Sunday, May 18, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Russian Border Region Signs Accord with Abkhazia

Paul Goble

Baku, May 19 – Krasnodar kray Governor Aleksandr Tkachev and Abkhaz President Sergei Bagapsh signed a cooperation agreement late Friday, one of the below-the-radar-screen options Moscow has to support Sukhumi against Tbilisi but also one that could have an unintended and unwelcome impact on regions and republics within Russia itself.
But because the agreement will help Moscow overcome its current problems with the construction of facilities for the 2014 Sochi Olympics, this agreement may have more to do with that and with the assignment of a new Presidential plenipotentiary representative who will focus on that than anything else.
Even in Soviet times, border regions of the USSR regularly signed accords with regions across the border, especially in bloc countries, to handle local movements of labor and goods. And since 1991, the number and reach of such agreements by Russian regions with their opposite number have expanded dramatically, but the Krasnodar-Abkhaz accord is special.
First of all, its timing suggests that this was carefully coordinated with the central Russian government which has been looking for ways to intensify contacts with and thus support for Abkhazia ( and also
Second, the prominence of its signatories – often these accords are signed off on by much lower officials – indicates that Krasnodar, Abkhazia and Moscow all have an interest in ensuring that this agreement attracts some attention, even if it does not cross what the Georgian government or its supporters might view as a red line.
And third, the accord is focused on providing Abkhaz assistance for the construction of Olympic facilities in Sochi, something Vladimir Putin has made a centerpiece of his career but a venue that many Circassians oppose because it was the place from which their ancestors were expelled to the Ottoman Empire in 1864.
(Indeed, it is entirely possible that Abkhazia’s support for Sochi may cost it the backing of some Circassian groups who up to now have been among its biggest supporters. Clearly and entirely reasonably, Sukhumi sees Russian support as more important. But if this causes Circassians to back away from them, the Abkhaz could become more isolated ethnically.)
The agreement calls for the creation of a joint working group to determine what construction materials Abkhazia might send to Sochi and to other construction sites in the region, something that Krasnodar’s governor said would be “mutually profitable” since it would “significantly increase the budget of Abkhazia, create new jobs, and raise incomes” there.
But a commentary by the distinguished Moscow journalist Yulia Latynina on Friday suggests that these consequences may be far less important than others and that the timing of this accord may have more to do with overcoming the problems Moscow is having in building the venues for the Sochi Olympics (
She argues that Moscow appointed Vladimir Ustinov to this position because he is from and thus knows very well the city of Sochi, where Moscow is building “the construction project of the century.” If that is the case, then, those games are having, with this latest inter-regional accord, yet another quite possibly unintended impact on the situation in the North Caucasus.

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