Abkhazia – Russia’s tight embrace

What role does Russia play in the Abkhazia? To the northlies the Caucasian mountain range, to the east lies Georgia with which Abkhazia fought a war, and to the south lies the Black Sea. To the northwest lies its protector – Russia.

It is difficult to overestimate Abkhazia’s reliance on Russia. Regardless of politics and the doings of men, geography makes this unbalanced relationship inevitable. To the north of Abkhazia lies the Caucasian mountain range, to the east lies Georgia with which Abkhazia fought a war, and to the south lies the Black Sea. To the northwest lies its protector – Russia.

Russia’s affinity with and sympathy for the Abkhaz is intimately tied up with the historically fraught relations between the Abkhaz and the Georgians, as well as Russia’s efforts to dominate the South Caucasus. During the Abkhazia war of 1992–1993, kindred peoples of the North Caucasus and volunteers from southern regions of Russia, including Cossacks, came to fight on the side of the Abkhaz against the Georgians. Support also came from Russian volunteers and mercenaries that disagreed with Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s support for Georgia and its president at the time – Eduard Shevardnadze. For the 15 years following the war, Russia provided Abkhazia with security assurances vis-à-vis Georgia but also imposed sanctions and, at least formally, maintained a policy of non-recognition.

Since the 2008 war, Moscow has been Abkhazia’s protector and patron. It recognised Abkhazia’s independence, established diplomatic relations, and moved quickly to consolidate its military foothold following the conflict. Part of this involved signing a treaty to establish joint Russian-Abkhaz forces. Today Russia has some 4,000 soldiers on the territory, with soldiers patrolling the Georgian-Abkhazian border along the Enguri River.

A chaotic democracy

Despite its heavy dependence on Russia for international recognition and trade, Abkhazia maintains a relatively high degree of independence in its domestic politics. Indeed, Russian meddling in Abkhazia’s domestic affairs has at times backfired in spectacular ways.

In the run-up to the elections in 2004 Russia tried to exert pressure by openly supporting Raul Khajimba, the protégé of the incumbent, Vladislav Ardzinba. Shortly before the elections, Vladimir Putin met Khajimba in Sochi, and photos of this meeting were posted everywhere in Abkhazia. But because of this covert display of Russia’s preference for Khajimba, the Abkhaz voted for his opponent, Sergey Bagapsh. This vote was in protest against perceived Russian interference in Abkhaz domestic affairs.

Khajimba immediately contested the results of the vote and overt Russian pressure really began to make itself felt. The then governor of the Krasnodar, Alexander Tkachev, even imposed an economic blockade on Abkhazia, which sent food prices soaring. There was media onslaught to follow, with Bagapsh and his supporters being characterised in the Russian press as “anti-Russian”. There were periodic fights between rival supporters and, for several months, the country was on the brink of civil war.

In the end, Bagapsh went to Moscow to persuade the Russian leadership of his loyalty. The impasse was broken by the well-known Abkhaz historian Stanislav Lakoba, who was elected vice president under Bagapsh. He offered to give his seat up to Khajimba. So Bagapsh and Khajimba ran in new elections and won together. Despite this compromise, there was a complete change of leadership in Abkhazia and Khajimba ended up playing a relatively passive role as vice president.

So, on the surface, Russia's influence in Abkhazia’s body politic is limited. There are no Russians in parliament and all the key positions in the executive and legislative branches of government belong to Abkhazians. In rare cases when a local Russian is appointed deputy prime minister for politically correct reasons, he or she is no more than a mascot – unable to influence important decisions.

Russia invests

Russian financial assistance and investment, along with income from Russian tourists, has been essential for Abkhazia’s development, if not existence.

Between 2009 and 2013, Russian investment in Abkhazia amounted to 11 billion roubles, or 60 percent of Abkhazia’s annual budget, making Russia its primary trading partner. Russian–Abkhaz trade in 2014 amounted to 11.6 billion roubles. Abkhazia’s exports to Russia consist mainly of alcohol, followed by fruit and other agricultural products. Imports from Russia are mostly food products, petrol, machinery, alcohol, tobacco products, and industrial goods.

