Abkhazia is a partially recognized state — Russia (2008), Nicaragua (2008), Venezuela (2009), Nauru (2009), Syria (2018) — of 8,660km2 and 240,000 inhabitants located on the shores of the Black Sea. During the Soviet times, the region was one of the most prosperous area in the USSR due to its geographic position in addition to a recognized wine industry, tobacco, oranges, and a hub for Soviet tourism.
Abkhazia has always been of strategic interest to the USSR/Russia and the Ottoman Empire/Turkey because it connects by land — without going through the mountains — the Slavic world to the Middle East, while ensuring control over the Caucasus people living in the area.
The Russian/Abkhaz military facility in Gudauta opened in July 1918 (1st Kursk Soviet Infantry Division) and remains active nowadays under the name of the ‘7th Krasnodar Red Banner Order Kuturoz Red Star Military Base.’ Gudauta is not the only military center, it also has the Sukhum/i airport which has one of the longest airstrips in the world, capable of accommodating space shuttles, currently used by the Abkhaz Air Force (Военно-воздушные силы Абхазии).
From a diplomatic perspective, the Russian Federation has been assisting Abkhazia since the USSR´s breakup with peacekeepers on the ground and further providing 60% of the state budget according to the Abkhaz State Investment Agency. Following the diplomatic recognition of the territory in 2008, the Russian peacekeepers became de jure the Russian Armed Forces in Abkhazia (Russian/Abkhaz perspective), and the Russian illegal occupants in Georgia (Western/Georgian perspective).
The decision to recognize Abkhazia underlines a growing competition between the West and Russia, and a strong diplomatic retaliation to the recognition of Kosovo (2008) by the United-States and (most) EU member states (e.g. Spain refused to recognize Kosovo because of the political tensions in Catalonia). The recognition of Abkhazia has been an opportunity to increase Moscow’s influence in the Black Sea and diminished NATO and EU (Eastern Partnership) smart power in the post-Soviet space.
Russian diplomacy following the recognition of Abkhazia and South-Ossetia is significantly different compared to 1992¬–2008. Before 2008, Moscow was focused on maintaining a buffer zone between Georgia — influenced by the West — and Russia. After 2008, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs began promoting the Montevideo Convention and regionalism in Europe and in the Southern Caucasus.
On the one hand, from the Russian perspective, Abkhazia remains a fundamental part of the Russian military influence power in the Caucasus. However, after 2008 it shows a more complex picture and the development of an active Russian minority-based foreign policy. Unlike Transnistria and South-Ossetia, interested in joining the Russian Federation, Abkhazia is interested in establishing bilateral relationship with Russia based on mutual respect and shared economic and security interests. The Abkhaz leadership is trying to increase the practice of Abkhaz language, preserve the Abkhaz native religion and regional identity, contrary to Transnistria and South-Ossetia interested, as it was said before, in joining the Russian Federation.
On the other, from the Western perspective, the debate on the application of the Montevideo Convention in Abkhazia is not excluded, and Western leaders are aware of the cultural specificity of Abkhazia or to be more specific in Northern Abkhazia (Southern Abkhazia — Gal/i district being mostly populated of Mingrelians with a Georgian passport -). Western states are ready to accept a debate and a referendum on an independent Abkhazia. Nonetheless, Abkhazia must be (re)attached to Georgia before and the Georgians who have been expelled from Abkhazia will vote during the referendum.
In such a context, both the West and Russia are trying to defend their positions and interests using their best assets. The West condemns countries interested in recognizing Abkhazia, while Russia tries to push more countries to recognize the state. Abkhaz leaders are in between, interested in the Russia support, but not open to being recognized by everyone.
For instance, Abkhaz leaders are interested in being recognized by North Korea, but skeptical about it, as it would undermine the country´s image abroad. The North Korean Chamber of Commerce contacted the Abkhaz Prime Minister in December 2017 and an Abkhaz delegation visited Pyongyang in August 2018. In return, a North Korean delegation visited Sukhum/i in November 2018 to discuss further cooperation. According to the Director of International Relations at the Chamber of Commerce of North Korea, construction companies, logistics, food, and textile industry, are interested in working with Abkhazia. North Korean workers could be assigned to the Black Sea country, making North Korea the next country to recognize Abkhazia after Syria (2018).
The Abkhaz Society
Contrary to the picture of isolated country, Abkhazia is in touch with the outside world through its embassy in Moscow, and the Abkhaz diplomatic missions abroad — Tunisia, Venezuela, Israel, Jordan, Syria, Turkey, Austria, Bulgaria, Germany, Greece, Italy, partially recognized states (e.g. South-Ossetia), and western NGOs working in Abkhazia (e.g. the Red Cross).
