Fallout from the Abkhazia Crisis
On May 27th, the opposition in Abkhazia, a breakaway region in Georgia, took control over the presidential administration building. The de facto Abkhazian president, Alexander Ankvab, left Sukhumi, the capital of this unrecognised state. The parliament passed a resolution demanding his resignation and Ankvab eventually complied, submitting his official letter of resignation.
The crisis in Abkhazia came unexpectedly. For many, it could be perceived, by mistake, as a spill-over from the situation in Ukraine. The hypotheses about the possible reasons which set off the crisis are different, but the primary reason relates to having someone in power that supports closer integration with Russia. Russia’s money transfers to Sukhumi, from Moscow’s point of view, have not been so effective. More money was being lost to line Akvab’s pockets.
Inside Abkhazia, a possible accession with Russia, similar to the “Crimean scenario”, might not be as easy as officials in the Kremlin think. The last straw that broke the camel’s back was the process of passportisation, which included Georgian residents in the Gali district. Abkhazian passport issued to them have provided them with a variety of rights, triggering a wave of protests among the population of the de facto republic and more opposition to Ankvab and his supporters.
Despite the possible assumption of its origins – the local dissatisfaction of Ankvab and his internal policy along with the economic crisis and external influence of Russia, its relevance to the political context in Georgia, is undisputed. Tbilisi is just about to sign the Association Agreement with the European Union. Many experts foresee a possible Moscow interference in the process by causing potential destabilisation in the region. Abkhazia, which is de jure a part of Georgia, is recognised by Russia and benefits from large financial and military support from the Kremlin. However, still among the population of the breakaway republic are ethnic Georgians living mainly in the Gali district situated next to border with the territory administrated by Tbilisi.
Since the crisis in Sukhumi, many experts are afraid that the Gali setting could lead to potential armed conflict. The opposition, with its leader Raul Khadzimba who is now taking control over the rebel region, had already before used the argument of expatriation of Georgians from Gali. Khadzimba is an ex-KGB agent and ran twice for president in previous elections. In the last 2011 presidential elections he lost against Ankvab.
The current strategy of the Georgian government is focused on the attractiveness of the country to the breakaway territories through the benefits from closer cooperation with the EU, especially visa free travel, education and access to the EU market of Georgian goods. However, just before the signing of the EU association agreement, elections to the parliament in the so-called South Ossetia are scheduled, which might be held jointly as a referendum on accession to the Russian Federation. Early presidential elections in Abkhazia are also now scheduled for August, which again might be used as a potential threat of destabilisation of the situation for Georgia.
If the situation in the Gali region continues to deteriorate, the Georgian government might be in a difficult position both externally and internally. The lack of achievements in Euro-Atlantic integration together with “soft” policy towards the breakaway regions could lead to low support of the government.
The Georgian government should take more visible steps and join diplomatic efforts on the international forum to show the actual situation in Abkhazia and that the Gali population may be in danger, especially since the crisis itself has not been widely visible in the global media which were more focused on the situation in Ukraine.
Elżbieta Kustra-Pirweli is an international relations specialist and PhD candidate focusing on the South Caucasus region. She has served as deputy spokesperson of the European Union Monitoring Mission in Georgia (EUMM) in the regional office in Gori and has participated in OSCE/ODIHR election observation missions.