In February 2016, after Putin met Khajimba in Sochi, the National Bank of Abkhazia received two billion roubles. All in all, Abkhazia will receive the equivalent of around €100 million from Moscow in 2016, which covers around half the national budget and has no strings attached. More than 50 Russian regions cooperate with Abkhazia in one way or another, although there is not much to show for this as yet.

Over one million Russian tourists visit Abkhazia every year – a number that has increased since relations with the West deteriorated over Ukraine and the rouble fell in value. Abkhazia has also benefitted from the sharp reduction in the number of Russian tourists going to Egypt or Turkey. The local tourism industry has bet on this as a trend that will continue into the future and is rapidly building more private hotels to satisfy demand. But the lack of infrastructure and entertainment, and poor service in the region, means that it is mostly the least well-off Russians who travel to Abkhazia for their holidays.

Passports and property

The overwhelming majority of people living in Abkhazia hold Russian passports. But those holding Russian passports issued in Sukhumi cannot receive Schengen visas – except in rare cases. This lack of access to Europe is a major political issue in Abkhazia.

When Russia recognised Abkhazia in 2008, it stopped issuing Russian passports there. Now the Abkhaz can only obtain Russian citizenship by actually living there and going through the normal procedures. This means that the younger generation of Abkhaz only have Abkhaz passports, which means they can only effectively travel to Russia.

While the Abkhaz see Russia as their security guarantor, they also live in fear of being swallowed by their protector. For nearly ten years, Russia has been trying to coerce the Abkhaz parliament into adopting a law that allows the sale of Abkhaz property to Russian citizens. However, Sukhumi fears that the free sale of real estate to foreign citizens will disrupt the republic’s delicate ethnic balance. Before the collapse of the USSR, the Abkhaz constituted less than 18 percent of the population, while today they constitute about 50 percent. Therefore, the question of the sale of real estate to foreigners (mainly Russians) has long split opinion. Initially, parliament refused to pass the Treaty of Alliance on the first Russian text; so changes were subsequently made which, inter alia, removed the possibility of Russians automatically having the right to an Abkhaz passport, and with it the right to own property.

Recently, Sergey Shamba, a pro-Russian member of parliament and leader of the United Abkhazia party, put forward a draft law allowing the sale of property to Russians. In response, Almas Jopua, another member of parliament and leader of the Ainar party, called for a moratorium on the issue. On 16 April, Jopua’s car was blown up in the centre of Sukhumi. Jopua survived but a small child was injured. Some believe the attack was carried out by the Russian security services or supporters of Shamba, while others suspect that Jopua blew up the car himself to galvanise support for his cause.

Jopua immediately called a rally in front of parliament demanding the immediate adoption of the moratorium, and Shamba withdrew his draft law. After a stormy discussion, parliament rejected the moratorium, but a few days later decided to postpone the discussion on the sale of property to foreigners until the housing law was adopted, which will take years. So, in effect, there is a moratorium in all but name, and Abkhazia has been able to buy itself more time and protection from Russian influence.

Russians in Abkhazia, Abkhazians in Russia

Russian culture permeates most aspects of Abkhazian life. Russian television is highly influential throughout Abkhazia, and has contributed to making Russian the main language for receiving foreign news. The older generation of Abkhaz have a Soviet background, meaning that they feel closely allied to Russia and, in recent years, a significant number of young people have left home to attend Russian universities.

There are approximately 20,000 ethnic Russians left in Abkhazia, but this number is steadily declining as the old die out and the young leave to study and live in Russia where there are better career prospects. However, in the past few years there has been the first trickling of a reverse flow. A hundred or so young Russians who want to live in a warm climate and set up their own small businesses have come to settle in Abkhazia over the past few years. However, many live in a semi-legal state of limbo because obtaining an Abkhaz passport is very difficult and having a residence permit does not give Russians the automatic right to buy property. Even if these Russian workers are successful in Abkhazia, they are stifled by red tape. The inability to invest in Abkhazia by purchasing a property and building a life disincentivises young Russians from living there long term.

