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Fears in Abkhazia as Georgia grows closer to Russia

21 June 2024
Illustration: Tamar Shvelidze/OC Media

As speculation grows that Russia might hand over Abkhazia to Georgia in light of its passing of the foreign agent law, fears are mounting in the region of what the future might hold. 

For the second year running, Georgians met spring with chants of ‘No to the Russian law!’ and ‘No to the Russian government!’ outside their country’s parliament. 

While in part, a straightforward condemnation, the chants also point to genuine concerns that the country’s government had revived the controversial foreign agent law in part as a show of deference to the Kremlin. 

[Read more: Why is Georgian Dream reviving the foreign agent law?]

In Sukhumi (Sukhum), that idea has prompted concern that warming relations between Moscow and Tbilisi might lead to a shift in Russia’s attitude towards Abkhazia.

‘It’s a small republic, and its status has not been completely resolved’, said Sergey Markedonov, a senior researcher at the Moscow State Institute for International Relations (MGIMO) whose analysis often mimics, or even foreshadows official Kremlin policy.

In an interview with Abkhazian journalist and political observer Inal Khashig in April, he said that 24 years from Moscow’s recognition of Abkhazia’s independence, the ‘agenda’ in Abkhazia was set to change. 

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‘Abkhazia will change: the old agenda will go away, new things will appear, including some related to Russia’, said Markedonov. ‘Because old problems, conflicts […] they will become part of history.’

A few days later, Khashig wrote that ‘unverified sources’ in Tbilisi had suggested that Georgia’s ruling party founder, Bidzina Ivanishvili, would that evening announce that Abkhazia’s integration with Georgia was about to begin. 

The unverified sources proved incorrect, with Ivanishvili only reiterating promises of a ‘united and whole Georgia’. 

But the prospect has nonetheless caused ripples in Abkhazian and Georgian society, reaching senior officials in the Abkhazian government.

Abkhazia’s security council secretary and senior diplomat Sergei Shamba on 23 May suggested that while ‘confederal relations’ between Georgia and Abkhazia were not realistic, he hoped for ‘a different format, a different integration, more of a union state’. 

While Russian state media rushed to clarify that Shamba was referring to a union between Abkhazia and Russia, Abkhazian observers noted that it was unclear if he meant Abkhazia’s aspiration to join the union state between Russia and Belarus, or some form of integration with Georgia.

Abkhaz political scientist Astamur Tania notes that a significant thorn in the side of such propositions, if genuine, is the Abkhazian people’s unwillingness to join any such union. 

In an interview with Khashig, Tania stated that while Russia had between 1993 and 1999 pressured Abkhazia to come to an agreement with the Georgian government, using sanctions and blocking men between the ages of 16 and 60 from entering Russia, Abkhazia had refused to compromise on its aim of independence.

‘From the point of view of geopolitics, Abkhazia is a sort of subtropical dead end […] a kind of botanical garden’, Tania added. 

He noted that while this ‘poses certain dangers’ for Abkhazia, there were also opportunities in the situation, in that Abkhazia could define its role as an independent actor, rather than as a strategic site. 

He added that ‘resolving relations with Georgia’ could not take place without Russia’s involvement. 

‘We must develop a position regarding what is happening around us so as not to become a bargaining chip’, he said.

Georgia’s rhetoric has, however, proven obstructive to the prospect of a union, with the political landscape allowing only for a firm commitment to returning control of Abkhazia and South Ossetia to Georgia; no confederations in question. 

In a speech on Georgia’s Independence Day on 26 May, Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze announced that the real ‘Georgian Dream’ was a ‘unified and robust Georgia, together with our Abkhaz and Ossetian brothers and sisters’ becoming ‘a fully-fledged member of the European family in 2030’. 

The speech quickly prompted Shamba to definitively rule out talks with Georgia about a common ‘confederal state’, and was followed also by condemnation from Abkhazia’s and South Ossetia’s foreign affairs ministries. 

However, the following day the first deputy chair of the Russian Duma's Committee on CIS Affairs, Konstantin Zatulin, downplayed Kobakhidze’s statement as merely a result of internal political rivalry, aimed only at a domestic audience. 

A ‘reincarnated Soviet Union’

Nino Kalandadze, former deputy foreign minister and current director of the Georgian think-tank the Chavchavadze Centre, suggests that Georgian Dream’s claims that it will regain control of Abkhazia and South Ossetia are aimed at justifying its unpopular and anti-Western moves.

‘[There’s an idea that they may] be rewarded with Russia’s goodwill towards allowing some form of reintegration, or negotiation with regards to the occupied regions […] and that it’s worth now sacrificing Georgia’s Western integration, at least temporarily’, says Kalandadze. 

Kalandadze also cited phone calls from a ‘social study’ that some Georgians had  reported in recent days, that juxtaposed choices between ‘restoring Georgia’s territorial integrity’ and maintaining the country's pro-Western path. 

She added that the moves came in light of shifts in the region, with Azerbaijan closely aligned with Turkey, and Armenia looking westward.

