After formal recognition by Russia, Black Sea republic asks itself some big questions.
By Akhra Smyr in Sukhum (CRS No. 458, 05-Sep-08)
The turbulent events of the last month have turned the Caucasus upside down and left many questions still to be answered. One thing, however, is certain – Abkhazia has emerged a winner from the crisis, capturing territory from Georgia and then winning diplomatic recognition from Russia.
As Russian troops poured into South Ossetia, Abkhaz forces opened a second front and captured the upper part of the Kodori Gorge, which the Tbilisi government renamed Upper Abkhazia after winning control of it two years ago. One man was killed and two were wounded in the operation.
The Abkhaz also gained a strip of land along the river Inguri which had earlier belonged to the Georgians.
These offensives did not result in an outbreak of jubilation, and although people in Abkhazia were glued to their television sets, they were mostly watching the Olympic Games in Beijing.
When Russian president Dmitry Medvedev formally recognised Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states on August 26, it caught the republic completely by surprise. After 15 years of suspense, no one, not even senior officials, believed Russia would actually take this step.
Just after three in the morning, as Medvedev finished announcing the news in a televised address, the first salvoes of automatic gunfire began to sound over Abkhazia as the celebrations began.
In under ten minutes, the streets of the Abkhaz capital Sukhum were full of people. Cars bearing the national flag of Abkhazia zoomed along the streets hooting their horns, the sound mingling with gunshots and shouts of delight.
It seemed as though the entire population had come out to mark the occasion. President Sergei Bagapsh and the rest of the Abkhaz leadership came out to join the celebrations on Sukhum’s central square, in front of the old parliament building, still in ruins from the 1992-93 war.
Now that Abkhazia has taken this step towards statehood, it is having to consider just how ready it is to meet the challenge.
Maxim Gvinjia, Abkhazia’s young deputy foreign minister, said his ministry would have to hire more staff urgently to man a new embassy and consulate in Moscow and possibly other capitals as well.
Abkhaz Airlines has been running just one flight within Abkhazia, but suddenly there is talk of starting scheduled flights to Moscow, Krasnodar and Rostov-on-Don.
The company will have to recruit skilled personnel, buy new aircraft, repair airport infrastructure and resolve other issues. But director Vyacheslav Eshchba is upbeat, and says he only needs a month-and-a-half or so to get everything working properly.
Local businessmen are hoping for a boom as more Russian money flows into Abkhazia.
Asida, who works for a firm of estate agents, says property prices fell at the beginning of the summer but now she expects a precipitate rise.
She predicts that prices in Gagra, Novy Afon and Sukhum – the most desirable locations – will be on a par with Moscow within a year as wealthy Russians gain enough confidence in the political climate to buy homes in this sunny region.
The Abkhaz are anticipating Russian investment in tourism, banking, transport and communications. Those lucky enough to own plots of land by the sea are looking for firms able to put up hotels and restaurants.
The prospect of a big influx of Russian money into a small place like Abkhazia is causing trepidation as well as excitement.
Many fear Moscow will exact a high price for diplomatic recognition.
A senior Abkhaz official who asked not to be named told IWPR that Russian leaders wanted to see key figures in the government replaced so that the Kremlin could control the economy.
“Bagapsh will have to endure more than one difficult conversation, and I doubt he will be strong enough to stand up to such strong pressure,” said the official.
Russian financial interest in Abkhazia is made more urgent by the prospect of the 2014 Winter Olympics, which will take place in Sochi, only a few kilometres north of the border.
Leon Ajinjal, who heads a non-government organisation that looks at the future development of Abkhazia, wonders whether this nascent state will be allowed to become an independent international player, or whether Russia will hamstring it and ultimately swallow it up.
Despite such concerns for the future, the prevailing mood for now is one of heady optimism.
Akhra Smyr is a correspondent with Chegemskaya Pravda newspaper in Abkhazia.
- Moscow’s Windfall Recognition of Abkhazia - IWPR, Caucasus Reporting Service