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Abkhazia: Attempts to Play a Realpolitik Game?

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Abkhazia faces a dilemma between closer integration with Russia, which could bring an effective loss of its independence hopes, and long term internal troubles as a result of a decrepit economy and extensive corruption. Avoiding Russia would be suicidal but trying to balance it could bring some results – thence comes Sokhumi’s expressed willingness to reach a certain rapprochement with Tbilisi to alleviate economic woes.

Georgia’s Russia-controlled Abkhazia is facing deep economic crisis. Lack of reforms, extensive corruption, the pandemic-related problems of the stalled tourism sector and difficulties of extracting financial aid from its patron – Russia, create some long-term troubles for the separatist region.

This dire situation is well-understood in Abkhazia itself and it pushes the region to seek an understanding with Tbilisi, however limited it could potentially be. This sentiment is reflected in the new Abkhaz “foreign policy concept,” recently signed by the region’s de-facto leader Aslan Bzhania. 

The document enshrines the ideas of “priority of national interests, active response to external challenges and threats, multilevel external contacts, [and] openness to cooperation based on equality and mutual respect.” 11 goals for foreign policy are enumerated, among which “strengthening strategic partnership with Russia” and the need to enhance “mutually beneficial relations” with other countries, including facilitation of international recognition of the region are perhaps major, but widely expected points in the document.

However, most surprising, even revolutionary, is a section of the document on the passage of a  “resolution of the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict and normalization of relations with Georgia.” While in geopolitical terms the willingness to find a certain understanding with Tbilisi is driven by Abkhazia’s long-term internal and foreign policy failures, Bzhania’s decision of potential rapprochement reverberates poorly within the Abkhaz society. A group of Abkhaz war veterans, “Aruaa,” expressed particular skepticism over the Abkhaz-Georgian conflict resolution part of the concept, in particular, the point 2.3, which seeks to set up negotiation platforms to discuss relations with Tbilisi.

To reach a limited understanding with Tbilisi will be extremely difficult amid Abkhazia’s volatile political system, though the signals for enhancing a direct dialogue with the Georgian government has been evident ever since Bzhania came to power in early 2020. He is more of a realist in foreign policy. Abkhazia faces a traditional problem peculiar to small players. Sokhumi sees long-term dangers with a close association with Russia. Too close relations could bring better economic and military support, but it is also fraught with dangers of de-facto annexation. After all, Abkhazia, in a striking difference to another Russia-controlled Georgian region of South Ossetia, has never pursued an integrationist approach with Russia.

It is this dilemma between closer cooperation with Russia and deep fear of Russian intentions that will haunt the Abkhazian political class for the foreseeable future. This was revealed in various discussion preceding and following the November 23 signing of the “formation of common social and economic space” between Sokhumi and Moscow. The program, based on the 2014 Russo-Abkhaz “Treaty of Alliance and Strategic Partnership,” envisages harmonization of the Abkhaz and Russian legislation.

Most importantly, in addition to obliging the Abkhaz side to make legislative and administrative amendments according to the Russian law in social, economic, health and political spheres, there is also a stipulation on simplification of legal procedures for the Russian investors. These stipulations are in terms of obtaining residence permit and registering work activities and harmonization of tax legislation with Russian model. As a manifestation of the rigorousness in bilateral ties, Bzhania held a series of meetings on December 11-18 with Russian authorities during his Moscow trip. It involved meetings with Moscow Government Minister and Head of the Department for Foreign Economic Activity and International Relations Sergei Cheryomin and Head of Moscow House of Compatriots Petr Gladkov; Russian Finance Minister Anton Siluanov and Head of Russian Federal Tax Service Daniil Yegorov; Russian Agriculture Minister Dmitry Patrushev; First Deputy Chief of Staff of the Russian Presidential Administration Sergey Kiriyenko and Russian Transport Minister Vitaly Savelyev; Russian Health Minister Mikhail Murashko and Deputy Head of the Russian Presidential Administration Dmitry Kozak. With Kozak Bzhania discussed the 2020-2022 Investment Program.

Ideally, this could help a decrepit Abkhazian economy, but a high pace of harmonization with Russian laws also increases chances for future merger with Russia.

In these circumstances a classical geopolitical game would require a small and dependent player to seek closer ties with other actors. Abkhazia might be doing exactly this by seeking more stable relations with Tbilisi despite fundamental differences. This is echoed in a recent interview by Sergei Shamba, currently the head of the security council of the occupied region. Shamba stated that “when there is a conflict, you need to talk” and that though Sokhumi and Tbilisi would not retreat from their respective fundamental interests, “between these extreme positions there are always questions where compromise solutions can be found.” As a token of benevolence, Shamba suggested that Sokhumi and Tbilisi “could start talking about the opening of transport communications – a railroad, air traffic.”

