Vienna, December 1 – Many in Russia and the West have speculated that Moscow’s decision to recognize the independence of Abkhazia could undermine the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation by serving either as a precedent or a model for non-Russian groups within that state’s borders.
But now there is growing evidence that Abkhazia or at least some Abkhazians may represent a more direct and immediate challenge to Russia’s territorial integrity, a threat that helps to explain some of the actions Moscow and Sukhumi have taken in recent days toward each other and toward the Abkhazian diaspora in Turkey.
In an article posted on the pro-Tbilisi portal Abkhazeti.info last week, Fridon Dochiya of “The Georgian Times” writes that “the Russians thought that having recognized the independence of Abkhazia, they deserve gratitude” from the Abkhazians. But in that, he says, “they were mistaken” (abkhazeti.info/news/1227493748.php).
Many Abkhazians in Abkhazia, of course, are so dependent on Moscow that they have no choice but to enthusiastically support the Russian position on all things, he continues, but not all Abkhazians either there or in the large Abkhazian diaspora in Turkey do. And that is creating serious problems for the Russian authorities, he suggests.
Among them are efforts by Abkhazians living outside of Russia to promote the creation of greater Abkhazia, a united and independent Circassia as well as independence for Chechnya and other republics in the northern Caucasus, efforts symbolized by the publication of maps by the diaspora showing all these areas as independent.
Moscow worked hard to promote Abkhazian support abroad for its plans to recognize the independence of Abkhazia, organizing meetings and offering “compatriot” status to some diaspora Abkhazians. And Russia was pleased that Abkhazians abroad played an active role in getting the five million plus Circassian community there to back Moscow’s moves in Georgia.
But having energized these communities, the Russian government may have created a monster as far as it is concerned, Dochiya suggests, especially since there is growing evidence that some Abkhazians in Abkhazia share the views and even are making common cause with Abkhazian activists abroad.
Malkhaz Gulashvili, the president of the Georgian Times media company, told Dochiya that Sokrat Dzhinkoliya and Stanislav Lakoba, the latter of whom is secretary of Sukhumi’s Security Council, had had what he described as “warm” meetings with those Abkhazians abroad, some of whom are promoting this broader agenda.
On the one hand, of course, such contacts could be entirely innocent and not say anything about Sukhumi’s intentions or the ability of Abkhazians and Circassians abroad to advance this cause. And on the other, Dochiya’s report is likely to be dismissed as a Georgian effort to create problems for Moscow, forcing it to look over its shoulder as it works with Sukhumi.
But there have been two other developments in the last few days that suggest what the Georgian journalist is saying may point to a more fundamental problem. First, since recognizing Abkhazian independence, Moscow has sought to replace many officials in Sukhumi with people it has more confidence in.
Abkhazian President Sergey Bagapsh, who was elected in 2005 despite Russian opposition, may be the ultimate target, rumors in that republic suggest, lest his more independent-minded approach create problems for Russia which to date, except for Nicaragua and Hamas, is Sukhumi’s only international supporter (abkhazeti.info/news/1227829374.php).
And second, last week, the widely respected International Crisis Group reported that some Abkhazian officials in Brussels have told Western diplomats “privately” that they want UN observers to remain in their republic “in some capacity so [that the Abkhazians] are not left solely with Russian troops” (www.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=20042).
These Abkhazian statements may reflect nothing more than the desire of Sukhumi with Moscow’s backing to have the UN force there re-authorized without any reference to Georgia. But it may also mean that relations between Abkhazians and Russians could be deteriorating since the latter recognized the independence of the former.
And if some in Sukhumi are in fact in sympathy with the Abkhazians and Circassians in Turkey regarding the borders and status of Abkhazia and other republics in the northern Caucasus then it is quite likely that tensions between Abkhazia and Russia could rise, possibly leading to dramatic changes in the Russian treatment of its newest client state.