BACKGROUND: On May 27, Abkhazia’s opposition leader Raul Khajimba and his followers captured administrative buildings in Sukhumi in a surprise move. Within days, Abkhazia’s ousted President Alexander Ankvab voluntarily stepped down, opening for the election of a new Abkhaz leadership in August. Moscow’s envoy, Vladislav Surkov, played a significant role in the process of reaching a political settlement to the crisis in the region. Ironically, Khajimba lost the 2004 presidential elections to Ankvab’s predecessor, Sergei Bagapsh, but is now making a strong comeback in Abkhaz politics. Russia actively promoted Khajimba in the 2004 elections, but the pro-Moscow candidate suffered a humiliating defeat that resulted in a political crisis in Abkhazia at the time. In 2005, Khajimba was awarded the position of vice-president in a face-saving compromise to Russia. Khajimba’s background in the Soviet-era KGB and Moscow’s unwavering support for him position him as Moscow’s preferred candidate to rule Abkhazia.
The coup-d’état in Abkhazia could have been regarded as a unique development, caused by the republic’s internal conflicts. However, Russia’s active involvement in resolving the standoff and similar recent developments in South Ossetia indicate that Russia may be implementing a larger plan aimed at consolidating control over the leaderships of these entities. In the June 8 parliamentary elections in South Ossetia, the opposition United Ossetia party won over 40 percent of the seats. The party’s leader is South Ossetia’s Minister for Emergency Situations (MChS), Anatoly Bibilov. Not unlike Khajimba in Abkhazia, Bibilov was Moscow’s preferred presidential candidate in South Ossetia’s 2011 presidential elections and lost them to the opposition candidate Alla Jioeva. Now, with strong financial support for his party, Bibilov has taken over the republic’s parliament. While he has denied plans to overthrow the president of South Ossetia, Leonid Tibilov, the parliament’s leverage on Tibilov will certainly increase manifold, which will allow United Ossetia’s Russian supporters to implement their policies in the republic with greater ease.
After the brief Russian-Georgian war in August 2008, Russia recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states despite strong protests from Georgia and the West. Since then, Moscow has maintained that Sukhumi and Tskhinvali are independent international entities, even though they remain strongly dependent on Russia for their security and economic viability. Yet the high level of international attention to the post-conflict situation in these regions circumscribed Russia’s ability to exercise control over them and both strayed a little further away from Russia’s embrace than it could tolerate. Ankvab did not allow Russian businesses to buy real estate in Abkhazia, and Tibilov managed to retain all the key political figures in his government, in spite of pressure from Moscow.
IMPLICATIONS: Profound political changes have taken place in both regions, as Georgia is about to sign its Association Agreement with the EU. With the signing of the agreement planned for June 27, Moscow certainly needs maximum leeway in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Both Ankvab and Tibilov have become increasingly problematic for Moscow, which is discontent with the limitations to its control over these small territories that are so dependent on Russia. The interests of Abkhazia and South Ossetia do not coincide with those of Russia as neatly as is sometimes assumed. In this particular case, while Moscow would like to use the Georgian breakaway territories to stall Georgia’s progress toward signing the agreement with the EU, the leaderships of these territories would prefer political stability and economic development, which are certainly not the primary goals of Russia’s present policies in the region.
In Abkhazia, the Russian government may use the issue of ethnic Georgians in Gali to pressure Georgia. The Abkhaz opposition has argued that Georgians in Gali received Abkhaz passports illegally and should be deprived of their citizenship. An estimated 25,000 Georgians in Gali may be affected. In addition, the Abkhaz opposition accuses the previous government of having granted citizenship to ethnic Georgians in the republic in order to receive their support in elections. For the Georgians themselves, the benefits of being able to participate in the elections were probably of minor importance, while the primary advantage of holding an Abkhaz citizenship is that it allows them to cross the border with Georgia without obstacles. If they are deprived of their Abkhaz documents, Abkhazia’s Georgian population may have to leave the territory, putting pressure on the government in Tbilisi.
In South Ossetia, the pressure arrangement is different, as the United Ossetia Party headed by Bibilov has declared that joining South Ossetia to the Russian Federation is its primary goal. Proponents of such a move argue that South Ossetians should be unified with their ethnic brethren in the republic of North Ossetia, a subject of the Russian Federation. Aside from exploiting Ossetian nationalism, it is frequently emphasized that unification would bring considerable economic benefits for the republic. South Ossetia’s current president, Tibilov, has been much more reticent about accession to Russia, saying that it is desirable, but that the time is not ripe. North Ossetian politicians have also been unenthusiastic about unification, apparently fearing that the share of financial installments they receive from Moscow may decrease further if they are to share them with the impoverished South Ossetia.
Even though both Abkhazia and South Ossetia present plausible opportunities for Russia to ramp up pressure on Georgia, Russian officials have not explicitly indicated any plans to impede Georgia’s agreement with the EU. At a press conference on May 22, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs official Alexander Lukashevich stated that Russia respected the right of all nations to join various international institutions. At the same time, however, Lukashevich warned that there would be consequences if Georgia signed the agreement with the EU, primarily of an economic nature.
As demonstrated by the events in Ukraine, Russia’s tolerance for neighboring countries joining EU-sponsored integration formats is limited. At the same time, as it becomes increasingly tied up in what is becoming a long-lasting crisis in Ukraine, Russia’s capacity for subversive actions elsewhere is also limited. Although neither the expulsion of ethnic Georgians from Abkhazia, nor annexing South Ossetia, are particularly costly moves in themselves, they will give rise to further international criticism and isolation of Russia. Hence, while Russia’s preparations in Abkhazia and South Ossetia are most probably connected to Georgia’s progress toward signing the agreement in June, they are also highly contingent on how the situation in Ukraine evolves and potential reactions from the West.
CONCLUSIONS: Increasing its control over Georgia’s breakaway territories, Russia moves in closer to use these territories against Georgia to stall its drift toward the West. At the same time, this move can be regarded as the export of Russia’s domestic political model of relations between the central government and the regions. Moscow wants to retain a tool for putting pressure on Georgia, but the actual use of this tool depends on the resolution of the conflict in Ukraine. The tools themselves also have an expiration date, as the new political elites brought to power in Abkhazia and South Ossetia will over time seek greater autonomy from Moscow, and their loyalty can be effectively utilized only for a limited time.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Valeriy Dzutsev is a Senior Non-Resident Fellow at the Jamestown Foundation and Doctoral Student in Political Science at Arizona State University.
(Image Attribution: Wikimedia Commons/Spartaky)