and open the doors to Russian companies and investors. For years, the acquisition of Abkhazian real estate by wealthy Russians and the legalisation of dual citizenship have been resisted in order to keep the Kremlin's influence on domestic political processes in the breakaway republic in check. Sergei Bagapsh, de facto president of Abkhazia between 2005-2011, was the victim of an assassination attempt organised by Moscow because he refused to change this policy (Shonia 2022).
Contrary to all concerns, further meetings between the two allies were characterized by great intensity. During Bzhaniya's visit to Moscow in July 2022, Deputy Chairman of the Russian Security Council Dmitry Medvedev assured Abkhazia that it could continue to rely on the Kremlin's socio-economic and security policy backing (Civil Georgia 2022, 28 July). In return, however, Russia expects Abkhazia to join its flagship project, the "Union State of Russia and Belarus". In an interview with the Kremlin propagandist Vladimir Solovyov at the end of August 2022, Bzhania spoke in favour of such an idea, claiming it would be in line with his country's national interests (Civil Georgia 2022, 26 Aug.).
Abkhazian-Russian relations: partnership versus restraint
On the other hand, Abkhazian-Russian relations are not free of contradictions. When Russia's head of state Vladimir Putin announced a partial mobilisation by decree on 21 September 2022 against the backdrop of military failures on the Ukrainian front, non-Russian ethnic groups in the multi-ethnic state in particular opposed forced recruitment measures. In Abkhazia, almost 90% of the population holds Russian passports. Russia's Deputy Defense Minister Nikolai Pankov made it clear that the law was also aimed at all Abkhazians with a Russian citizenship. This caused uproar in the separatist camp. The ill-considered statements by the military commissioner Beslan Tarba about the Abkhazians' alleged willingness to go to war for Russia triggered a wave of indignation among the local public. The "Foreign Ministry" in Sukhumi rejected these reports and instead accused Pankov of "sowing panic in Abkhazian society" and damaging Abkhazian-Russian relations. A few days after this statement and in the face of an angry reaction from Abkhazian society, Moscow withdrew from its plans to recruit Abkhazians. Just one month later, the separatist leader Bzhania declared the mobilization of Abkhazian armed forces, not for participation in the war in Ukraine, but as an increased measure against possible "aggression from Georgia". The background to this was the Georgian government's announcement that a referendum would be held in which Georgians would decide on the "opening of a second front against Russia in Georgia" (Menabde 2022).
Perhaps the most controversial issue in Abkhazia is the long-running discussion about the integration of the separatist formation (together with South Ossetia) into the Russian Federation. Almost every working visit by Abkhazian officials to Moscow promptly triggers loud rumours among Russian analysts and media about the imminent integration of Sukhumi. Both the political authorities and the Abkhazian public are strictly opposed to such a prospect. When Bzhania made a new trip to Moscow in February 2023, the Russian media landscape was buzzing with reports of accession. Sergei Shamba, "head of the Security Council" of Abkhazia, countered that his country's sovereignty was not up for debate. The Abkhazian "constitution" would not allow a departure from independence (Ria Novosti 2023). The Abkhazian side also insisted on this unwavering stance when South Ossetia wanted to hold a referendum on accession in the summer of 2022.
The Kremlin apparently does not share Sukhumi's point of view, even if the sharp tones have so far failed to materialise. At Bzhania's meeting with Dmitry Medvedev in August 2023, Russia's former president said that the idea of accession in Abkhazia (and South Ossetia) was still "very popular" and could be implemented if there were good reasons. Medvedev cited Georgia's rapprochement with the Western military alliance NATO as a "valid reason". In Abkhazia, however, his comments had a negative resonance. Abkhazians want a "strategic partnership" at all levels of cooperation, but not in the status of a mere "Russian province" (Savodskaya 2023). On the other hand, the position of the separatists towards the Russian project "Union State of Russia and Belarus" is characterised by caution and restraint, despite positive perceptions. The agreement has been in place since 1999 and provides for the implementation of a common economic, foreign, budget and tax policy as well as the standardisation of the energy, transport and customs systems of the participating countries. It is still unclear whether, from the Abkhazian point of view, partnership-based cooperation can take place in this entity on an equal footing with Moscow and Minsk. The question here is to what extent Sukhumi is prepared to surrender its highly valued independence and bow to the dictates of the Kremlin. In March 2023, Bzhania declared that it was still too early to talk about his country joining the union state. He cited Abkhazia's "non-invitation" to this organisation as the official reason (OC Media 2023). However, observations suggest that the political decision-makers in Sukhumi want to make the participation of the separatist republic dependent on a final clarification of the status issue. In Abkhazia itself, not all levels of society, especially NGOs, opposition forces and journalists, are enthusiastic about the idea of a union state. There are a number of reasons for this:
- High degree of collective identification that has developed in Abkhazia due to the policy of "Georgisation" during the Soviet era;
- Sovereignty as part of the national idea (sacralisation of the memory of the 1992-1993 war)
- Fear of an asymmetrical relationship in the future federation
These concerns were expressed in a declaration published in February 2023.
