Friday, May 22, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Abkhazians Fear Russia Will ‘Swallow’ Their Republic

Paul Goble

Vienna, May 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 (
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.”
Sergey 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.”
Other 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 about power.
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 impasse.
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.

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