Thursday, May 19, 2011

Window on Eurasia: Abkhazia Again ‘Struggling for Independence’ -- But Now Perhaps ‘From Russia,’ Moscow Observer Says

Paul Goble

Staunton, May 19 – In the nearly two years since Russia recognized Abkhazia as an independent country, relations between Moscow and Sukhum have deteriorated with many in the former unhappy that they have to pay such a high price for geopolitics and many in the latter suspicious that Russia is a threat to Abkhaz independence, according to a Moscow observer.

In yesterday’s “Komsomolskaya Pravda,” Vladimir Vorsobin, that paper’s political observer, explained why “after recognition, ever more problems are appearing” in the Russian-Abkhazian relationship on such questions as resorts, religious administrations, property ownership and even the border between the two (

To the extent that and as long as Abkhazian leaders viewed Tbilisi and Washington as the main problems, relations between Abkhazia and Russia were “simplified,” with people in both of their capitals subordinating any disputes to the broader and more important geopolitical problems of relations with Georgia and the United States.

But “in recent months,” this dynamic has changed. Tbilisi and Washington are less often viewed as credible opponents, and people in both Sukhum and Moscow are focusing on their own differences, differences made all the more troubling, Vorsobin says, because of the amount of money Russia is spending and the natural suspiciousness of the Abkhazians about outsiders.

The Abkhazians have become outraged by Russian cutbacks in support for sanitaria, and the Russians in turn have been upset by what they see as shady practices and even illegal actions by the Abkhazians – and by the efforts of the Russian embassy in Sukhum to excuse the Abkhazians rather than defend Russian citizens.

Other issues have added to the tensions. The Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church has been reluctant to see the Orthodox in Abkhazia become an independent church lest that undermine Moscow’s claims in Ukraine and elsewhere but at the same time has acted in ways that seem intended to put the Abkhazian Orthodox under its domain.

Some Orthodox clergy in Abkhazia openly declare, the Moscow journalist says, that “the future of the Abkhazian church must be constructed not only on the basis of ties with the Russian church but also with other Orthodox churches, including the Greek and Serbian. There must be multi-polarity in the foreign policy of the Abkhazian church.”

Just last Sunday, the Abkhazian Orthodox split, with part agreeing to be subordinate to the Russian Orthodox Church and part rejecting that approach, such splitting the Orthodox “front” and exacerbating tensions between Russians and Abkhazians. (For details on this, see

Other areas where tensions are high concern property that the Russians claim but that the Abkhazians have seized, and what may surprise many even more over the border between Abkhazia and the Russian Federation. Vorsobin offers a map showing a portion of the northwest part of Abkhazia that Moscow wants transferred to it.

The Russian side makes two arguments. On the one hand, some of the villages in that region are overwhelmingly ethnic Russian. And on the other, this part of Abkhazia is very near the places where Moscow hopes to stage the 2014 Olympics. Having the territory under direct Russian control would make that task easier.

But from the Abkhazian perspective, Russia’s interest in part of Abkhazia’s territory is seen as the effort of another outside power to seize Abkhazian lands. Indeed, the Moscow observer says, “hot heads” in Sukhum now accuse Moscow of evil intentions and “suggest that Moscow repent for expelling a half million Abkhazians to Turkey in the 19th century.”

Out of geopolitical calculations, the Russian embassy in Sukhum has tried to keep all this out of the press, obviously without success, and Russian government officials have rejected Duma complaints about how much money Moscow is spending on the ungrateful Abkhazians. “The main thing,” Russian officials say, “is geopolitics,” not money.

That is “useful advice,” Vorsobin says, but it is clear from his article that he does not expect many on either side of this deepening divide to take it for much longer.

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