A few years ago a group of Russians settled in the abandoned Armenian village of Atara and began to produce organic food. Their story and situation is also applicable to the situation in Abkhazia. In 2014, they received a European certificate of quality, which in theory means that their produce can be sold in the EU – still a rather remote prospect. But they live in homes that do not belong to them and work land that formally belongs to the state. They do not even have the rights to rent the land, which puts them in a very precarious position, and have no political influence.

The Georgians living in Gali – in the southern part of Abkhazia – are in the same position. There are nearly 50,000 of them, mostly carrying Georgian passports. Because they are unlikely to receive Abkhaz passports in the foreseeable future, they cannot vote and do not have the same rights as citizens. This means that their political influence in Abkhaz politics is negligible. The attitude of these Georgians to Russia oscillates from deep hatred to a secret desire for Russian citizenship because of the opportunities it would afford them in terms of pension and career prospects in Russia.

Armenians make up 17 percent of Abkhazia’s population, which is just over 40,000 people. Almost all of them have dual Abkhazian and Russian citizenship and have many relatives in the southern Russian regions. They tend largely to be pro-Russian. Young Armenians are also gradually moving to Russia, although some still remain to work the land or in small business. There are two Armenians in the Abkhaz parliament, but the ethnic group are usually forgotten until election campaigns, when their vote is courted.

Abkhaz ethnicity, Russian identity

The ethnic Abkhaz themselves have varying attitudes to Russia. The older generation that grew up in Soviet times nostalgically remembers the stability of life in the USSR and so they still find it easier to use Russian as a common language. Things may be set to change, however, because there is now a generational change in the political elite. A number of leaders are in their 40s and their ideologies were formed in a post-war independent country. They grew up in an atmosphere of obsession with the national idea; during a time when, for the first time in many years, it was possible to speak freely about old wounds (in particular, about the forced relocation of the Abkhaz in Turkey and the Middle East in the nineteenth century). This tragedy had a huge impact as it led to the knock-on resettlement of other ethnic groups in Abkhazia during Tsarist and Soviet times.

The Ainar party was registered in late 2015. Its manifesto alludes to the deportation of the Abkhaz in the nineteenth century. Ainar opposes modern statehood and party politics, instead advocating greater direct democracy. The party wants the main governing body to be the People’s Assembly, as in pre-revolutionary times. The ideological confusion of this popular youth movement may reflect the very immaturity of Abkhazia’s political processes themselves. Other youth parties and groups have started up in recent months that are not as radical in their attitudes towards Russia, but the new generation of Abkhaz politicians promises to be more consistent in upholding its independence claims, as evidenced by the insistence on a moratorium against the sale of real estate to foreigners.

The presence of Russia in politics also spills over into religion. There is a split in the Abkhaz Orthodox Church with two groups pitted against each other. There is one big group of clerics headed by the elderly Vissarion Aplia, who was ordained in Georgia during Soviet times and now openly backs the Russian Orthodox Church. The second group is made up of young monks, headed by Archimandrite Dorotheus, who received his rank from the Patriarch of Constantinople. The younger group demands the immediate recognition of the independence of the Abkhaz, so most of the Abkhaz faithful support them. The Russian Orthodox Church, which funded the restoration of the largest monastery in Abkhazia, has been trying in vain to force the young monks (who are considered Russian Orthodox Church clergy) to submit to Aplia. The situation seems to have come to endgame with neither side giving in.

Russian-Abkhaz relations are more delicate and fluid than they might first appear. While Moscow’s military influence in incontestable, historical factors such as the nineteenth-century deportations and Abkhazia’s favourable geo-economic location make this unrecognised territory far less dependent on Moscow than neighbouring South Ossetia with which it is often compared.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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