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Fears of Russian Influence Haunt Abkhazia

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Geopolitics informs Russian attitude toward Abkhazia. It is both of benefit and curse for Abkhazian elites who aspire to a greater level of maneuverability not only from Tbilisi, but from Moscow as well. Russian investments might be beneficial economically, but they could be also laying the groundwork for a more troublesome scenario: de-facto merger with Russia.

Abkhazia is a special case in Russia’s separatist empire – a string of territories along Russia’s borders allowing Moscow to exert influence on neighboring states. The region has a vibrant political life where opposition can turn into a ruling power, advantages unseen in other separatist lands. Abkhaz nationalism is also much trickier than what we see in South Ossetia or Donbas. Unification with Russia is not even remotely discussed. Politicians in Sokhumi aspire to full-scale independence. They are more averse to foreigners buying into their lands and more sensitive to the interpretation of history.

Despite this marked difference, Abkhazia’s long-term perspectives are as bleak as that of other regions. Russian influence is as pervasive as elsewhere. Dependence on Moscow is as expansive as in other regions. These trends undermine any viable path toward true independence of the region. The real problem though is that Sokhumi does not have any other opportunity to buttress its aspirations.

In a series of agreements and political moves Moscow has managed to gain advantage in areas where Abkhaz resistance to Russian influence was fierce. For instance, in November 2020 Georgia’s Russian-occupied region of Abkhazia signed a 46-point agreement to create a unified socio-economic space with Moscow, though not many took note. While portrayed as a move to alleviate the territory’s economic troubles, the program marks a huge step toward eventual Russian annexation of Georgia’s region. For instance, in comparison with the military agreement signed in 2014 new provisions appear in the latest document. It includes stipulations for the sale of local real estate, among them a provision on dual citizenship allowing Russians to obtain Abkhaz passports. A string of laws will be introduced whereby Russian investors will be able to invest money into and buy majority shares in what remains valuable in Abkhazia.

The agreement also allows the Russians to buy into Abkhazia’s energy sector. Additionally, the Abkhaz will 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 law procedures for Russian investors.

While this may help a decrepit Abkhaz economy, greater harmonization with Russian laws lays the groundwork for a near-official merger with Russia. It is this dilemma between closer cooperation with Russia and deep fear of Russian intentions that haunts the Abkhazian elites. Indeed, Russian investments into the energy sector and land purchases means Abkhazia could be slowly losing its last vestiges of de-facto independence.

Control over Abkhazia gives Moscow several advantages. The region is arguably the most strategically located within Russia’s separatist empire. A passage from the North to the South Caucasus, the region is also famous for its harbors and military infrastructure. Control over it gives Russia capabilities to assess NATO/EU expansion into the region.

Russian plans in Abkhazia should also be seen within the context of Russia’s push to solidify its presence in the South Caucasus, especially in the aftermath of the second Nagorno-Karabakh war and the dispatch of Russia’s peacekeeping mission in the region. Economic inroads into Abkhazia also means a further distancing of other potential players such as the Tbilisi government and the collective West.

Using Weak Spots

Russia is using Abkhazia’s weak spots to its advantage. First is that the region has failed to gain wider recognition of its “independence.” Aside from Russia, only a few small states have so far recognized the region and the long-term prospect for increasing the number is dubious. In addition, the region is continually beset by deep economic problems and the forecast is negative since the EU, the US, and other global or regional actors avoid economic engagement with the region in support of the Georgian government. The official US policy upholds refusal of any financial assistance to countries supporting Abkhazia. Under these circumstances, the region’s economic outlook is unlikely to improve in the coming decades, further exacerbating the existing social tensions and an already large outflow of young adults. These long-term political and economic prospects push politicians in Sokhumi toward seeking greater engagement with Russia in exchange for concessions in the areas previously excluded from making major modifications. The 2020 agreement could be seen as a part of a long game played by Moscow.

Indeed, Russia is playing a long game in Abkhazia – time is on Moscow’s side. Pressure on Abkhazia has been building up gradually over the past couple of years. Russia was unhappy with the election of the current president Aslan Bzhania. The latter has been poisoned twice since 2019 and was even hospitalized in Moscow in a critical condition in April 2019. Bzhania was then poisoned a second time just before the 2020 presidential elections, giving rise to speculations on the Kremlin’s involvement and tensions between Bzhania and Moscow. 

The problem for Moscow was that Bzhania’s vision for Abkhazia has not been compatible with the Kremlin’s interests in the South Caucasus. Direct negotiation with Tbilisi was always a taboo policy issue in Abkhazia. However, Bzhania has made statements that markedly differed from the traditional line.

