THE BEAR POKES BACK: RUSSIA, ABKHAZIA, AND NATO HEADACHES

Abkhazian People Wave the Flag of Abkhazia

By Matthew Brown
Staff Writer

On Nov. 24, 2014, Russia and Abkhazia signed a historic cooperation treaty, accomplishing yet another fait accompli that NATO and its allies seem unable to answer. The “Agreement Between the Russian Federation and the Republic of Abkhazia on Alliance and Integration” formalizes Russia’s security and economic partnership with the breakaway region of Abkhazia. It is set to run for 10 years with the hopes to extend it for a further five years after that. The most significant aspects of this treaty include: Russian and Abkhaz military assets in the region will merge into a joint security force led by a Russian commander; a common security agreement between Russia and Abkhazia (i.e. an attack on one will be considered an attack on the other); a substantial increase in Russian economic aid to Abkhazia to the tune of 12 billion rubles ($222 million); a commitment on Russia’s part to acquire international recognition for Abkhazia; and a streamlined process towards Russian citizenship for Abkhazian residents. It should be clear from the depth of these commitments that Russia is committed to the continued security and development of the Abkhazian state and pays little regard to Georgian and Western objections. The Balkanization of Georgia is a key part of Russia’s foreign policy in the region and Abkhazia is likely only the first step in this process; the breakaway region of South Ossetia is rumored to be in talks to sign a similar treaty with Russia in the near future. Western interests will now have a much more difficult time reconstituting the former borders of Georgia.

Abkhazia has existed in an unacknowledged, twilight state of affairs since its violent beginning. Formally recognized only by Russia and under pressure from NATO to rejoin the nation of Georgia, uncertainty has been the defining theme for the decades-old nation of Abkhazia. The roots of this limbo grow from the chaotic dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. It was with the final collapse of the Soviet Union that allowed for the ethnic Georgians to create their own nation, but in the years leading up to the collapse, the ethnic Abkhaz people began agitating against the state of Georgia’s calls for independence, correctly fearing that a Georgian state would seek to absorb the weaker Abkhazian region. The key port city of Sukhumi and valuable transit routes to Turkey and beyond would be a great boon for the fledgling Georgian nation. The ethnic Abkhazian and Ossetian populations, along with their territory, were ultimately ceded to the Georgian nation by the Soviet Union, creating an uneasy coexistence. The establishment of a joint power sharing agreement with the Abkhaz people temporarily defused tensions. Unfortunately, hardline ethnic Georgian politicians eroded Abkhazian representation and the situation deteriorated, ultimately culminating with the Georgian invasion of Sukhumi and subsequent ethnically motivated pillaging, rape, and murder. The 1992-93 War in Abkhazia followed, and, with Russian support, Abkhazia achieved de facto independence from Georgia but failed to gain widespread international recognition. Russian troops have been stationed along the borders ever since and Russian economic aid has become essential for the nation’s continued existence. Indeed, the closeness of the ties between these regions is demonstrated by the fact that 90 percent of all Abkhazian citizens hold a Russian passport. In more recent times, Georgia has been dissuaded from uniting these regions by force. The disastrous outcome of the Russo-Georgian War of 2008 proved that Georgia does not have the military capacity to reconquer its lost territory, and that it cannot expect NATO forces to come to their aid.

Returning to the recent strategic partnership, Georgian opinions on the new treaty are, as to be expected, negative. For Georgia this treaty is hardly unexpected, yet a catastrophe all the same. The terms of the treaty greatly strengthen Abkhazia’s security position vis-á-vis Georgia and will give Abkhazia little reason to return to negotiations on reunification with Georgia. The economic and political benefits Russian extends in this treaty provide boons that Georgia cannot hope to match at the negotiation table. For now, Georgia will have to accept a Russian victory. While not a formal annexation, as with Crimea earlier this year, Russia now has de facto control of the Abkhaz territory, along with Abkhazia’s warm water port on the Black Sea in Sukhumi. A cursory glance at a map of the region will show that Russia is now in the enviable position of exerting control over a good third of the Black Sea coastline. In addition to this territorial gain, Russia makes further headway in solidifying transit routes for goods traded through the Eurasian Economic Union. None of these gains will play out in favor of NATO or the EU; this treaty can represent nothing other than a strategic defeat in both the political and economic arenas of the South Caucasus.

In the West, news of these developments has been largely ignored. After all, one does not enjoy relaying news of their defeat. Hesitant steps towards rebalancing the situation have been taken though. The official U.S. response has been twofold. On the political front, the U.S. State Department has issued press releases reiterating their position that the U.S. does not recognize Abkhazia as a sovereign state and therefore does not recognize any treaties between it and Russia. Beyond reinforcing the historic position of the U.S. in relation to Abkhazia’s situation, these communiqués accomplish little else. The military response has been more discreet, yet potentially more substantial. It has been reported that U.S. military officials are engaging in talks with the Georgian Defense Ministry with the aim to procure greater numbers of weapons and advanced capabilities for the Georgian Army. Georgia has long sought to obtain lethal anti-air and anti-tank capabilities from the U.S., while the U.S. has been reluctant to encourage further military conflict in the region at the risk of provoking a forceful response from the Kremlin. However, the deterioration of Georgia’s strategic position in the region may just be the event needed to make the U.S. relent.

What does the future hold for the region as a consequence of this treaty? The most immediate and likely development will be the signing of a similar treaty between Russia and South Ossetia. Russia cannot help but notice the lack of a significant response from the U.S. or Europe and will be emboldened to press their advantage. Further down the line, treaties such as this one will possibly pave the way for greater economic development in the Eurasian Economic Union. Russia is determined to connect Iranian energy and industrial exports to Eurasian and European markets. One of Russia’s most important projects in this regard involves the construction of railways linking the Caucasus and Iran with Turkey. Routes going through Iran, Azerbaijan, Russia, Armenia, and Turkey are all in various stages of planning. Yet many of these routes face a common obstacle; Georgia’s refusal to finalize approval for projects crossing through its territory. If Russia can succeed in forcing Georgia to capitulate on this position, either through utilizing the threats of losing Abkhazia and South Ossetia or through further Balkanization, Russia will achieve a significant economic objective in the greater Central Asian region.

Image by Apsuwara

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