Wider Context

Despite Abkhazia’s hopes, much depends on Russia itself, which now faces a different problem: it has so far failed to produce a long-term vision for all the separatist regions it controls. Creating a unified economic space with all the separatist territories is not an option as little economic benefit is expected. Moreover, more financing has to be dedicated to the regions, whose populations could otherwise turn increasingly disenchanted with hopes they pinned on Russia. Indeed, the system is difficult to navigate for Russia since while in the first years following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia had to manage breakaway conflicts only in small and poor Georgia and Moldova. Moscow’s responsibilities have increased significantly by late 2020 with Donbas and now Nagorno-Karabakh conflicts now added to its strategy.

Nor can the Russian leadership entice states around the world to recognize the independence of breakaway entities. For instance, in the case of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, only Syria, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Nauru have extended them recognition. This trend is not likely to change anytime soon. Moscow simply does not have sufficient resources – and in any case, US laws withholding financial aid from states that recognize the independence of separatist territories throughout the former Soviet space remains a major disincentive.

Nor does Russia have any long-term economic vision for the breakaway territories. Dire economic straits have inevitably caused populations to flee toward abundant medical, trade, and educational possibilities other countries provide. Usually these are territories from which the separatist forces initially tried to break away. The Kremlin has failed to transform those entities into secure and economically stable lands. Crime levels as well as high-level corruption and active black markets have been on an upward trajectory, which undermines the effectiveness of financial largesse Moscow has to provide on a regular basis.

Over the past several years, there have been hints in the media about rising discontent within the Russian political elite on how the breakaway territories are being run. Questions have been raised about how Russian money is being spent and about the increasingly predatory nature of the separatist political elites, who are focused on extracting as much economic benefit as they can from Moscow. As a result, it has become increasingly difficult for the leaders in non-recognized entities to secure Russian funding.

Therefore, Abkhazia should be discussed within a wider context, though circumstances on the ground too are important. Major rapprochement between Sokhumi and Tbilisi is highly unlikely but provided the willingness from both sides remains into 2021, certain understanding on economic re-engagement could follow, especially in the time when Russia is actively pushing for re-opening of trade routes in the South Caucasus.

Author’s note: first published in caucasuswatch

Emil Avdaliani specializes on former Soviet space and wider Eurasia with particular focus on Russia's internal and foreign policy, relations with Iran, China, the EU and the US. He teaches history and international relations at Tbilisi State University and Ilia State University (Georgia).

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Eastern Europe

The Stewards of Hate

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A big bear is rattling the open door of his cage.  He cannot abide a NATO spear in his belly.  Hence Valdimir Putin’s demand for Ukraine to remain out of it, and for the military alliance to stop its advance into eastern Europe.

For 72 years until 1991, Ukraine was a republic of the Soviet Union, and before that for centuries an oblast of the Imperial Russian empire.  In 1939, parts belonging to Poland were annexed.

It was during the breakup of Russia following an independence referendum that Ukraine opted to separate.  But NATO is another story.  After the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact (NATO’s eastern counterpart), Russia had expected the West to do the same.  Instead, NATO became a US fig leaf for its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Apparently, everyone in the world saw through this — except the US — as it embroiled itself in both countries, and the bill for the misadventures rocketed from $80 billion to an estimated $5 trillion.

The EU, a path to riches for East Europeans, is a Ukrainian dream, and Russian troops the reality when they wake up.  Such are the facts, no matter how much the Ukrainians are trying to ignore them. 

If the powerful Russian bear is the Ukrainian bete noire, its polar opposite is the case in India.  A powerful Hindutva movement abhors the Muslim minority.  It blames them for India’s problems, very much akin to the situation for Jews in pre-WW2 Germany.  Not unsurprisingly given the roots of the RSS, which modeled itself after the Nazis, instituting uniforms and drills.  A former member assassinated Gandhi for being too soft on Muslims.  Post independence, the RSS was banned by India’s first government which was led by Jawaharlal Nehru, a secular socialist.

The current prime minister, Narendra Modi, is a former RSS pracharak —  that is an active member who devotes himself full time to promoting RSS doctrine and, like a missionary, in seeking new members.  As an ambitious politician, he shed RSS ties when he entered politics and as leader expresses the wish for unity — sentiments not shared by his BHP colleagues.

There is the yogi elected chief minister of India’s largest state, and his undisguised derogatory opinions of Muslims.  Worse, at a political event at the end of December, leaders called openly for the killing of Muslims, and India’s leaders kept silent.  After general social media outrage at the speeches, the police  finally registered a case against some of the speakers for ‘promoting hatred between religious groups.’