Moscow is also discontent with the management of Russian financial aid in the region. Occasional statements and comments from Kremlin-linked Russian pundits indicate the essence of the problem: the Kremlin worries about the increasingly predatory economic behavior on part of the Abkhaz political elite. Few efforts are made to improve the economic and security situation in the region, as shown by a growing number of murders of Russian nationals over the past several years. Every level of the Abkhaz administration demonstrates persistent and widespread corruption. Russian politicians have also voiced objections to the consistent Abkhaz government’s refusal to allow Russian citizens to purchase land. The prospect of land sales has occasionally caused outbursts of public protests in Sokhumi and constitutes a further dividing line between the separatist regime and its patron.

As a result, despite Abkhazia’s special place in Russia’s separatist empire, the region is as closely linked to Moscow as any other separatist space. Long-term prospects are bleak as potential investment could come only from Russia. Greater Russian economic presence brings risks of losing the land to Russian businesses – a troubled scenario for Sokhumi which unlike other separatist regions always avoided talks of merging with Russia.

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 Big Lie About Ukraine’s War

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photo © UNICEF/Anton Skyba for The Globe and Mail

Before Ukraine’s President Volodmyr Zelensky quit negotiations with Russia to settle the war in Ukraine, he told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria on 20 March 2022, “I made a point that the war in Ukraine has been lasting for eight years. It’s not just some special military operation.” Zakaria had asked him “You have said recently that Ukraine perhaps will not be a member of NATO. You have admitted that. Could that — there are people who ask, could that concession, had you made it clearly and loudly earlier, could that have prevented this war?” Zelensky’s reply said that for Ukraine to make such a “concession” — unless some NATO countries would step up to provide “guarantees” to Ukraine’s winning this eight-year war — would be unacceptable to Ukrainians, because this war had started “eight years” earlier, and they wouldn’t accept now — after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022 — a “concession” of an indispensable part of what their military has been fighting for ever since long before that, going all the way back to 2014 — virtual if not official membership in NATO, so that American missiles can then become posted on Ukraine’s border only 300 miles away from Russia’s command center in The Kremlin. That has always been Ukraine’s goal throughout this eight-year war. And for Ukraine to “concede” it to Russia now would be for Ukraine to lose what they have been waging war for eight years in order to attain. He also told Zakaria that Ukrainians would never accept any concession to Russia on what was, before 2014, Ukrainian land: Crimea and Donbass: “Any compromises related to our territorial integrity and our sovereignty … We cannot concede to it.” The NATO issue is part of that: “NATO could be a source of guarantees for Ukraine, but we are not accepted as a member of NATO, so Ukraine has to seek for other security guarantees from individual countries, that could be NATO members. That is what we are proposing, a number of leaders of world countries could be the source of guarantees for Ukraine. They could be part of this circle of powerful countries. That is what we can talk about, security guarantees for Ukraine.” His war in Ukraine is a war for “sovereignty” within the Ukraine that existed before 2014, and including Ukraine’s right to allow U.S.-or-allied missiles to be posted there within only a five-minute flight-time away from nuclear-annihilating The Kremlin. He even said that “We are running out of time. You have to admit Ukraine into NATO right now. We do not have much time. You have to accept Ukraine as a member of E.U. [as a stepping-stone to being allowed into NATO]”. In other words: Only as a temporary measure would he accept some NATO countries offering to provide “guarantees” to Ukraine’s winning this eight-year war — and he is holding the same goal now, that Ukraine’s Government has been pursuing ever since 2014.

Here is a video of the 2014 regime-change in Ukraine which had produced this war. And here is what had led up to that historic regime-change event. And here is how that historic regime-change event ultimately produced Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022.

So: the Big Lie about Ukraine’s war is that it started on 24 February 2022, instead of during 20-26 February 2014. Even Ukraine’s President acknowledges that it is false. For some reason, the leaders of Ukraine’s ‘allies’ do not acknowledge it.

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Is a Marshall Plan for Ukraine possible?

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Photo: © UNICEF/Ashley Gilbertson

Reflecting on Ukraine’s future beyond the current conflict, many politicians and experts speculate about the expediency of a new Marshall Plan for the country. Although the old Plan (officially known as the European Recovery Program) was designed and implemented by the Truman administration some three quarters of a century ago, it is still considered one of the most successful large-scale projects of post-conflict reconstruction. The experience still represents a certain value today. Leaving aside the political aspects of the U.S. aid program to Europe, which is a separate subject to discuss, we will confine ourselves to some relevant technical features of this initiative.

