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Ignore the Georgian Elections at Your Own Risk
Ignore the Georgian Elections at Your Own Risk
Report 202 / Europe & Central Asia

Abkhazia: Deepening Dependence

The historically coveted region of Abkhazia has become even more dependent on Moscow since Russia’s controversial recognition a year and a half ago.

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Executive Summary

The historically coveted region of Abkhazia has become even more dependent on Moscow since Russia’s controversial recognition a year and a half ago. Russia is financing half the region’s budget, and against vigorous Georgian protests, it is spending $465 million to refurbish existing and build new military installations in the picturesque Black Sea coastal area. Virtually the entire population holds Russian citizenship, and almost all trade is with the northern neighbour. It will take constructive, creative thinking on the part of Georgian, Russian, Abkhazian and international actors alike to restore even a modicum of confidence between the parties to the conflict. Given Abkhazia’s unrealistic insistence that Georgia recognise it as independent and the equally unrealistic prospect that Sukhumi will acknowledge Georgia’s sovereignty, the two parties should focus on creating economic and humanitarian links without status preconditions in order to benefit both, build stability and give momentum to a long reconciliation process.

Abkhazian officials concede that the entity’s “independence” is in effect limited by the asymmetrical nature of its relationship with Russia but do not see their deepening dependence on Moscow as a threat. “Independence is a means to an end, and not an end in itself”, a high-ranking official told Crisis Group. “We have the amount of independence that meets our security and economic needs”.

In return for recognition and aid, Russia obtained highly prized military-strategic assets in Abkhazia, damaged Georgia’s drive to join NATO, demonstrated its anger at Western nations for their recognition of Kosovo and underlined its antipathy towards the government of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. Perhaps most notably, Moscow has shown that in certain circumstances it can flex its muscles unilaterally without suffering significant political costs. Relations with the U.S., NATO and the European Union (EU) are essentially back to normal, even though Moscow has failed to implement important elements of the ceasefire agreements concluded at the end of its August 2008 war with Georgia by President Medvedev and French President Sarkozy, the latter acting as the EU Presidency.

Abkhazia’s international status is far from settled. With only three countries other than Russia considering it independent from Georgia and no chance of any EU member-state or other major international recognition in the near term, the conflict is unresolved and could again destabilise the southern Caucasus. As many as 212,000 ethnic Georgians remain forcibly displaced, and whereas some ethnic Georgians have in the past been able to return to the Gali district, Abkhazian officials most recently stated that no returns to other parts of the entity will be authorised. Questions also linger as to how solid a long-term asymmetrical relationship between Russia and Abkhazia might be. Some, especially ethnic Abkhaz, who number less than 100,000 in the entity, are wary of becoming overly reliant on Moscow economically, politically, and culturally, or essentially being assimilated.

The chances for meaningful progress between Tbilisi and Sukhumi were slim even before the 2008 war and have been further eroded. Tbilisi sees the conflict as a matter of Moscow occupying and annexing its territory, while the Abkhazian authorities see Russia as a guarantor of security. Diplomatic relations between Moscow and Tbilisi have been cut. The bitterness between the two governments is deeply personalised and emotional. Beyond occasional discussions in Geneva called for by the ceasefire agreements, there is no real process or forum for Russia, Georgia and representatives from Abkhazia and South Ossetia to find solutions to even day-to-day issues.

The Georgian authorities should show their constructiveness by not trying to isolate Abkhazia, even though Moscow’s flouting of the ceasefire agreements makes this a bitter pill to swallow. It remains uncertain, given their military and economic dependence on Moscow, how much room for independent manoeuvre the de facto authorities in Sukhumi have to deal with Georgia. The long-awaited “State Strategy on the Occupied Territories: Engagement through Cooperation” unveiled by Tbilisi in January 2010 partly reflects new thinking. Though the initial reaction from Abkhazia has been dismissive, the plan contains some concepts that, if followed through, could start the two sides on a more promising course.

This report gives a snapshot of the state of affairs in Abkhazia today, particularly the extent of Russian involvement. Future reporting will deal more extensively with opportunities for finding common ground, as well as present more detailed analysis of refugee and IDP and other issues.

Sukhumi/Tbilisi/Istanbul/Brussels, 26 February 2010

Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia

Ignore the Georgian Elections at Your Own Risk

Originally published in Bloomberg

What with the Arab Spring, Israeli threats to attack Iran, and the bloodshed in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, the world has largely forgotten the troubled Caucasus region.

But European and Western leaders would do well to take another look at what is happening there, four years after Georgia’s 2008 war with Russia proved the dangers still posed by unresolved military conflicts from the collapse of the Soviet Union.

On Oct. 1, Georgians will vote in the least-predictable election that the country has had since it gained independence more than 20 years ago. A quick look at a map or globe shows that Georgia and the pipelines it hosts to transport oil and natural gas to Western markets are all too close to the hot spots that so preoccupy the world’s leaders today.

