Emil Avdaliani on how Abkhazia’s internal problems signal Moscow’s changing tactics towards the unrecognized regions in the former Soviet space
In January, anti-government protests erupted in Abkhazia. Visits by Russian officials such as Vladislav Surkov and Rashid Nurgaliyev during and after January 12 denouement – when the Abkhaz president Raul Khajimba resigned – point to Moscow being behind the scenes controlling the overall development of the political process. Though the western media generally believed his resignation was due to a growth of internal opposition to his rule, there are long-term causes which might have involved Moscow’s interests, too.
Over the past several years there have been hints in the media on growing discontent within the Russian political elite with the way Abkhazia is run. There have been questions raised on how effectively Russian money is spent. Complaints have been circling over what is seen as a predatory nature of an Abkhaz political elite focused on extracting economic benefits from Moscow. High level corruption and the black market in Abkhazia have overshadowed various attempts by Moscow to control the effectiveness of its spending.
Moreover, over the past several years there is a worsening criminal situation in Abkhazia. This directly concerns Moscow as the region has been a popular summer destination for Russian tourists. But the recent degradation of the security situation in Abkhazia dooms the prospect of this economic lifeline for Sokhumi. In 2017, the first killing in decades took place when a Russian was violently put to death by captors seeking ransom. In 2018 two Russian tourists were killed in a blast due to the lack of safety at an ammunition depot. Another killing of a Russian happened in 2019. All this was taking place amid frequent cases of aggression against Russian tourists (thefts of private belongings and widespread fraud). As a result, there were many accusations from Moscow, while the Abkhaz public usually responded begrudgingly to Russian interventions.
Yet another, rarely mentioned, reason for Moscow discontent was Khajimba’s intransigence. Though for years regarded as Moscow’s favorite, he was a staunch defender against Moscow’s encroachments, like his predecessors. Notably, he resisted letting wealthy Russians and businesses to buy swathes of lands in Abkhazia, whose independence and sovereignty remains unrecognised by Georgia and much ofthe world.
Moreover, Khajimba was also closely associated with Vladislav Surkov, a Kremlin-appointed curator of Russia-controlled territories of Ukraine and Georgia. Surkov’s resignation might well fit into the overall narrative of growing discontent in Moscow with how Abkhazia has been run over years.
There is no specific date when Surkov took the Abkhazia portfolio, but he became more intertwined with the region sometime after 2012. After 2014, his visits to Sokhumi became frequent. As in the case with Donetsk and Lugansk separatist leaders, for Surkov in Abkhazia all was built around personal contacts. An Abkhaz president should have been a man of his choosing. So was Khajimba.
He was also less interested in economic issues. Then comes his notoriety for being intransigent in negotiations with Abkhaz politicians. Little is known on his thinking on Abkhazia. But from various statements, political moves and written pieces, it is possible to grasp several important features.
Surkov strongly supported the Russian policy of recognition of Abkhazia after Russia’s war with Georgia in 2008. As said above, he was less interested in economic problems and he viewed Abkhazia from a wider, more regional perspective. For Surkov, Abkhazia was an an integral part of Russia’s South Caucasus policy. After all, it has prevent Georgia’s aspirations to become a full member of the European Union (EU) and NATO.
However, to the dismay of the Russia leadership, Surkov could not solve long-term problems: with Tbilisi’s westward ambitions thwarted for the moment, what should be done in Abkhazia? Should Moscow continue to entice neighboring states to recognize Abkhazia’s independence? Clearly, almost 12 years since 2008, Moscow has not been able to garner many important states to recognize the breakaway. So far the list consists of Syria, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Nauru, another Georgian territory of South Ossetia. It is unlikely that this will change soon. The US will be a major disincentive; its laws withhold any financial aid to states which recognize Abkhazia as independent.
With the failure of recognition policy, another possibility for Moscow and Surkov was to develop Abkhazia economically into a proper entity. This would have prevented the fleeing of the populations to the Tbilisi-controlled territory for medical, trade and educational reasons. In the long run this would create troubles for Sokhumi. The population would decrease; a positive image of Tbilisi among the Abkhaz would emerge.
Thus, Surkov’s overall management of Abkhazia failed to transform Abkhazia into a secure and economically stable land. It is likely that dissatisfaction with Surkov’s Abkhazia policies was building up before the January crisis. Khajimba was Surkov’s choice, but the final moments of the crisis showed how the Kremlin cut Surkov’s influence.
For example, once the crisis erupted it was the Deputy Secretary of the Security Council of the Russian Federation, Rashid Nurgaliyev, and only then Vladislav Surkov, that played a decisive role in Khajimba’s resignation. Nurgaliyev was the first to visit Sokhumi on January 10. Throughout the next day he held meetings with Khajimba and his major rival, the opposition leader Bzhania. On January 12, Nurgaliyev participated in the decisive meeting between Khajimba and Bzhania as a mediator. Surkov arrived in Sokhumi only on January 12, talking to Khajimba by telephone only, after which Khajimba announced his resignation.
Beyond the dissatisfaction with Surkov’s policies laid out above, there is also a larger problem with how he viewed Abkhazia. As with his vision of eastern Ukraine, Surkov regarded Abkhazia in the same ideological even geopolitical prism. He was less interested in the economic, security or purely military problems of the region. For his successor, though, which is likely to be Marat Khusnulin, economic undercurrents will be essential. Indeed, Khusnulin’s portfolio involves economic cooperation between Russia and Abkhazia. In the years when Russia’s economy is strained under western sanctions, coupled with its ineffective political system, any spending on Abkhazia, along with other Russia-controlled unrecognized territories, is a burden for Russia.
Nevertheless, with Khajimba and his master Surkov now gone, Moscow’s approach towards Abkhazia is unlikely to change. Still, it is larger geopolitical trends in and around the South Caucasus (same way as is the case with eastern Ukraine) that will form Moscow’s position. The region will remain one of the theaters of Russia-West military and economic competition over the former Soviet lands. So the Kremlin will continue to see Abkhazia as a tool to limit Georgia’s westward ambitions. Moreover, in Moscow’s thinking, its military build-up in Abkhazia will also prevent any large non-NATO military cooperation between Tbilisi and the West.
What we are then likely to see in Abkhazia is a change of tactics rather than strategy. Moscow will try to pull strings on large expenses, limit corruption schemes and help improve the security situation for Russian tourists. In the midst of the crisis, Moscow might also try garner more benefits: limitless buying of Abkhaz lands, resource-rich territories, etc. This also fits into the overall development of Russia’s foreign policy in the former Soviet space: Moscow is less inclined to finance various governments (the result of recent negotiations with Belarus is a good example) and other territories if there is no financial advantage. Geopolitics is as always crucial, but the economy in the end matters too.