Friday, 4 September 2009

Window on Eurasia: Abkhazia 'Drifting Away' from Russia, Moscow Analyst Says

Paul Goble

Richmond, Indiana, September 3 – Moscow’s expectations of gratitude from Abkhazia because of Russia’s decision to extend diplomatic recognition to that breakaway republic are proving to be unjustified, according to an influential Russian analyst, and he predicts that Abkhazia will continue to “drift away” from Moscow as Sukhum(i) [Ed. by AP -See] pursues its own interests.

In an article published on the “Nezavisimaya gazeta” website today, Aleksandr Karavayev, who is the deputy head of the Moscow State University center for the study of the former Soviet space, offers the most pessimistic assessment yet from a Russian analyst about where Abkhazia is heading (

If most analysts have assumed that Abkhazia will pursue a variant of the pro-Russian policy that South Ossetia’s Eduard Kokoity backs, either because they assume that both breakaway republics will act only on the basis of gratitude or because they think that the only issue is whether these regimes will survive, Karavayev draws a very different conclusion.

Entitling his analysis, “Moscow is becoming the hostage of its own policy,” the Moscow State University specialist argues that the Russian government’s hopes that an independent Abkhazia could help Moscow with the Sochi Olympics and would allow Russians to do what they liked there have proved to be misplaced.

Because of the reaction of the international community, he suggests, Abkhazia is not in a position to provide much help for Russia’s plans to prepare for an Olympic Games in nearby Sochi in 2014, but it is the attitudes of the Abkhazian authorities themselves that have kept Moscow from achieving other breakthroughs it expected.

On the one hand, continued uncertainty in Abkhazia has meant that the republic has not become the cash cow that many Russian businessmen had expected with Russians travelling to places these same Russians would own. And on the other, Abkhazia has taken a very tough line against all foreigners, including Russians, regarding the ownership of property there.

As Karavayev points out, property in Abkhazia “for Russians even now, remains in an undefined state” not only because Abkhazia is following the example of other former Soviet republics and allowing foreigners to rent rather than own land but also because in the absence of international recognition, all property transactions in Abkhazia lack normal guarantees.

“In Moscow, people had expected that Sukhum(i) after [Russian] recognition would make an exception for Russia and give Russian businessmen and citizens the change to acquire land and property without any limitation.” But, Karavayev says, “the Abkhaz are afraid of losing their resources” and have not been willing to take that step.

And even in the gray or black market that exists there, Russians have not done very well even though they have been prepared to spend hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars in Abkhazia, Karavayev continues. “The Abkhaz are tough negotiators: they well understand their worth” even if it happens that “their ambitions strongly exceed their possibilities.”

That is now “the norm” for Russia across the North Caucasus, but “in Abkhazia,” the Moscow analyst says, “it has already taken on hypertrophic forms.” As a result, although quasi-legal trade in property is taking place between Russians and Abkhaz, “mutual distrust is growing,” because each side feels the other is taking advantage of it.

As a result, Karavayev says, “the Abkhaz have not begun to make any gestures of gratitude: they do not want to transfer their resources into the hands of Russian capitalists,” and they have dragged their feet or even openly opposed Moscow’s calls for the creation of a free economic zone in the northern part of the republic.

Given all Moscow’s problems across the Caucasus, this might seem to be a relatively small one, Karavayev says, “but alas with each year the probability of Abkhazia’s draft away from Russia will grow,” a development other powers almost certainly would be in a position to encourage if they were to accept the outcome of the August 2008 war as a new baseline.

But even if these outside powers do not, tensions between Moscow and Sukhum(i) likely mean that Russia will face ever more problems there even as the Russian government is confronted by a very different set of problems in South Ossetia where the government is pursuing an even more dependent policy than Moscow at least currently wants.

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