‘This makes it even more crucial for Moscow now to maintain control over Tbilisi and sustain its favourable regime, at least until the war is over in Ukraine and the EU enlargement policy is finalised, which is expected by 2030’, said Kalandadze. ‘Maintaining Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream in power is now obviously key for Moscow’. 

Kalandadze adds that Moscow’s involvement in Abkhazia and South Ossetia is directly aimed at providing it with ‘control over Tbilisi’, and keeping NATO out of the region. 

She adds that while the Kremlin has no reason to follow through on suggestions that it might ‘loosen its grip’ on the two regions, she also considers Russian officials’ condemnation of Georgian Dream’s rhetoric to be essentially performative. 

‘I think these messages are not just being well-coordinated with the Kremlin, I think these messages come from the Kremlin’, says Kalandadze. 

Tornike Turmanidze, a senior fellow at Tbilisi-based think-tank the Rondeli Foundation and a former deputy secretary of Georgia’s National Security Council, tells OC Media that while potentially Russian-driven messages about reintegrating Abkhazia and South Ossetia remain hypothetical at present, signs of closer ties with Russia remain a significant cause for concern. 

‘If Georgia continues this path toward Russia, China, and the authoritarian camp, and given that our integration into NATO and the EU is stalled, I fear that the next step in Georgia-Russia relations might be discussing the possibility of either a confederation or a union state [with Russia and Belarus]’, Turmanidze cautions. ‘This would mean that these occupied territories were not joining Georgia but vice versa — Georgia would be joining the Russian-occupied territories as part of the reincarnated Soviet Union’. 

Such ideas have been put forward by Russian officials. Hours after Kobakhidze’s speech, Russian online outlet Podyom quoted the deputy chair of Duma's Committee on International Affairs, Aleksey Chepa, sharing his own ‘dream’ in response to a ‘Georgian’ one — to see all former Soviet republics reunited in some sort of a commonwealth.

In conversation with OC Media, chair of the Institute for the Study of Nationalism and Conflicts, Nino Kalandarishvili, remains sceptical about the possibility of Russia handing over Abkhazia and South Ossetia, suggesting that no agreements between Russia and Georgia’s government had been made. She said, however, the prospects of such a deal might serve a purpose within Abkhazia. 

Kalandarishvili suggests that Abkhazia’s political groups might use the idea for ‘internal societal consolidation’, against the backdrop of antipathy towards Georgia and tense relations with Russia in the run-up to its general elections in spring 2025.

Kalandarashvili also warns that Georgia’s introduction of the foreign agent law, widely condemned by the country’s Western partners, will also have a negative impact on civil dialogue between Georgia and Abkhazia, as bilateral civil dialogue formats were almost exclusively supported by Western actors based in Georgia. 

‘Russia doesn’t want to help us’

Amongst ordinary people in Abkhazia, opinions vary greatly even within similar demographics. 

Several older people told OC Media that they feared a return to hostilities, but some did not oppose reunification under Russia’s oversight. 

‘I will be very happy if Russia can finally unite us’, said one pensioner in Sukhumi. ‘I will be happy to go to my father’s grave in Zugdidi, and to my daughter in Sochi. And she would be able to freely travel from Russia to Georgia directly through the Ingur [pass]’. 

‘My family is scattered between Russia, Abkhazia, and Georgia, and I have no one in London and Paris. We don’t need Europe’, she added. 

However, another person of a similar age expressed to OC Media her strong opposition to any Russian involvement in such negotiations. 

‘I would like unification with Georgia, but without Russia. Russia brings fear and destruction, nothing more’, said one Sukhumi resident. ‘I’ve been waiting for a Russian pension for 15 years, but they don’t want to help us. It would be better if we were in Europe together, there’s more order there.’

A number of sources also confirmed to OC Media that Abkhazian volunteer military units have been training for approximately a year and a half, with the intention of resisting any Georgian claims on Abkhazia. 

The units are trained by Abkhazians with professional military experience in the 1993–1994 war in Abkhazia and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. 

At the same time, Abkhazian observers have suggested that Russia is preparing to decrease its military presence in Abkhazia. On 25 May, the Russian government approved a draft protocol on amendments to a 15-year-old agreement with Abkhazia on a joint Russian military base. While the document did not state what changes were being made, it was widely assumed that this would mean a reduction in the contingent of the Russian armed forces and their locations. 

Whether this is due to shortages in military personnel and weapons because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, or whether there are other reasons for the withdrawal of military forces from Abkhazia was not clarified. 

Many young people, however, remain firmly opposed to unification with either Georgia or Russia. 

‘I was born after the war’, said one student at Abkhazia’s State University. ‘I don’t know what it’s like when Abkhazia submits to someone.’

‘I don’t want to be spoken to in Georgian, and I don’t want the Russians to silence me when I protest, for example, against the ratification of the Pitsunda [state dacha] agreement. Leave us in peace, it’s better here than in either other place.’  

 For ease of reading, we choose not to use qualifiers such as ‘de facto’, ‘unrecognised’, or ‘partially recognised’ when discussing institutions or political positions within Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and South Ossetia. This does not imply a position on their status.

Read in Armenian on CivilNet.
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