Videos show many of the speakers are prominent religious leaders often present with senior ministers in the BJP government.  Imagine, calling for genocide in 2021.  The world reacted to the effort to eliminate Tutsis in Rwanda where it also began with reviling and dehumanization.  Genocide and even incitement to genocide is a crime.  Hence the prosecutions.  Incitement to genocide is recognized as a separate crime under international law and an inchoate crime which does not require genocide to have taken place to be prosecutable.

The founders of post-independence India, Gandhi and Nehru who took pride in being secular, must be in agony over international outlaws wanting to become the stewards of their child.

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Eastern Europe

Lithuania is left in the dust

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The nearly completed Nord Stream 2 is again in focus. It has become known that the U.S. Senate on January 13 failed to pass a bill to slap sanctions on Russia’s Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline sponsored by Republican Senator Ted Cruz. The tally was 55 in favor and 44 against the bill that needed 60 votes to pass. Those who voted against his bill said it risked breaking unity in Washington and in Europe. U.S. senators said also Cruz sanctions on Nord Stream 2 could harm relations with Germany which is very important for the U.S. foreign policy and economy.

Top Ukrainian officials, as well as Lithuanian government supported Cruz’s bill, arguing the United States should do everything in its power to halt the pipeline project.

The link is designed to export gas from Russia directly to Germany by bypassing Ukraine, through which Russia has sent gas to Europe for decades. That would deprive Ukraine of lucrative transit fees and potentially undermine its struggle against alleged Russian aggression. The decision will allow the completion of the gas pipeline to Europe without the imposition of further US sanctions. Earlier Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said that the a deal between the United States and Germany on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline was a “mistake”. It is interesting that the vote came as U.S. and European officials held high-level talks with their Russian counterparts. It is quite possible that the decision about Nord Stream 2 pipeline was the result of these negotiations.

This fact has sparked anger and has become great political disappointment for the Lithuanian officials who view the project as a security threat.

Lithuania, positioning itself as the main Ukraine’s patron in Europe, is confused with such U.S. decision. Lithuania promotes the U.S. interests and support all American initiatives even to the detriment of its own interests. Only this month Lithuania took a number of steps to prove its commitment to US policy. Lithuania even has dared to challenge China, one the main US strategic competitors. It continues to spend millions of dollars on military purchases from the U.S. using the narrative of “the threat from the East”. In December Lithuania signed an agreement with the U.S. to improve military interoperability.

The more so, the Lithuanian government has decided to accelerate its planned purchase of a multiple launch rocket system (MLRS) amid Russia’s military buildup on its border with Ukraine. The decision to buy US’ Lockheed Martin system in 2026, two years earlier than Vilnius previously planned.

The country also regularly holds political consultations with the U.S. officials to coordinate its further actions. But the U.S. in its turn does not pay attention to Lithuania’s opinion and makes decision in its favour.

Lithuanian government should gain Lithuanians’ support and pay attention to their needs. The matter is discontent in Lithuanian society is growing every day. Thus, on January 13, the usual commemoration of Freedom Defenders saw loud booing and heckles from the crowd of protesters who called on the government (and the parliament) to resign.

It is obviously that the threat from the East is not so real as threat to be fired due to loss of confidence in near future.

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Eastern Europe

Rebuilding of Karabakh: Results of 2021

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Image source: azerfocus.com

The restoration work in Karabakh entered the active phase in 2021 as several projects had been completed and the foundations for new ones were laid down. The restoration process in Karabakh started right after the November 10th declaration that ended the 44-Day War between Armenia and Azerbaijan. After the war, Azerbaijan liberated its territories that constituted about 20% of the total territory of Azerbaijan and were occupied by Armenian forces in the early 90s.

During the occupation, about thirty years, Karabakh was subject to ruthless destruction and looting by the occupants. As a result, most of the social infrastructure, including residential buildings, schools, and hospitals, were totally destroyed, and most parts of the occupied territories were left empty. Despite the fact that the total destruction in Karabakh makes the restoration process complex and time-consuming, Azerbaijan immediately started the restoration process. For this purpose, the plan for socio-economic development of the liberated territories was prepared, and for the implementation of this plan, “Coordination Headquarters” and 17 working groups on different areas were established. In 2021, $2.2 billion was allocated from the state budget for the restoration process. The same amount of funds is planned to be directed to the restoration process in 2022 as well. The allocation of the necessary financial resources and the establishment of the state bodies for the efficient organization of the recovery process led to the rapid implementation of projects in 2021.