The Abkhaz society is a melting pot and the majority of the diaspora currently lives in Turkey — 500,000 people — coming back to the territory with the support of the World Abaza Congress. Abkhazians have a Turkish/Syrian background (diaspora), Greek (Ochamchire) and Estonians (0.2% of the population) ancestors. Moreover, Abkhazians with Mingrelians origins — Georgian speakers — are located in the Gal/i district close to Zugdidi. Italy is the most popular destination to study followed by Russia, while the United Kingdom remains attractive and expensive. Some Abkhazians are also living and working in the West.
Last but not least, there continues to be a growing gap between ‘Soviet’ Abkhazians and the younger generation. Young people are more interested in entrepreneurship, having access to the outside world, and using the internet on a daily basis. The relationship between Georgia and Abkhazia might be unchanged for decades, but the debate or confrontation between Abkhaz and Georgian youngsters is permanent.
Access to the international world will require to reopening the airport in Sukhum/i, providing access to faraway destinations such as Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Syria. Closed since the breakup of the USSR, the possible reopening is connected to the diplomatic recognition of Abkhazia by Damascus, and international tourism is expected to have unknown consequences on civil society and political life.
Drivers and Consequences Behind the Syrian Arab Republic Diplomatic Recognition
Moscow suggested the Syrian leaders — and the rest of its allies- to recognize Abkhazia in order to provide more legitimacy to Russian diplomacy in the Caucasus. Nevertheless, it would be naive to assume the diplomatic recognition of Abkhazia by Damascus is due to Russian smart power because other states — Belarus, Armenia, China, and North-Korea — have been asked by Moscow to do the same for several years without any success.
The relationship between Abkhazia and Syria — similar to Turkey and Jordan — started in the early 1800s when Abkhaz people had to escape the Caucasus, and since then families of Abkhaz origin (speaking Arabic and Muslims) have been living in Syria for centuries. Following the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levan (ISIL), a part of the Syrian-Abkhaz diaspora decided to come back to Abkhazia, a region open to having more Muslims and ready to provide them with housing. The newcomers — 500 families in total — are slightly different from the ‘native’ Abkhazians and not as attached to the language and paganism as they choose Russian language before Abkhazian at school and maintain Islam.
The return of the Syrian-Abkhaz diaspora to Abkhazia, combined with Russian smart power, influenced Damascus’ political choice to recognize Abkhazia, and end bilateral relations with Georgia. Damascus’ decision has been influenced by the Abkhaz flexibility when it comes to religion. In Abkhazia, Muslims represent (18%), Christians (60%) — mostly Orthodox — and pagans (8%), are living together and accepted in the society, making Abkhazia a non-denominational state with religious tolerance.
Damascus should open an embassy in Sukhum/i, and therefore Abkhazia will do the same in Syria. The opening of the new Syrian Embassy will provide an incentive in the political debate and can be an asset to deliver passports and other administrative documents in Abkhazia. As of today, no military cooperation has been mentioned by any side.
The reopening of the Sukhum/i airport will bring an opportunity to export Abkhaz products to Syria, including military equipment — according to a bilateral agreement -, and more Syrian tourists and refugees might decide to settle and invest in Abkhazia.
The Consequence for the Sukhum/i Airport
Abkhazia is connected to the outside world via the railway to Russia, the marshrutka to South-Ossetia and Eastern Ukraine, and public transportation to the partially recognized border with Georgia.
The project to reopen the airport in Sukhum/i will impact the economy, diplomacy and civil society, as it will offer direct flight connections with Moscow, Damascus, and possibly other destinations such as Venezuela, and Nicaragua. The Abkhazians will have the opportunity to travel, study, and invests in Latin America and the Middle East, while they will be able to export all kind of products and welcome tourists speaking Spanish and Arabic. Moving from a Slavic/Russian-focused society to a multicultural society might have consequences for Abkhaz´s opinion of the rest of the world, and it will likely increase the attractiveness of Spanish and Arabic studies.
From a military and intelligence perspective, the Abkhaz Air Force will have to rethink the strategy regarding security at the Sukhum/i airport because most of the military equipment — Aero L-39 and Mil Mi-8 — are located in the area. Having the fighter jets and helicopters close to the civilian airport could lead to espionage and sabotage attempts, making it easier for foreign intelligence to learn more about the Abkhaz Air Force capabilities.