The parliamentary campaign between the ruling United National Movement party, headed by President Mikheil Saakashvili, and the Georgian Dream opposition coalition that is headed by Georgia’s richest man, Bidzina Ivanishvili, has been divisive, malicious and, at times, ridiculous.

Saakashvili’s second and final presidential term ends in late 2013, and he says he isn’t seeking the prime minister’s post. But he remains the hyperactive face of the ruling party.

Frenetic Drama

Given the acrimony between the two sides, and a history of less-than-perfect Georgian elections, there are genuine concerns that the losing party will refuse to concede defeat. In the current atmosphere of frenetic drama, this might set off confrontations that turn violent, or provide an opportunity for trouble makers to destabilize the country.

Foreign governments need to clearly convey the message that any party stoking violence or resorting to fraud will face international condemnation and isolation. More than 400 poll observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe should provide assurance. Election-day complaints should be addressed via peaceful means. Georgia’s courts could play a useful role, but they haven’t effectively reviewed evidence of ballot fraud in the past; ideally, international observers should monitor that process, too, and offenders should be prosecuted, so that grievances don’t spill into the street.

The elections will choose the country’s 150-seat parliament, and under a new constitution the bulk of the president’s current powers will be taken over by the new prime minister, the position that Ivanishvili claims he will fill soon. While keeping a low public profile, the former recluse has built up political capital over the years by bankrolling almost $1 billion in philanthropic projects. Many of them were relatively modest in scale but very wide in reach, such as individual grants to members of Georgia’s struggling creative class, cash to pay for medical operations for poor people, and financing to put new roofs on every house in his home village.

Like Ivanishvili, most of the main opposition leaders were once allies of Saakashvili. Shifting alliances comes naturally to Georgians, who over most of the past 2,000 years have had to adapt constantly to rule by various empires: Roman, Mongol, Persian, Ottoman, and then Russian and Soviet. Since a five-day war in August 2008, Russia now effectively controls two regions: South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which have declared independence from Georgia but have been recognized only by Russia and a handful of other countries. Russia has established military bases in both territories.

Saakashvili’s ruling party has accused Ivanishvili of being a stooge of Russian President Vladimir Putin. It says Russia has “poured 2 billion” into the election, without elaborating on the currency or what was bought. Ivanishvili scoffs at claims that he is a “Kremlin project.” He vows to gradually repair ties between Georgia and Moscow, while keeping his country on a “Western” orientation. Those promoting the “Russian agent” allegations usually connect them to Ivanishvili’s having made his $6 billion fortune in Russia during the wild 1990s. He returned to Georgia in 2004.

Russian Troops

Officials in Moscow have made no statement in favor of any party, although Putin’s antipathy for Saakashvili is well-known, at least partly because of the Georgian leader’s bid to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Russia seems keen to remind Georgians of its proximity on the eve of the election. Last week, European Union military monitors in Georgia said Russian troops had been building up at the administrative border with South Ossetia, and that a Russian helicopter briefly touched down on Georgian-controlled territory. A major Russian military exercise in the North Caucasus organized uncharacteristically late in the summer also frayed nerves in the capital, Tbilisi.

Both the United National Movement and Georgian Dream have portrayed the election through Armageddon-tinged glasses, accusing the other of trying to rig the vote. Georgian Dream says the ruling party will use “massive falsification” of the ballot to win, and that it is abusing government resources in the campaign. The United National Movement says the opposition is engaged in tremendous “vote buying” and plans “mass destabilization” after the election in order to seize power.

Both sides have made miscalculations. Several Georgian Dream activists were recently given 20 to 40 day jail terms for relatively trivial infractions, and others have made claims of government harassment or pressure. This came after a major scandal was unleashed last week when secretly taken videos of torture in a Georgian jail became public. Some members of the broad Georgian Dream coalition, for their part, use crude nationalist rhetoric, repeating old claims that Saakashvili and key members of the government are not Georgians, but Armenians.

Campaign Tone

So far, the OSCE monitoring mission has found that election preparations are on schedule, and has noted no significant problems that would undermine the democratic outcome. In a report issued this week, however, the monitors warned that the tone of the campaign was “confrontational and rough.”

Although intense campaigning is understandable, both sides need to tone down their rhetoric and, once the elections are over, look to how they can govern together. No party is likely to win an overwhelming majority of the kind that the United National Movement now enjoys in parliament. Previous foes will have to sit together in the legislature to push ahead with needed reforms, such as overhauling the judicial system.

A more diverse parliament would be good for Georgia. It would create an opportunity for political debate to come in from the streets. For this to happen, without jeopardizing the legitimacy of the democratic process, no side should disturb the establishment of the new chamber, either by last-minute fiddling with election results, or by provoking violence.