Abkhazia, Georgia: An unnoticed Crisis

01 September 2014
The occupied region of Abkhazia held snap de facto presidential elections on the 24th of August, following a political crisis in May. Protesters stormed the presidential building in Sokhumi, causing the resignation of Mr. Alexander Ankvab, who rejected the idea of engaging in the dialogue with the opposition. As was expected, the election was won by the mastermind of the opposition protests – Mr. Raul Khajimba, a career KGB officer with close links to Russia. However, contrary to the expectations almost 35% voted for Mr. Aslan Bzhania, a political unknown, in a clear demonstration of fatigue with the recurrent faces and personalities in Abkhaz politics. The May 2014 Abkhazia crisis happened in the context of Russia’s decisive fight against Ukraine’s European integration; Russia invaded Ukraine, annexed Crimea, and currently leads a war in Eastern Ukraine. It is therefore important to view the Abkhaz events in the context of wider developments, however it would be naïve and superficial to only analyze Abkhaz crisis through the Russian prism. In the similar vein, it would mean missing the wider picture, if the Russia’s role in the ongoing crisis is downplayed and underestimated.
"Europe may face another crisis in the Caucasus unprepared"
In reality Abkhaz events happened against the background of Russia’s willingness to tighten its grip in Sokhumi, as well as the complete alienation of the political opposition and former allies by Mr. Ankvab, whose authoritarian style of governance was widely criticized. Therefore the unique mixture of domestic and international factors led to change of regime in Sokhumi. For Tbilisi there are three major issues at stake that need to be watched carefully in the months to come – (1) fate of the Georgian population of the Gail district, (2) steps that could integrate Abkhazia more into Russia and (3) possible change of attitude towards Tbilisi. Since the May crisis, the status of Georgians in Abkhazia has deteriorated. While in power, Ankvab initiated the “passportization” of ethnic Georgians living in the Gali district, giving close to 22.000 residents of the Gali region Abkhaz passporats. While the passports are not recognized by Tbilisi, they make everyday life easier for the Gali population to cross the Abkhaz-Georgian ABL. Khajimba, together with the de facto Vice-President Mr. Vitali Gabnia, Mr. Beslan Butba (so-called “purse” of the new regime) and Mr. Astamur Tania (now the head of the de facto presidential administration) were one of the most outspoken critics against “passportization”, contributing to making the Gali population’s status major topic of the crisis. As a result of the pressure exerted by the political opposition on 4th of August, the de facto Abkhaz parliament passed a resolution revoking the Abkhaz passports of over 22,000 residents of Gali, saying they were obtained illegally as the passport holders held dual – Abkhaz and Georgian - citizenships. Abkhazia’s ethnic Georgians were therefore excluded from voting in the 24th of August presidential election. It can not be stressed more that precisely because of the lack of participation of the Georgian population in the electoral process, Khajimba managed to garner more votes than his opponents. Therefore, now, once the opposition came to power, they will have to find a solution to the issue of Gali residents’ status. Either they will continue excluding them from the Abkhaz life and political process, which could lead to un-rectifiable consequences, or they could try to find more civilized solution aimed at engaging Gali residents.
"For Tbilisi there are three major issues at stake that need to be watched carefully in the months to come – (1) fate of the Georgian population of the Gail district, (2) steps that could integrate Abkhazia more into Russia and (3) possible change of attitude towards Tbilisi. "
Second issue worthy attention is the possible strengthening of pro-Moscow vector in Abkhazia. On the 27th of August, just few days after winning the election, Khajimba flew to Moscow to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The next day the Kremlin released a statement that by the end of the year, Russia and Abkhazia would sign a new treaty on friendship, cooperation, and mutual assistance “aimed at boosting integration” between the two countries. The issue of deeper “integration”, including “Association Agreement”, has been extensively discussed throughout the pre-election period. Several components of the possible agreement include abolishing the border between Abkhazia and Russia, the creation of a joint army under joint command, and the creation of a “common space of defense and security.” In practice it would mean the  reality just short of annexation of Abkhazia by the Russian Federation. It is not a secret that Mr. Surkov, close ally of President Putin has been a strong proponent of closer integration of Abkhazia with Russia. His involvement in the “resolution” of the May crisis in favor of Mr. Khajimba, as well as recent statements, clearly aimed at accentuating the need of closer ties leave no doubt that Kremlin has vested interest in seeing Abkhazia in a close embrace. Third issue, which could be of interest to the Georgian side is the attitude that new administration in Sokhumi could take towards the dialogue with Tbilisi. Currently there is no bilateral dialogue channel. Geneva Talks are continuously obstructed by Abkhaz participants, who raise the issue of “status upgrade” – a red line for Georgian delegation. Abkhaz are also reluctant to discuss the issue of IDP return and still insist on signature of the bilateral non-aggression treaty with Georgia, both being well beyond Georgian red lines. However, new administration has not yet made it clear, whether this harsh line will continue and whether the bilateral dialogue with the Georgian side will not be possible at the margins of Geneva Talks, or in a separate format. One way or another, it is important to watch, whether any dynamics towards re-creation of the new bilateral format will have negative consequences for Geneva International Discussions. As the first step international community should test with Sokhumi authorities the idea of resuming Incident Prevention and Response Mechanisms, which have been suspended for last two years. If initially Abkhaz protested against the head of EUMM’s personality, now the reason seems to be elsewhere. In any case, if Abkhaz are serious about the dialogue, IPRMs will be restored at no time. To sum up, in the recent context of deteriorating security situation in the Eastern neighborhood of EU, further explosive developments are quite possible in the medium run. Irrational and violent policy of exclusion towards the residents of the Gali region can cause a humanitarian problem or even a security escalation. Moreover, if not prevented in a timely manner, Russia could easily apply its instrument of annexation to Abkhazia. The best bid for the Government of Georgia in this situation is to start bringing the two potential threats to the attention of international community.  The policy of not irritating Russia night have exhausted itself without advance notice.