World Review | Washington shames Moscow over 'occupied' Abkhazia

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Washington shames Moscow over 'occupied' Abkhazia

Washington shames Moscow over 'occupied' Abkhazia
President of Abkhazia, Alexander Ankvab, harbours hopes that Turkey will extend recognition (photo: dpa)

THE AUGUST 2008 war between Russia and Georgia was a true watershed. It was the first case of armed Russian intervention into another former Soviet republic.

And it was the first time within the territory of the former Soviet Union where internationally recognised borders were redrawn by military force. Both added to tensions in the already troubled South Caucasus.

The outcome of the war was secession from Georgia by the two provinces South Ossetia – in north Georgia - and Abkhazia to the north west of Georgia on the eastern shore of the Black Sea. Both were awarded formal recognition by Russia, which quickly drew up treaties permitting its permanent military presence.

No other major country followed Russia’s lead in recognising the two new provinces.

This post-war status quo is not only unacceptable to Georgia - ultimately, it could be detrimental to Abkhazia. The presence of Russian troops may be seen as a guarantee of Abkhazia’s security, but it is unsustainable.

During Soviet times, Abkhazia was something of a playground for the Communist Party elite. The regional capital Sukhumi was famed for its palm trees and seaside promenades with two million tourists on vacation there every year.

As the Soviet Union began to disintegrate towards the end of the 1980s, Georgian ambitions to win independence from the USSR were met by Abkhaz ambitions to win independence from Georgia.

In 1992, war broke out, which ended in defeat for Georgia and de facto independence for Abkhazia. Following a ceasefire agreement in 1994, Russian troops were deployed with a UN mandate as peacekeepers.

Abkhazia formally declared independence in 1999, resulting in an international economic embargo that is still in force. It has left Abkhazia's economy highly dependent on Russia, which maintains a border crossing and railway line to Sukhumi.

Moscow infuriated Georgia by making it easy for people in Abkhazia to gain Russian citizenship, and most now hold Russian passports.

When the 2008 war broke out between Russia and Georgia over South Ossetia, Russia used Abkhazia to open a second front against Georgia.

After the 2008 conflict, Moscow declared that it would formally recognise the independence of both South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Abkhazia is presently little more than a Russian protectorate. Following a process of ethnic cleansing and mass expulsion, its population has been reduced to 216,000, from 525,000 in 1989. Its economy is fully integrated with Russia.

Georgia meanwhile puts pressure on foreign firms not to invest there, on pain of repercussions for their operations in Georgia.

Both Russia and Abkhazia have nourished hopes that Turkey would be the first major country to extend recognition. The Abkhaz diaspora in Turkey, some 500,000 strong, has been actively lobbying the Turkish government to do so. Despite protests from Tbilisi, in 2011 the president of Abkhazia, Alexander Ankvab, made a formal visit to Ankara.

US pressure on Russia meanwhile remains firm. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has remained adamant that Russia must withdraw all its troops from Georgia.

Moscow has secured a military foothold inside Georgia, and extended its reach on the Black Sea coast. But if war breaks out between Armenia and Azerbaijan, over Nagorno-Karabakh - the Armenian breakaway region within the borders of Azerbaijan - Georgia will, in return, block all Russian access over land to its Armenian ally.

Moscow may keep insisting that the war against Georgia was a success. But the decision to recognise Abkhazia and South Ossetia was a huge blunder, offering the US a powerful diplomatic asset. In every discussion of security in the South Caucasus, Washington may drive home that Moscow is an occupant in breach of international law, and demand that its troops be withdrawn.

Professor Stefan Hedlund

STEFAN Hedlund is Professor and Research Director at the Centre for Russian and Eurasian Studies, at Uppsala University, Sweden. He trained as an economist and has specialised in Russian ...

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