Those in favour of a union state, on the other hand, believe that Abkhazia's participation would not only consolidate its security, but also make a decisive contribution to its international recognition as an "independent state". One indication of this would primarily be possible recognition by Belarus. At the end of September 2022, Belarusian ruler Alexander Lukashenko paid an informal visit to Abkhazia and made it clear that he was seriously considering such a step. As expected, his trip and statements sparked fierce protests in Georgia. The Foreign Ministry accused Lukashenko of "disrespect" and "violating international law". However, the Belarusian head of state has not yet provided any clear information on the exact date of "recognition", but has stated that the decision should be made after consultation with Putin (Chirikba 2023).
Another argument that confirms the optimists' convictions is the inclusion of Abkhazia in the Eurasian integration plans. An action plan for the creation of a common social and economic space was adopted back in November 2020, which, among other things, provides for the harmonisation of Abkhazian legislation with that of Russia. The agreement affects all areas of life, including the issue of dual citizenship, taxation, customs regulations, education, healthcare, etc. and is seen as a consistent further development of the "Strategic Partnership Agreement" from 2014 (Ekho Kavkaza 2020).
Georgia between power and powerlessness
In view of Abkhazia's ever closer ties with Russia at bilateral and institutional co-operation levels, the political leaders in Tbilisi appear to be powerless. A peaceful reintegration of the breakaway region under current conditions is a distant prospect and is anything but conceivable in the foreseeable future. Abkhazia categorically rejects joining the Russian Federation, let alone continuing to exist under Georgian sovereignty. Even the face of a democratic and Western-orientated Georgia has not been able to dissuade Sukhumi from his belief in independence.
Since the outbreak of the Ukrainian war and the weakening of Russian power positions, the Georgian side has increasingly sought proximity to Abkhazia. At the end of 2022, Georgia's Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili announced that his administration was prepared to invest billions in Abkhazia and turn the region into a "second Monaco" if it were to become part of a united Georgia again in the form of an autonomous republic (Caucasus Watch 2022). In September 2023, Garibashvili reaffirmed his country's ambitions and offered Abkhazia a "policy of reconciliation and confidence-building". In response, political leadership in Sukhumi merely signalled a willingness to talk without going into details (Deutsche Welle 2023).
The Georgian side is currently pinning its hopes on a Russian military defeat in Ukraine, which would in turn prompt Moscow to withdraw its military from the region under new geopolitical circumstances. Should the latter expectation come true, Georgia would like to involve the European Union's monitoring mission, which has been deployed in the border region between Georgia and South Ossetia since 2008, in the normalisation process with Abkhazia in order to allay the concerns of the opposite side and demonstrate that it is striving for nothing more than a peaceful settlement of the conflict (Minskaya Pravda 2023).
Thirty-years after the Abkhaz-Georgian conflict and 15 years after the Russian-Georgian war, Abkhazia's political future remains uncertain. Apart from Russia and a few states (Nicaragua, Syria, Venezuela and Nauru), its independence has not yet been recognized de jure by any country. Future recognition by the international community is practically out of question. Close relations with the Kremlin guarantee the continued existence of the self-proclaimed republic and strengthen its self-confidence, particularly in terms of foreign policy. Despite Russia's heavy losses on the Ukrainian front, there is a rock-solid belief in the protective role of "big brother". Despite all the frustrations, the repeated "threatening" membership announcements from Moscow have not affected the alliance relationship. Neither side is interested in an unnecessary conflict situation with serious consequences. The mutual rapprochement is more likely to result in a "win-win" situation. Sukhumi wants to defend its "hard-won" sovereignty against Georgia at all costs, while the Kremlin does not want to give up its position of power in the region.
The much-discussed inclusion of Abkhazia in the "union state of Russia and Belarus", which seems entirely realistic, would strengthen the separatists' economic and political ability to act many times over and finally cement Russia's unchallenged dominance. It is unlikely that Moscow would lose power and influence in Abkhazia as a result of a possible military debacle in Ukraine. Its political, economic and military capacities are too powerful and the Abkhazian aversion to Georgian supremacy is too strong.
All of Georgia's efforts to make the Georgian "model of rule" more attractive for Abkhazia after the Georgian Dream party came to power (2013), and at the latest under Irakli Garibashvili (since 2021), have not paid off to date. Sukhumi, strengthened by Russian support, is reluctant to engage in bilateral dialogue. At international level, only a quarterly exchange forum takes place within the framework of the Geneva Process under the aegis of the EU, but this remains ineffective. As Abkhazia becomes ever more closely integrated into the Russian sphere of power, this format is losing its significance. Tbilisi's room for manoeuvre to integrate its two breakaway provinces peacefully is therefore limited. From a Georgian perspective, it is doubtful whether a desired democratic change of power in Moscow, the subsequent withdrawal of Russian troops and the cessation or reduction of Russian aid to Abkhazia could bring about a swing in Georgia's favour. The Abkhazian separatists' efforts to gain international recognition remain just as questionable. A tangible solution to this decades-old conflict remains therefore hung in the air.