22 – At a time when the opposition in South Ossetia is attempting to
get Moscow more involved in political fights there, many Abkhazians,
especially among the local opposition and in the influential diaspora
in Turkey, are expressing concerns that their republic is being
“swallowed up” by Russians and Russia.
Writing in today’s
“Nezavisimaya gazeta,” Yury Simonyan points to the recent declaration
of a group of influential Abkhazians calling for reining in President
Sergey Bagapsh after he ceded to Russian institutions control over
local railroads, the airport, and borders and failed to restrict
Russian land purchases (www.ng.ru/politics/2009-05-22/1_abhazia.html).
Such concessions, the opposition leaders fear, could “convert Abkhazia
into a quasi-state Russian entity” capable of surviving only on
Moscow’s handouts. Equally sharp criticism of Bagapsh’s actions in this
regard, the “Nezavisimaya gazeta” journalist says, have come in from
Abkhazians in Turkey.
Fears about Russia’s plans in and for
Abkhazia have been a subtext in politics there since last summer. In
the wake of Russian recognition of the independence of the breakaway
republic, some Abkhazians said “we left Georgia in order to preserve
our statehood and culture” and “we do not want to lose all this as a
result of a close union with the Russian Federation.”
Shamba, the republic’s foreign minister, said at that time that the
numerically small Abkhaz people feared that it might be subject “to the
threat of assimilation including state assimilation” by the larger
Russian community. And Abkhazian media criticized the overly large
“appetites” of Russian businessmen for property in Abkhazia.
Bagapsh himself, even though his relations with Moscow have not always
been trouble-free, continues to insist that Russia necessarily remains
Abkhazia’s “main partner, a guarantor of our security and development.”
But it is clear, Simonyan suggests, that he too is concerned about
falling too much under Russia’s control.
The recent declaration,
made by the leaders of six political and social organizations in the
republic, also seeks a balanced relationship with Russia. On the one
hand, they acknowledge that Russia is Abkhazia’s “single real ally,”
but on the other, they call for “the establishment and strengthening of
genuinely equal relations between Abkhazia and Russia.”
Abkhazians told Simonyan that this declaration represented “an informal
start” of the presidential campaign, which will culminate in elections
on December 12th. But they noted that there were other reasons as well:
fear of unemployment, concerns about national dignity, and worries
Georgians in Tbilisi, like Vice Prime Minister Temur
Yakobashvili, told Simonyan that they had “warned the Abkhaz side that
[Russia’s offer of] free cheese would be in a mousetrap” for the
breakaway nation. And he added that since the Russian government
doesn’t listen to its own opposition, Moscow is unlikely to listen to
the Abkhazian one.
Some Russian analysts are dismissive of the
Abkhaz protest. Aleksey Malashenko of the Moscow Carnegie Center, for
example, suggested that “the Abkhaz opposition cannot be in opposition
to Russia a priori” because of Moscow’s role in securing their
independence. But such expectation of gratitude is probably a stronger
emotion than the gratitude itself.
In any case, these tensions in
Abkhazia over Russia’s role point to three important conclusions.
First, the situations in Abkhazia and South Ossetia are fundamentally
different, something Georgia, Russia and the international community
must recognize if they are going to find a way out of the current
Second, the tensions in Abkhazia suggest that Russia may
be overplaying its hand, driving away those who had supported it and
thus opening a path for the exploration of relations between Sukhumi
and other centers in ways that Georgia and its partners might be in a
position to exploit.
And third – and this is the most
indisputable conclusion – these tensions in Sukhumi show that the
events of last summer and fall are far from over, that Moscow’s
recognition of Abkhazian independence is not the end of the story but
rather only the conclusion of a single chapter. Thus, what lies ahead
is likely to be far more open than any of the sides now assume.