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Georgia: Securing a Stable Future
Georgia: Securing a Stable Future
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
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

Briefing 58 / Europe & Central Asia

Georgia: Securing a Stable Future

Georgia has maintained political and economic stability despite the shock of the 2008 war with Russia, but the government needs to use the two years before the next elections to create public trust in democratic institutions by engaging in meaningful dialogue with the opposition over further reforms.


Two and a half years after the war with Russia, Georgia’s political life is increasingly turning towards preparations for the 2012-2013 elections and debates around divisions of power after a recent overhaul of the constitution. The substantial amendments, which come into force in 2013 at the same time as President Mikheil Saakashvili steps down due to a term limit, will give much greater power to the prime minister. The next two years will go a long way in determining whether the country progresses toward a truly stable, modern democracy, or deteriorates into a fragile, pseudo-pluralistic and stagnating system. The government and political opposition movement need to use that crucial period to create public trust in democratic institutions. The best way to achieve this is by engaging in meaningful dialogue to ensure a fair election cycle, strengthened rule of law, economic stability and the legitimacy of the future government.

Much speculation centres on the role Saakashvili will play after he leaves the presidency. Detractors allege that the constitutional amendments are intended to allow him to continue to dominate the country from the newly empowered position of prime minister. He denies this, says that he has not decided on his future course, and the amendments were not made for any specific individual. His ruling United National Movement (UNM) argues that the constitutional changes were necessary to improve the balance of power and facilitate the implementation of reforms and that they meet long-held demands of opposition parties to cut back presidential powers. The changes in fact did very little to create a more parliamentary-based system, and the haste in which they were pushed through was criticised by international observers.

Saakashvili’s government defied widespread speculation that it would be driven from power after the 2008 war with Russia. Instead, the UNM greatly solidified its position in May 2010 local elections. It comfortably won the Tbilisi mayor’s office and a majority in all 69 municipal councils. Nevertheless, polarisation between the government and the ideologically diverse opposition parties – and the latter’s inability to formulate any common agenda or message – remain serious impediments for implementing reforms and establishing a mature democratic system. Only seventeen opposition deputies are taking part in the 150-seat parliament, while sixteen others who won seats are boycotting. Positively, the government and fifteen opposition parties agreed in November 2010 to begin negotiations to overhaul the electoral code.

The generous $4.5 billion Georgia received from 38 countries and fifteen international organisations over three years to help post-war recovery – a mix of direct budgetary assistance, humanitarian aid, loans and support to infrastructure development – guaranteed economic stability in the short term, but these funds are running out, and neither foreign direct investment nor exports have picked up. Tbilisi is thus likely to face substantial challenges to repay the foreign debt and cover the trade deficit. The government also needs to do more to support local entrepreneurs.

Over the past two years, the government initiated important reforms in the judiciary and the media, but more is needed to build public confidence in local institutions. Many Georgians still perceive judges as dependent on the executive branch and overly respectful of the prosecution, especially as the acquittal rate in criminal cases is 1 per cent. Property rights abuse continues without effective legal redress. The media is freer than elsewhere in the region but deeply polarised along political lines and tends to emphasise editorial opinion more than straight reporting; the most important TV outlets are still heavily influenced by the government.

The authorities should address these shortcomings together with those raised by international observers of the 2010 local elections, so as to facilitate smooth conduct of the next electoral cycle in 2012, as well as promote stability over the longer term. More specifically, they should:

- engage in a good-faith dialogue with opposition groups regarding electoral reform; take up recommendations from international and local organisations on the electoral code; investigate previous election violations and intimidation cases; and eliminate partisan abuse of public resources during elections;      

- develop a fully independent judiciary, including by taking steps to ensure that high-profile political, human rights and property usurpation cases are fairly reviewed; and

- pursue substantive, productive dialogue with multiple political forces, civil society representatives and business leaders while designing and implementing key reforms.

In return, opposition groups should:

- contribute actively to the work of the electoral reform group and to a wider dialogue by putting forward practical action plans on issues of concern; and

- publicly disavow violence, while using only legal means to address grievances.

The international community, including the European Union (EU), U.S., Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and other relevant organisations, should contribute to domestic progress by:

- prioritising in discussions with the government issues such as fair elections and close monitoring of the electoral process, as well as independence of the judiciary, rule of law and a fully free and transparent media environment.

This briefing concentrates on the domestic situation and recommends areas of needed reforms as the country heads into a crucial political cycle. Subsequent reporting will examine the continuing conflict with Russia, including the presence of thousands of Russian troops in Abkhazia and South Ossetia in violation of the 2008 ceasefire agreements. While President Saakashvili usefully announced in November a unilateral non-use-of-force policy, applicable to those troops, this military presence contributes to an atmosphere of uncertainty in Georgia, as do occasional violent incidents near the Administrative Boundary Lines (ABLs). The international community needs to continue to press Moscow to withdraw to positions held before the 2008 conflict, facilitate the return of displaced ethnic Georgians to their homes in those two territories and allow access to the EU Monitoring Mission (EUMM). A recent spate of bombings in Tbilisi, which the Georgians said had been ordered by a Russian military officer in Abkhazia – a claim denied by Moscow – adds to the uncertainty.

Tbilisi/Brussels, 13 December 2010