Thursday, 11 September 2008

Abkhazia Seeks International Support

Following recognition by Moscow, Abkhaz leadership to seek full international acceptance.

By Inal Khashig in Sukhum (CRS No. 459, 11-Sep-08)

Abkhazia is building swiftly on recognition by Russia in an effort to win credibility as an independent state in the wider international community.

The upbeat mood in the Abkhaz capital Sukhum created by Moscow’s formal recognition on August 26 received another boost on September 5 with a decision by Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega to acknowledge both Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent countries.

The news came as a surprise, even though politically-charged debates in Sukhum’s cafés have focused on the question of which country might recognise the Black Sea republic next. Venezuela, Cuba, Belarus and Syria had been mentioned frequently, but not Nicaragua.

Abkhaz presidential adviser Vyacheslav Chirikba welcomed the news, saying, “It’s good that our independence isn’t like that of Northern Cyprus, which has been recognised by Turkey alone for the last 30 years. Now it will be easier for other countries to take a decision to recognise Abkhazia and South Ossetia.”

President Sergei Bagapsh has said he expects 10 or 11 states to recognise Abkhazia, but has not said which ones.

Abkhazia and South Ossetia look set to pursue different paths as they seek to formalise their separation from Georgia.

When South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoity met a group of western academics and journalists in Sochi on September 11, he said he hoped his territory would join Russia.

“We are looking forward to joining North Ossetia and the Russian Federation,” he said. North Ossetia is a constituent republic within the Russian Federation.

Subsequently, however, Kokoity elaborated by saying he still wanted South Ossetia to be independent.

Bagapsh has been categorical that he wants to achieve full international recognition, in alliance with Russia.

He told journalists in Sukhumi that he did not want to see a greater level of militarisation in the Caucasus, and said there was no need for new Russian army bases in Abkhazia.

“We can use the existing infrastructure and bases where Russian peacekeepers have been deployed for the past 15 years,” he said.

Many people in Abkhazia say they do not want to be cut off from Europe, despite the western backing for Georgia in the recent conflict. Foreign minister Sergei Shamba has frequently said that Abkhazia’s relations with the outside world look in three directions – towards Russia, towards Turkey, which has an Abkhaz diaspora of more than half a million people, and towards the European Union.

An editorial in the Abkhaz newspaper Chegemskaya Pravda held out the hope that Europe would come to look more favourably on Abkhazia, and warned that refusing to recognise it would be counterproductive for the West.

“Most politicians who set the policies of the United State and the European Union countries still see Russia not as an equal partner but through the prism of the Cold War,” said the editorial. “Unconditionally and totally denying the Abkhaz their right to statehood in order to please Georgia will lead to a boomerang effect for Washington and Brussels, and the very thing they initially strove to avoid will come to pass – Abkhazia as a continuation of Russian territory as far as the river Inguri.”

The article argued that the US and other western states must realise that Abkhaz independence was unavoidable. “The only acceptable way out of this situation is not to procrastinate on this [recognition], but to follow Moscow… If that happens, there is still a slim possibility that they [western states] will be able to assert their own interests,” it said.

In the mean time, Abkhazia is pressing ahead with acquiring all the paraphernalia of a sovereign state. On September 10, its foreign minister – together with his South Ossetian counterpart – went to Moscow to sign the documentation establishing diplomatic relations, and the Abkhaz government has also begun drafting a friendship and cooperation treaty with Russia.

The government has already earmarked a location for the new Russian embassy, a historic building in central Sukhum known as the House of the Merchant Aloizi.

The government says Georgia’s formal rejection of a 1994 Moscow agreement establishing the terms of a ceasefire and peacekeeping mandate for Abkhazia after the 1992-93 war means that the Russian peacekeepers deployed in the republic may take on a new role.

The 1994 accord placed a limit of 3,000 on the peacekeeping force, but the Abkhaz government says it wants to see 3,800 Russian troops stationed there.

“This will give Abkhazia the chance to genuinely fortify our border with Georgia, which is the first thing we are now going to do,” said foreign minister Shamba. “The Moscow agreement forbade us to build fortifications along the border. In the zone for which the peacekeepers were responsible, security forces were only allowed to carry personal firearms. Now there are no restrictions.”

There are also plans to refurbish Sukhum airport, which at one time was sufficiently well-equipped to handle flights by the Soviet space shuttle Buran, but has fallen virtually into disuse for the last 15 years. Even before Moscow recognised Abkhazia, there was talk that the airport could become an additional transport hub for the 2014 Winter Olympics, to be held in Sochi. Now the airport is to be used for scheduled flights to Russia.

Bagapsh has said he hopes to see investment in the Abkhaz economy worth 10 billion roubles over the next two or three years, not only in tourism and in construction work for the Sochi Olympics, but also in industry and in oil and gas exploration off the Black Sea coast.

Inal Khashig is editor of Chegemskaya Pravda newspaper in Abkhazia.

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