Is Abkhazia Following Crimea? The Need for Anti-annexation Strategy

14 November 2014
On October 13, 2014 the Russian Federation sent to Abkhazia, occupied region of Georgia a so-called Agreement on Alliance and Integration. Proposal of this agreement did not come as a surprise, for the groundwork had been in process for several months since Russia orchestrated the rise of a career KGB officer, a pro-Russian Raul Khajimba to the post of the “President of Abkhazia”. During the political crisis as a result of which a former de facto President Ankvab was removed, Khajimba has been actively demanding a closer association with the Russian Federation (see GRASS Brief September 2014, Abkhazia, Georgia: An unnoticed Crisis). Taking in view the geopolitical context of Russia’s aggressive policy in the region, particularly the annexation of Crimea, the released draft treaty, in our opinion, is a step towards the eventual annexation of a currently occupied Abkhazia. Similar alarming signs are coming from another occupied region of Georgia – Tskhinvali region/South Ossetia, which has been demanding integration into North Ossetia for quite a while now. The draft implies security and defense, as well as social policy amalgamation with the Russian Federation. More specifically the treaty stipulates the creation of a joint military force, which in times of crises will be commanded by Russian military; tighter control of Abkhaz law enforcement through a joint Coordination Center; full “harmonization” of budgetary and tax legislations; full control of Abkhaz borders by Russia, compliance of the customs regulations with the Russian and Eurasian Customs Union requirements. Further on, the agreement envisages abolishing the so-called Russian-Abkhaz border while boosting a military presence at the so-called “Abkhaz-Georgia” border and axing five of six checkpoints at the so-called “Georgia-Abkhaz” border.
"This agreement crystallized the new phase in Georgia-Russia relations as the efforts of undermining Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity have been upgraded by Russia to a qualitatively new level."
This Kremlin proposal caused major discontent among Abkhaz de facto government and people in Sukhumi interpreting the draft text as an attempt to rip off their individuality and a threat to “sovereignty”. In their response to the Russian proposal, Abkhazia introduced a set of eloquent amendments, which first and foremost offered bringing legislations closer, instead of complete synchronization with Russian legislations. Abkhazia have rejected the idea of the simplified process of citizenship for Russian nationals. Instead of giving control, Abkhazs offered to train local military and raising defense capacity while strengthening local ownership. Last but not least, a particular emphasis has been laid on the commitment of respecting “sovereignty and territorial integrity” taken under the so-called 2008 agreement between the occupied Abkhazia and Russia and the term “integration” is substituted with “strategic partnership”. The introduced changes reveal Abkhaz discontent and vigilance towards loosing self-identity and “sovereignty”. Reaction of the Georgian side and international community to the agreement was quite vocal, statements coming from the highest Government authorities publicly as well as in the OSCE. The response, however, created the impression that it was targeted at the proposed treaty and missed the wider picture, that of ongoing process of gradual annexation. We believe that this agreement crystallized the new phase in Georgia-Russia relations as the efforts of undermining Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity have been upgraded by Russia to a qualitatively new level. The ongoing process fits the context of Russia’s persistent steps to derail Georgia from its European and Euro-Atlantic Integration track and flesh its Eurasian Union project by dragging Georgia’s occupied regions into it. The calculation is rather easy – with the territorial problems with Russia, neither EU, nor NATO will accept Georgia’s integration. Therefore, annexation could effectively mean the end of Tbilisi’s European vocation. Moreover with coherent and targeted moves, Kremlin continues to efficiently weaken international law. The agreement also comes handy to muddle the confidence-building between Georgian and Abkhaz population and profoundly complicates any attempt to solve even the most depoliticized and humanitarian issues.
"Facing the reinvigorated threats, the government should launch a coordinated, focused and coherent set of actions, which will be included in the anti-annexation strategy."
These recent steps by the Russian Federation clearly elucidate the strategy of annexation, which needs to be met with the counter-strategy of anti-annexation by Georgia and international community. This strategy should be complementary to the already existing non-recognition and anti-occupation policies and should aim at countering the whole annexation process rather than simply stopping the agreement or responding to other isolated cases. Facing the reinvigorated threats, the government should launch a coordinated, focused and coherent set of actions, which could include, but not necessarily be limited to the following:
  • Reassessing the relationship with Russia with the view of limiting Georgia’s economic, energy and political dependence on Russia;
  • Preparing legal and political grounds to raise a case against Russia in international courts, such as ICJ and ECHR;
  • Working with partners in a coordinated, focused and active manner in order to ensure sanctions against RF to prevent or punish annexation;
  • Enacting dispute resolution mechanisms within the WTO. This however requires launching in practice the Agreement “on the basic principles for a Mechanism of customs administration and monitoring of trade in goods” signed by Georgia and Russia in 2011, the implementation of which has been unduly delayed for two years;
  • Using multilateral political, diplomatic, humanitarian and other tools within the international organizations to increase the pressue on Russia to reverse the course of annexation;
  • Revising the strategic documents related to the security and defense systems, such as the Foreign Policy Strategy, National Security Concept, Threats Assessment document, etc.;
  • Intensifying work with international media in order to raise public awareness on the threat of annexation in the country and among the international partners;
  • Developing new realistic status-neutral initiatives towards the population and authorities of Tskhinvali and Abkhazia regions, with particular focus on status neutral approach.
Ignoring the given development as “just another unfriendly act” will only accelerate the process of annexation from Moscow and create new dangers for Georgia and Eastern Europe. By continuing to unilaterally change borders in Europe, Russia dangerously amends international law and challenges the post-cold war order. If this is allowed, set of larger disruptive security challenges will await Europe.