On 24 November 2014, Russia and Abkhazia, a small self-declared republic on the Black Sea, signed a new treaty aimed at deepening their relationship and providing security guarantees for Abkhazia. The treaty signs away not only much of the proto-state’s independence but also condemns Georgia to further long term instability. While Russia recognises Abkhazia as independent – together with only Venezuela, Nicaragua and Nauru – the treaty itself is not aimed at Abkhazia, but rather at Georgia, whose sovereignty over Abkhazia is recognised by the remainder of the international community. Rather than support Abkhazia’s independence, the new treaty largely serves to erode it. At the same time, the treaty dramatically reshapes Georgia’s political outlook. The treaty effectively offers Georgia no choice other than to give up its NATO aspirations or to give up its claim to Abkhazia, neither of which Georgia will accept, thereby setting the stage for a potential new crisis in the region.
Although Russia claims the treaty is one between two sovereign nations it is by no means one of equals. The agreement calls for the creation of a joint military command – to be headed by Russia – in the event of crisis while also granting Russia control of the de facto Georgian-Abkhaz border. The Kremlin will further fund Abkhazia’s stillborn development and increase its subsidies to Abkhazia’s ministries and their employees, thereby governing both its fledgling private and public sectors. The treaty thereby effectively makes Abkhazia’s ‘sovereignty’ entirely dependent on Russia.
The treaty has even evoked some negative responses in Abkhazia itself, a rare occurrence in a country that views Moscow as its only ally. It is worth noting that the treaty also only came about after Raul Khajimba, a long-time ally of the Kremlin and its chief spin master Vladislav Surkov, was narrowly elected president on 24 August. Belying the support of the Abkhaz for the Kremlin, it took Khajimba four attempts to secure the presidency, as well as a convenient coup against his predecessor widely rumoured to have been orchestrated by Moscow.
The significant measures Russia undertook to ensure that the Abkhaz government would endorse the treaty beget the question of why Russia would pursue such efforts to deepen its alliance with such a small, impoverished and under-developed region that has no other viable partner. It is unlikely that Abkhazia’s natural beauty or history as a capital of Soviet tourism provided the necessary impetus. After all, Sochi was built to replace those. Furthermore, the Abkhaz have never called for unification with Russia, while Georgia’s other breakaway region, South Ossetia, regularly implores Russia to support a unification referendum.
The reasoning behind Russia’s insistence on the new relationship with Abkhazia lies in the fact that it presents the clearest challenge to Georgia’s desired pro-Western pathway. Abkhazia is more viable as an entity than South Ossetia given its far larger population, greater economic potential, and the ease of land and sea access while tiny South Ossetia is only accessible via the Roki Tunnel through the Caucasus Mountains. It also presents an emotional affront to Georgia, and the vast majority of its nearly 250,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) hail from Abkhazia. Although further integration and a similar treaty with South Ossetia are likely to follow, the Russian-Abkhaz treaty presents a clear and immediate challenge to Georgia’s aspirations.
Georgia’s pro-Western aims do not receive the same attention from the West it aspires to join. The muted response to crucial developments in the Caucasus, despite their relevance given the conflict in Ukraine, demonstrates the West’s lack of a coordinated policy for the region. The few steps NATO and the European Union have taken in response to Georgia’s western aspirations are likely to further exacerbate Georgian-Russian tensions.
Russia has painted Georgia’s Association Agreement with the European Union as a threat to its trade interests, much as it done with Ukraine’s Association Agreement as well. The sticking point lies in the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement, a portion of the larger agreement that eliminates tariff between Georgia and the EU, which Russia has warned could lead EU goods to be re-exported to Russian markets while bypassing Russian tariffs. In August, Russia responded by suspending its free trade agreement with Georgia. The restoration of economic ties since 2012 had been a key area of reconciliation between Russia and Georgia in the aftermath of the 2008 war. Although Georgia will gain significant access to European markets, the expected decline in its trade relations with Russia poses significant economic and political risks.
Many in Georgia see the Association Agreement as offering the long-term prospect of further integration into the European single economic space. However, Europe is unlikely to offer sufficient diplomatic support to counteract Russia if it moves to more aggressively oppose the agreement. The imbalance between the relative importance of the Association Agreement in Georgian and European politics risks creating a sense of betrayal, and potentially a reversal of Georgia’s pro-Western path, in the event of a renewed crisis between Russia and Georgia.
At the September NATO Summit in Wales, Georgia failed to receive the Membership Action Plan (MAP) it has long coveted. Instead, NATO offered a package of enhanced co-operation measures, most notably the creation of a joint training centre in Georgia. At the same time, Moscow will consider even the deployment of small training contingents to Georgian territory as an act of aggression. Yet the failure to grant Georgia a MAP will serve as a key reminder that NATO has so far been unwilling to fully commit to Georgia, thereby emboldening Russia.
James Appathurai, the NATO Secretary General’s Special Representative for the Caucasus and Central Asia, warned on 4 October that NATO perceived the new Russian-Abkhaz treaty as a ‘substantial’ development for the region, before qualifying the comment by stating NATO did not perceive it as an impediment to Georgia’s NATO path. Whether or not that statement accurately reflects internal opinion within NATO is less clear. Many NATO members remain to be convinced that Georgia is on the path to membership, after all, this path is typically begun by granting candidate states a MAP. If Georgia were to gain NATO membership, NATO would find itself in the awkward and volatile position of the defensive treaty covering Abkhazia due to its de jure status as a part of Georgia. Although a defensive treaty covering territory controlled by Russian forces would be an absurdity, it would also force the Kremlin to the negotiating table – after all, the recent Russian-Abkhaz treaty emphasises the insincerity of Russia’s support for Abkhazia’s sovereignty.
The Kremlin views the conflict in Abkhazia not as a frozen conflict – the term most frequently applied to Georgia’s breakaway regions – nor as one between two sovereign nations, but rather as a active means of counteracting Georgia’s pro-Western path. Moscow has escalated its efforts to disrupt this path through the new Russian-Abkhaz treaty, while the limited nature of the steps taken by the EU and NATO may increase the likelihood of further provocations. Although an adequate Western response does not appear to be forthcoming, without one Georgia’s foreign policy will remain on a direct collision course with Russia’s, an eventuality that has proven all too disastrous for Georgia in the recent past.