BACKGROUND: After the prepared agreement for Abkhazia’s integration with Russia was leaked to the public on October 13, the resulting outcry in Abkhaz society forced the governments of Abkhazia and Russia to renegotiate their positions. Abkhazia’s government derived its own version of the agreement and submitted it to Moscow for further discussion. On November 19, Abkhazia’s government approved the new iteration of the bilateral agreement and recommended the president of Abkhazia, Raul Khajimba, to sign it. The Russian government quickly proceeded to endorsing it on November 21 and on November 24, the leaders of Russia and Abkhazia, Vladimir Putin and Khajimba, signed the agreement. The new version replaces the word “integration” with “cooperation”, envisages rotating military command of Russian-Abkhaz joint forces, instead of Russia’s sole command of the joint military. The requirement to relax the rules for acquiring Abkhaz citizenship by Russian citizens was also dropped from the agreement. This reflected Abkhaz sensitivities about Russian purchases of real estate in the republic. Khajimba reassured his compatriots that the country would not lose its independence and that there was no question of holding a referendum in Abkhazia on accession to the Russian Federation. However, Khajimba’s opponents challenged the signing of the new agreement through public protests, while his supporters geared up to rally in support of the agreement. On November 24, an estimated 500 members of the opposition party Amtsakhara protested against the signing of the agreement. At the same time, an estimated 2,000 supporters staged their own public demonstration.
On November 20, Boris Chochiev, head of South Ossetia’s presidential administration, stated that South Ossetian and Russian experts were working on an integration agreement between South Ossetia and Russia. Chochiev said the new agreement would primarily address military issues, but given the model agreement between Russia and Abkhazia, it is likely that the new agreement will also strive to strip South Ossetia of its limited independence from Russia. South Ossetian analyst Dina Alborova commented on the new agreement for Ekho Kavkaza radio, saying that the widely accepted opinion among experts that South Ossetia was more lenient on issues of its sovereignty than Abkhazia, given the existence of its twin Republic of North Ossetia within the Russian Federation, was wrong. “South Ossetia is not indifferent to the issues of sovereignty. Of course, hot debates took place at the time of the [parliamentary] election campaign, but they subsided after the elections.” Alborova asserted that South Ossetia and North Ossetia were already quite integrated with each other and there was no need for rejecting the republican sovereignty.
Another South Ossetian analyst, Alan Jussoev, told Ekho Kavkaza that militarily South Ossetia already felt quite protected by Russia, making even greater integration with its northern neighbor redundant. According to Jussoev, the only thing that he would like to see changed in the relations between South Ossetia and Russia was the removal of border controls between them. South Ossetia’s former president Eduard Kokoity spoke in favor of strengthening South Ossetia’s independence at the Ossetian conference in Vladikavkaz, North Ossetia, on October 31. On November 7, Kokoity further reiterated his view that South Ossetia should stay independent and that Russia “supported its independence” at a special press conference.
IMPLICATIONS: It appears that not only Abkhazia but also South Ossetia seeks a certain degree of independence from Russia, a tendency that Moscow may want to curb as quickly as possible. Though both regions, but especially South Ossetia, depend heavily on Russia for their security and financial stability, the prospect of becoming just another region of Russia with no regional rights does not seem attractive to elites in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. This is not surprising since they receive almost the same benefits that Russian regions enjoy, while in contrast to these Russian subjects enjoying a large degree of domestic political autonomy from Moscow.
Moscow’s motivations for speedy incorporation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia into Russia are less clear. The same expedient signing of an agreement is probably expected in South Ossetia, which is seen in Moscow as easy prey. However, sensing Moscow’s sensitivity about fast-tracking the agreements, both Abkhazia and South Ossetia have hardened their positions to the extent possible, given their inherently weak negotiating positions vis-à-vis Russia. Abkhazia received significant concessions from Moscow; most prominently Abkhazia retained some control over the military and prevented a massive Russian procurement of Abkhaz real estate.
Russia’s haste may be informed by its geopolitical calculation that its projected future capabilities will be reduced, hence the government in Moscow appears to press ahead to close the issue of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as soon as possible in preparation for the impact of Western economic sanctions and protracted animosity with the Western camp. At present, while Russia still has plenty of reserves and is an attractive alternative for impoverished Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Moscow wants to complete its territorial expansion. When Russia’s economic capacities will later decline and with them its attractiveness to the poor territories, it will be harder to annex Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Also, the Russian government appears intent on annexing both territories in parallel. If Russia were to annex South Ossetia first as an easier object, this would have underscored Abkhazia’s special, higher status, which would have made it even harder for Russia to annex the region. Therefore, Russian policymakers apparently decided to ramp up the annexation process of the Georgian breakaway territories in order to entrench in anticipation of a long period of cold war with the West.
The small and de facto independent territories on Russia’s southern rim resemble the North Caucasian republics that may decide to leave Russian Federation if Moscow’s capacities become severely undermined as a result of economic collapse. In order to avoid such a development, Moscow prefers to formally annex Abkhazia and South Ossetia and entrench itself in the South Caucasus against Western allies, most prominently Georgia. Tighter control over Abkhazia and South Ossetia will also allow Moscow to interfere in Georgian domestic affairs more efficiently and attempt to tip the political balance in the country to its advantage.
CONCLUSIONS: The Russian government’s plan for a quick implementation of integration agreements with Abkhazia and South Ossetia mirror the geopolitical calculations in Moscow. Russian policymakers apparently predict that their country’s appeal to its neighbors will decrease as a result of the standoff with the West. Russia’s capacity to use hard power will also suffer. To capitalize on past gains and forestall losses, the Russian government is proposing to legalize Russia’s territorial acquisitions in the South Caucasus as soon as possible. In the meantime, the Abkhaz and South Ossetian governments prefer political autonomy from Russia, while simultaneously receiving significant financial benefits. There is a certain clash of interests between Moscow and its satellite statelets in the South Caucasus, implying that Russia will have to provide large incentives when forcing its tiny allies in the region to sign the proposed agreements. If Moscow would have taken a more gradual approach, it would likely have encountered far less resistance from Abkhaz and South Ossetians and it could have offered them much less. But the Russian government’s hurry has alerted its South Caucasian allies and Moscow will find it harder to convince the disgruntled forces in these territories to sign up for Russia’s proposals.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Valeriy Dzutsev is a Senior Non-Resident Fellow at Jamestown Foundation and Doctoral Candidate in Political Science at Arizona State University.
(Image Attribution: Abkhaziagov.org)