In August 2008, the Russian government recognized Abkhazia’s independence from Georgia. Abkhazia had been de facto separate from Georgia since the war of 1992–1993, but had spent the intervening decades impoverished and isolated. The wider international community did not recognize its independence. Abkhazia’s citizens felt perpetually on the brink of war with Georgia, which still maintains that Abkhazia is an autonomous republic inside Georgia. After Moscow’s show of support, Abkhazia has been in a stronger position politically.
Civil society activist Liana Kvarchelia of Abkhazia’s Center for Humanitarian Programs and Irakly Khintba of Abkhazia’s State University and the Center for Humanitarian Programs provided their perspectives on the current situation in Abkhazia and its relations with Russia. Carnegie’s Thomas de Waal moderated the event.
Dependence on Russia
Abkhazia relies heavily on Russia for security, military, and economic investments, the two speakers said. They asserted that people in Abkhazia will always value and appreciate the assistance Russia provided in August 2008, believing that Russia protected Abkhazia from a potential invasion by Georgia. As such, Russia is and will be Abkhazia’s main partner. But they said that Abkhazia is also keen to establish relations with other states. Many Westerners ask if people in Abkhazia will manage to preserve their aspiration for independence while maintaining such a close relationship with Russia. In response to this question Kvarchelia suggested that if the international community were to continue to deny recognition of Abkhazia’s independence, its relations with Russia would become even stronger. Russia’s ties to Abkhazia include:
- Military Agreements: Russia has a military base in Abkhazia and, in March, Russian and Abkhazian presidents signed a 45-year agreement on joint military efforts.
- Joint Border Guards Agreement: The Russian Federal Security Service (F.S.B.) will assist in training of Abkhaz and South Ossetian border guards. Khintba noted that this agreement also gives Russia free use of Abkhaz and South Ossetian air and water space to protect their borders with Georgia.
- Economic Investments: The political opposition in Abkhazia is concerned that Russian investments in airports and the railway, and increased inflow of foreign investments are creating a form of dependence on Russia.
The relationship between Abkhazia and Russia is asymmetric, Kvarchelia noted, but this is understandable, given their distinctly different capacities and international status. She said that Abkhazia needs to make decisions on its internal development independently in order to bolster its sovereignty and become a full-fledged member of the international community.
Developments at the Geneva negotiations
International discussions on security and stability arrangements in South Ossetia and Abkhazia were launched at the Palace of Nations in Geneva in October 2008. The UN, EU, and OSCE are mediating, and the United States, Russia, and Georgia are official participants in the discussions.
- Parties of Conflict: Both Khintba and Kvarchelia noted that the language of the Geneva negotiations is shifting from a non-use-of-force agreement between Abkhazia and Georgia to describing the situation as a conflict between Georgia and Russia. This change excludes Abkhazia as a party of conflict.
- Isolation vs. Occupation: Georgia has been pushing for the conversation in Geneva to focus on Russia’s de-occupation of what it identifies as Georgian territories, rather than the de-isolation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. This only serves to further anger Abkhazians as they do not view their land as an occupied territory.
According to Khintba, Abkhaz public opinion on the negotiations is divided: some think that after the recognition by Russia, the conflict with Georgia is resolved, and there is no further need to negotiate with Georgia; others think that the conflict will not be resolved until Abkhazia and Georgia accept an equal and balanced relationship.
Ultimately, both experts argued, a non-resumption of violence agreement between Abkhazia and Georgia would create important legal conditions for Abkhazia’s development. In particular, a legal framework of this type would prevent future Georgian violence against Abkhazia.
International community recognition
Apart from Russia, only Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Nauru have recognized Abkhazia as an independent state. The rest of the world still regards it as a part of Georgia. Khintba said that many in Abkhaz society perceive the absence of international recognition as an absence of support by the global community.
Their status as an unrecognized independent state has a strong impact on the way the Abkhaz people interact with the international community:
- The United States: Kvarchelia suggested that Abkhazia has had to appeal to anti-American countries for recognition. Khintba added that some Abkhaz leaders have argued that if the United States had recognized Abkhazia before Russia did, it is possible that Abkhazia would be more pro-Western today.
- Russia: Khintba pointed out that some experts think that on the one hand, Russia is not interested in having more countries recognize Abkhazia’s independence because it would decrease Russia’s influence over the small country. On the other hand, other experts argue that it is important for Russia to justify its decision to recognize Abkhazia’s independence to the rest of the world, so as to win international support for the legitimization of Abkhazia’s status.
- The West: The West is perceived quite negatively in Abkhazia, asserted Khintba. Twenty years after first Georgia-Abkhazia war, the West has made no real attempt to engage with Abkhazia. The situation in Abkhazia is different from 20 years ago, but there are no corresponding changes in the West’s approach Abkhazia. In Kvarchelia’s opinion Abkhaz society associates the West with its double standards toward Abkhazia’s independence.
Abkhazia and Western Aid
Many experts in Abkhazia believe that without international recognition it will be harder for Abkhazia to develop as a democratic nation. Khintba suggested the following areas where the United States and the West can help:
- Expert consultancy is needed for further development of democratic institutions and modernization
- Focus the Geneva negotiations on a non-use-of-force agreement
- Increase the activity of international organizations in Abkhazia
Both experts underscored that a continued lack of international recognition of Abkhazia’s independence and international reluctance to engage and cooperate with Abkhazia directly will eventually increase its dependence on Russia. They noted that it is in the best interests of both Abkhazia and the international community to help Abkhazia on its path toward being a fully independent functioning democracy.