If the Abkhaz Armed Forces want to move their assets, the only two options will be a relocation to Pskou — a natural aircraft — or a transfer to Bombora airport currently under the command of the Russian Armed Forces. Furthermore, it is difficult to know how the Georgian allies will react to the reopening of the airport, and it might end up with a connection only between Moscow and Sukhum/i due to international pressures from Georgia and the West.
Another question remaining is the possible flight connections with Transnistria, Nagorno-Karabakh, and other parts of Russia. In fine, the reopening of the airport is generating to more questions than answers. It can be both a success and a failure, as the result depends on the marketing strategy of Abkhaz leaders to advertise the country in a competitive environment and the ability to develop new infrastructures suitable for international tourism and not exclusively fulfilling the expectation of the Russian tourists.
The Consequences for the Russian Armed Forces in Gudauta
The ‘7 Krasnodar Red Banner Order Kutuzov Order Red Star Military Base’ is subordinated to the command of the southern military district of the Russian Federation, allowed to be sued by Russian troops according to bilateral agreements between the Republic of Abkhazia and the Russian Federation. On paper, the military facility is supposed to be used both by the Abkhaz Armed Forces and the Russian Armed Forces, while in practice the Russian commandment decides who is allowed to get in to avoid any espionage.
Georgia and the West are suspicious regarding the activities at the Bombora airport and are suspecting a possible connection with Syria and even Eastern Ukraine. The airport is located close to the sea level, making it difficult for radars to detect fighter jets taking off and landing. Additionally, the railway from Russia to Gudauta was modernized in 2015, while the Russian Ministry of Defense mentioned a military exercise involving some S-400 and T-90 in the area.
As of today, the West knows Russian troops have 40 T-72B3 tanks; 120 BTR-82A armored personnel carriers; 18 self-propelled howitzers 2S3 “acacia”; 12 2С12 “Sunny” mortars; 18 reactive systems of volley fire BM-21 “Grad” towed howitzer D-30; it is anti-aircraft rocket complex of air defense with S-300.
Such data comes from open intelligence sources, and the absence of high-quality Russian equipment — Su35, T-14 Armata — shows Moscow is interested in establishing, more than anything else, a balance with the Georgian Armed Forces and their allies in the region. The increasing security around the facility, which confuses Georgian and Western intelligence services, is not to hide any suspicious activities but to prevent any intrusion. Such military facilities, well protected but not necessarily hiding something, are common in Russia and NATO countries (e.g. HWU transmitter in Seine-Port, France).
In addition, Abkhazia is recognized by Syria since 2018, and it allows Russia to legally transfer military equipment from Bombara to any partner. The only difference lies on the fact Abkhazia is not recognized by the West, making it more difficult for foreign intelligence and international observers to record activities in the area and relying on Georgian intelligence sources.
Syria´s diplomatic recognition of Abkhazia is also giving more legitimacy to a possible military supply by the Abkhaz Armed Forces to Syria — which is probably not the case because the Abkhazs themselves are missing capabilities at the moment — while the possibility for Russia to provide some supply to Syria remains a possibility. Nota bene, the Russian Ministry of Defense could also supply Syria directly from home or Armenia.
Diplomatic ties between Abkhazia and Syria will have major macroeconomic consequences and minor consequences from a military point of view. If the Sukhum/i airport is reopened in the upcoming years, it will provide the Abkhaz people with direct access to the Middle East and Latin America, changing the nature of the state currently relying on Russia and making Abkhazia the most international partially recognized state in Europe as well as Kosovo.
The Abkhaz Air Force will have to undergo changes and possibly relocate its resources elsewhere, while the Russian Armed Forces will remain the same to ensure balance in the Caucasus.
From the Western perspective, the activity in Gudauta — new railway (2015), transfer of some T-90, renewing of the fences around the Gudauta facility, etc. — is an attempt by Moscow to provide military supply to Syria and Eastern Ukraine, and to put more pressure on Georgia, which continues to try to get closer to NATO and the European Union.
From the Russian perspective, the growing military activity in Bombora is a response to the increasing diplomatic pressures from NATO and the West on Russia’s allies in the Black Sea (Armenia, Abkhazia and South-Ossetia, Transnistria) and Syria. Sending more Russian forces and equipment in Gudauta is necessary to reassure Eastern Ukraine, Syria and Abkhazia, and it shows Moscow is ready to protect its interests in the event that NATO or Georgia escalate the conflict as it happened when Saakashvili was the President of Georgia.
From our partner RIAC