The most notable project that was almost completed in 2021 was the Fuzuli International Airport. The inauguration of the airport took place in Azerbaijan’s liberated city of Fuzuli in Karabakh on October 26. It was the first airport built by Azerbaijan in the liberated areas, and its construction took only eight months. It was built in accordance with the highest international standards, which enables it to accommodate any type of aircraft. A runway with a length of 3000 meters and a width of 60 meters has been put into operation at the airport. The first test flight to Fuzuli International Airport was performed on September 5, 2021, when the largest passenger aircraft of Azerbaijan Airlines, named Karabakh, landed at the airport. Because of its location, the new airport is considered as an “air gate of Karabakh”. Along with Fuzuli airport, the foundations of the other two airports in Lachin and Zangilan districts were also laid down in 2021.

The year 2021 was also marked by the establishment of the Horadiz-Jabrayil-Zangilan-Agband highway. The foundation of this road was laid on October 26, with the participation of the leaders of Azerbaijan and Turkey. With a length of 124 km, it is part of the Zangezur Corridor, the establishment of which was envisioned in the November 10 declaration. The Zangezur Corridor is a very important project that is going to change the transportation architecture of the South Caucasus and its neighborhood. Its proximity to the Karabakh and connection to the main roads in the region will accelerate the restoration and development of the Karabakh.

Within the framework of the restoration process, another important event in 2021 was the foundation of the first “smart village” in Agali village in the Zangilan district on April 26. As of October, the construction work on more than 110 hectares in Agali village was underway. It includes the construction of 200 ecological houses, 4 non-residential buildings, a smart school for about 360 students, and a kindergarten for 60 children. Work on establishing smart agricultural infrastructure on approximately 600 hectares of land is also ongoing. According to the restoration program, it is planned to re-establish cities and villages in the liberated territories based on the “smart city” and “smart village” concepts. Thus, after the Agali village, this concept will be implemented in other areas of Karabakh.

In 2021, the highway that connects the Fuzuli and Shusha cities was also opened. As this highway passes through the territory that was used to liberate Shusha city, it has a symbolic meaning for Azerbaijan, and therefore it is named “The Road to Victory.” The Fuzuli-Shusha highway is part of the Ahmadbeyli-Fuzuli-Shusha highway, one of the main highways in Karabakh. It is 101.5 km in length and reduces the distance from the capital Baku to Shusha to about 363 km. The foundation of another important transport project, the Horadiz–Agband railway, was also laid in 2021 and its construction continues. This railway is 100 kilometers long and has strategic importance as it will connect the mainland of Azerbaijan with Nakhchivan, Azerbaijan’s landlocked exclave, through the Zangezur corridor.

Along with the mentioned roads, the opening ceremony of the 28-kilometer highway that connects the city of Tartar with the villages of Sugovushan and Talish took place in 2021. The length of this road is 28 kilometers, and as planned, the extension of this project will include 22 kilometers of highway from Talish to Naftalan. Construction and planning work on various transportation projects such as the Barda–Aghdam railroad, the Fuzuli-Shusa railway, and the Toganal-Kalbacar highway were also continued.

Comprehensive works in the energy sector were also carried out within the framework of the restoration program, based on the strategy for transforming the liberated territories into “green energy” zones and connecting the energy infrastructure in those territories to Azerbaijan’s general energy system. In 2021, with a total capacity of 20 megawatts, “Gulabird”, “Sugovushan-1” and “Sugovushan-2” small hydroelectric power stations (HPS) were reconstructed and put into operation in the liberated territories. In total, nine digital substations were built in the Karabakh and East Zangezur regions. Simultaneously, in the Aghdam and Jabrail regions, the construction of “Aghdam-1,” “Aghdam-2,” and “Jabrayil” substations as well as the Karabakh Regional Digital Management Center has been completed.

The other important project in the energy sector was the foundation of the Digital Station Management Center in Fuzuli. This project, implemented for the first time in the South Caucasus, allows through automation to reduce the impact of the human factor on the operation of the network, increase reliability and reduce losses during the transmission of electricity. All these projects in the energy sector serve to maintain the energy security in liberated territories and to transform these territories into “green energy” zone.

All the mentioned projects show that Azerbaijan has actively worked for rebuilding Karabakh in 2021. It will enable Azerbaijan to fully integrate the Karabakh economy into the Azerbaijan economy and to use its economic potential in upcoming years. As the liberated territories have great potential in sectors such as agriculture and energy, it will also positively affect the development of the non-oil sector in Azerbaijan. Implementation of all projects that were started in 2021 will not only contribute to the economic development of Azerbaijan, but will also transport Azerbaijan and Karabakh to the transport and economic center of the region.

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