Abkhazia crisis adds to Russia's political headaches in the Caucasus

Sergei Blagov

Relative calm has returned to Abkhazia following a confrontation linked to the Georgian breakaway region's disputed "presidential" election. Even though large-scale violence has been averted for now, recent developments mark a substantial blow to Moscow's Caucasus policy.

Tension has been rising in Sukhumi, the Abkhaz capital, since the region's presidential vote October 3. Sergei Bagapsh, a political outsider, claimed victory in the election. But the Moscow-backed political establishment has refused to recognize the results, claiming they were skewed by widespread irregularities. [For additional information see the EurasiaNet archive]. Incumbent authorities have mandated a fresh election be held in December, apparently aiming to give Moscow's preferred candidate, Raul Khajimba, a second political chance.

Political passions flared November 12 when Bagapsh supporters stormed government offices -- actions that the region's staunchly pro-Russian "prime minister," Nodar Khashba, characterized as "an armed coup." One person was killed during the initial confrontation. Bagapsh played a key role in helping to restore order, issuing a public appeal for his supporters to disperse. By November 15, authorities were once again in possession of all government offices.

The same day Khashba expressed confidence that a political compromise on the electoral dispute was within reach. "We shall work out the only correct, common decision, making it possible to leave behind this political crisis in Abkhazia, the Itar-Tass news agency quoted Khashba as saying.

Russian pundits did not share Khashba's optimism. The general consensus among Russian media outlets seemed to be that the November 12 events will make a political compromise between Bagapsh and Khajimba virtually impossible -- at least over the near-term. A commentary in the Izvestiya daily said: "the future president of Abkhazia may take office only as a result of a minor civil war, and Abkhazia is on the brink of this."

Meanwhile, a commentary published November 15 by the state-run Rossiiskaya Gazeta expressed concern that the existing Abkhaz administration, headed by Vladislav Ardzinba, "cannot control the situation."

Russia has long regarded Abkhazia as a valuable geopolitical outpost in the Caucasus, underscored by the fact that Moscow granted Russian citizenship to a large percentage of Abkhaz residents. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Depending on the outcome of the Bagapsh-Khajimba dispute, Russia's ability to use Sukhumi as a means for exerting pressure on Georgia could be significantly reduced.

Abkhazia has operated beyond Tbilisi's authority since a 1992-93 conflict. Bagapsh has insisted throughout the electoral crisis that he remains loyal to Russia and has no intention of seeking a rapprochement with Georgia. "We know that nothing can be made in Abkhazia without Russia," the Rosbalt news agency quoted Bagapsh as saying November 14. Despite such statements, some observers believe that it will be hard for Bagapsh, in the event that he emerges as president, to forge a close relationship with Russian officials, given Moscow's overt support for Khajimba during the election controversy.

Abkhazia already has complicated Moscow's diplomacy in the Caucasus by stoking Russian-Georgian antagonism. An exchange of caustic diplomatic statements began November 12, when Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Yakovenko indicated that Russia could intervene in Abkhazia if the post-election violence there continued. Russia could "be forced to take measures to protect its interests," he said.

Georgian officials responded sharply to Yakovenko's comments, accusing Russia of trying to meddle in Georgia's internal affairs. "The situation [in Abkhazia] is controllable ... if no-one from outside interferes," Georgian Foreign Minister Salome Zourabichvili said in an interview with Georgian television broadcast November 13.

Zourabichvili went on to specifically refute Russia's claim that it had a right to concern itself in Abkhaz affairs due to the fact that many Abkhaz hold Russian passports. "This is a concept that is absolutely unacceptable," Zourabichvili said. "If we recall the past, I think this was Hitler's concept with respect to the Sudeten Germans [in pre-World War II Czechoslovakia]."

Russia's first deputy foreign minister, Valeri Loshchinin, initially dismissed the Georgian complaints as groundless. Then, on November 14, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov sought to dispel the impression that Moscow was meddling in Abkhaz developments, reiterating that Moscow supported Georgia's territorial integrity. At the same time, he cautioned Tbilisi against any attempted use of force to re-establish its authority in either Abkhazia or South Ossetia. "We [in Moscow] believe that the settlement of the problem by setting non-natural time frames on behalf of Georgia is not only impossible, but very risky, if not disastrous," Lavrov said in televised remarks.

At the same time Moscow is grappling with the Abkhazia dilemma, it is also trying to work with Tbilisi to promote stability in Georgia's other break-away region -- South Ossetia. On November 15, Georgian officials and South Ossetian representatives began implementation of a de-militarization deal reached 10 days earlier. The two sides, with Russian assistance, aim to destroy military fortifications in the region's conflict zone.

Elsewhere in the Caucasus, Russia is grappling to address new outbreaks of discontent. In Russia's own Karachayevo-Cherkessia autonomous republic, a scandal involving the son-in-law of regional leader Mustafa Batdyev has sparked unrest. The son-in-law, wealthy businessman Ali Kaitov, is accused of ordering the murders of seven business rivals. He is alleged to have ordered his bodyguards to shoot his rivals October 11, while the victims were attending a meeting at Kaitov's vacation home.

Rioters seized government offices in the regional capital Cherkessk on November 9 after the charred remains of the victims were discovered. Mediation by Russian presidential envoy Dmitry Kozak helped quell the protests. Kozak pledged that those implicated in the murders would be vigorously prosecuted, while cautioning against renewed attempts to force Batdyev's resignation.

Moscow has preferred to interpret the crisis in Karachayevo-Cherkessia as a rivalry between local clans, and not a confrontation between the local government and its people. However, tensions in Karachayevo-Cherkessia arguably indicate that Russia's regional policies are in danger of breaking down. Some observers believe Russian policy would be better served if the Kremlin devoted less attention to Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and did more to address the complaints of those in the various Russian regions of the Caucasus.

Editor's Note: Sergei Blagov is a Moscow-based specialist in CIS political affairs.


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