Russia and Abkhazia: creeping 'harmonization'
Many believe Russia is bringing Abkhazia closer to a final ‘annexation’, noting that Russia, in return for substantial subsidies and assistance to the breakaway republic, has forced it to sign agreements ‘harmonizing’ various aspects of legislation.
Abkhaz officials do not advertise the signing of these agreements, but if desired, they can be easily found on the websites of Russian state structures.
For example, the Russian Novaya Gazeta studied the program for “forming a common social and economic space” between Russia and Abkhazia, which was approved in November 2020 after a meeting between Vladimir Putin and the de facto President of Abkhazia, Aslan Bzhania.
In Georgia, this program is considered a continuation of the annexation policy in which Russia has succeeded in recent decades. Both the authorities and society here cannot but accept any attempt to ‘harmonize’ on the part of Russia with hostility. But, as can be concluded from the notes of the reporter of Novaya Gazeta, Irina Tumakova, who recently visited Sukhumi, the annexation looming on the horizon seems to scare Abkhazia no less.
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“We love Russia,” Eshsou Kakalia, a former deputy prosecutor general of Abkhazia and now one of the leaders of the opposition movement Aidgylara, told Novaya Gazeta.
“But we do not want to join Russia. It is not for this that we have been at war with the Georgians for independence for so many years, then to join Russia”.
“We are following what happens in Crimea after it became Russian,” a former senior Abkhaz official told Novaya. “If Russians start buying land from us, soon we ourselves will not be able to approach any beaches whatsoever.”
Chronicles of “harmonization”
According to Novaya Gazeta, which cites official statistics from the Russian authorities for 2009–2020 and January 2021, “improving the welfare” of Abkhazia cost Russian taxpayers 63.2 billion rubles (about $830 million). For the Russian budget this is not very much, but for the Abkhaz budget it is 50–70 percent of the treasury.
Russia and Abkhazia signed and ratified the “Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance” in November 2008 – shortly after the five-day war between Russia and Georgia in South Ossetia. Then Russia officially recognized South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states. At the same time, a line appeared in the Russian budget: “Providing financial assistance for the socio-economic development of the Republic of Abkhazia.”
In 2010-2011, the Russian and Abkhaz parliaments ratified agreements on joint protection of the state border, on mutual protection of investments, on visa-free travel and mutual assistance in customs affairs.
In 2012, a Russian military base appeared in Abkhazia, and the amounts that Russia transferred grew every year. In February 2015, Russia proposed a new agreement – “On Alliance and Strategic Partnership”, after 2015 the Russian parliament ratified, among other things, agreements with Abkhazia on the mutual recognition of diplomas, on legal assistance in criminal cases, on the transfer of convicts to serve their sentences.
Today in Abkhazia almost all signs on the streets, advertisements, price tags in stores are in Russian. License plates of cars are almost indistinguishable from Russian ones. The coloring of ambulances and the Ministry of Emergency Situations were copied. Now Russia insistently recommends Abkhazia, just like the license plates, to “copy” the legislation.
The “harmonization” program is designed for two years. It contains 45 points, including the settlement of issues of dual citizenship and double taxation, customs rules, tariffs and so on. But there is, for example, a clause that obliges Abkhazia in the coming months to adopt a norm (that is, to copy the Russian one) regulating “the activities of non-profit organizations and foreign agents”.
One of the most important points involves the admission of investments in the Abkhaz energy sector by “Russian power grid companies”. This should happen before June 2021. This is a big risk for Georgia, says the author of the Novaya Gazeta report:
“The battered Abkhaz power system is not exactly a tidbit. But it actually includes the Inguri hydroelectric power station, which is located so that the Abkhaz-Georgian border divides the station in half. Georgia fully services it, Abkhazia does not invest a dime in it, but only consumes electricity. Roughly speaking, the one who gets his hands on the Abkhaz energy will also receive a “switch” on the Georgian power plant”.
Journalist Anton Krivenyuk disagrees with the fact that Abkhazia no longer strives to join Russia.
“For the Abkhaz authorities, joining Russia is a ‘alternate airfield,’” he says. “Here, they say, when we all fail here completely, there is Mother Russia. They do not understand that even Russia will not accept them like that. These people have lived for 30 years not only in physical isolation, but also in intellectual isolation. They imagine Russia in the format “the city of Sochi, 1999”.
Tatyana Poloskova, a first-class state adviser to Russia and a former employee of the Russian Foreign Ministry who worked on projects focusing on Russians living outside Russia, predicts that the situation in Abkhazia may develop according to three scenarios in the near future:
“If Bzhania starts to implement the program, the opposition will immediately rise in Abkhazia, the president will not sit [in office] still for a long time,” Tatiana Poloskova believes. “If it does not, then there are three options for the development of events. First: Russia is planting in Abkhazia someone like an “external manager” who will defend its interests on the spot. Second: it cuts off funding. Third: withdraws the recognition of independence. Although there is also a fourth option: everything will remain as it is”.
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