First of all, it would be wrong to think of the Marshall Plan as some bottomless source of financial resources that poured by the United States into the economy of Western Europe. In 1948–1951, Washington invested in Europe just over $13 billion, which is about $115 to $150 billion at today’s rate. Recall that at the end of the summer the Ukrainian leadership estimated the needs for the post-conflict reconstruction of the country at $600–800 billion—by the results of the autumn hostilities with a lot of new damage inflicted upon the core economic infrastructure, these needs were to increase even more, measuring now in trillions of dollars.

Since financial resources under the Marshall Plan were distributed among 17 countries and territories, even the largest recipients did not receive much: Great Britain — 3.3 billion, France — 2.3 billion, West Germany — 1.4 billion, Italy — 1.2 billion, etc. Most of experts believe that the money received from the U.S. directly boosted the growth of European economies by about 0.5% per year on average. However, this does not mean that the Marshall Plan played a merely marginal role in the post-conflict reconstruction of Europe. The importance of the Plan was not so much in the absolute amount of aid, but rather in the fact that this mechanism helped launch the natural process of Europe’s economic revival, namely the recovery of the private sector, the accumulation of trade between European countries, the rise of national investment activity, and the establishment of new economic institutions. The Plan also acted as a kind of guarantee granted to European nations by the U.S. government, allowing the gateways to open for the flow of American FDIs into Western Europe. It also became a catalyst for the fast growth of domestic investments in most of participating countries.

Applied to the current situation, this suggests that foreign aid as such is unlikely to be the only or the main driver of the post-conflict development of the Ukrainian economy. Ukraine still needs to make decisive progress in such areas as combating corruption, the independence of the judiciary, and improving the quality of public administration at various levels. The challenge is to unleash the creative potential of the Ukrainian society and to make full use of the many comparative advantages that the nation can demonstrate integrating itself into European and global economies. In other words, any potential Marshall Plan for Ukraine is not a substitute for still incomplete domestic reforms, but only one of the possible tools to facilitate them. But just as three-quarters of a century ago, large-scale government or international aid programs should stimulate private sector investment, both external and domestic.

The source of funding for the reconstruction of Western Europe in the late 1940s – early 1950s was obvious, since the U.S. was at the peak of its economic and financial power and could therefore allocate 13 billion to European countries relatively painlessly. Moreover, a significant part of these resources was returned to the U.S. in the form of purchases of American goods and services by Europeans. Even in those days, though, Washington began to cut aid to European partners as soon as money was needed for the Korean War.

Today, the U.S. is burdened with much more serious financial problems, and one should no longer expect Washington to be that generous. Especially since the U.S. has already taken the lead in providing unprecedented military and technical assistance to Kiev. Given the importance of Ukraine to the states of the EU, it would be logical to assume that Brussels rather than Washington would be the main donor for a post-conflict Ukraine. However, today the financial standing of the European Union, including Germany as the main potential sponsor of the new Marshall Plan, leaves much to be desired.

Perhaps, architects of a new Plan could rely on the reserves of the Russian Central Bank, frozen by the West after February 24, 2022. Making a decisive move from freezing to confiscation is not yet possible, but it will probably be done in the end. However, there are many other contenders for these Russian funds. For example, countries that have sheltered Ukrainian refugees, as well as those most affected by the sanctions war with Moscow, would like to receive financial compensation. So, in fact, $300 billion of frozen Russian reserves is not a bottomless pit where you can get money at will. Even if all of this money ends up in Ukraine, it is not likely to cover all the costs of the post-conflict reconstruction.

Only in case of complete and unconditional surrender of the Kremlin could it be possible to pull significant funds from Russia to add to the declared level of $600–800 billion. Today, such a surrender does not look as a likely outcome of the conflict. However, if we assume a scenario of such surrender for a moment, we then have to conclude that a depleted and bloodless Russia, capitulated to the Collective West, simply won’t have the necessary resources it could promptly transfer to the reconstruction of Ukraine. Paying reparations has never been easy. For example, after the end of World War I, Germany could not pay its war debts to the victorious countries in full as late as the end of the Weimar Republic, and in 1933 the Third Reich simply unilaterally refused to pay any further reparations afterwards.

Apparently, Ukraine’s recovery will take a long time under any scenario for the end of the crisis. It might go faster in agriculture, in residential construction or in services, it is likely to go slower in heavy industry and in hi-tech. In the case of Ukraine, it is probably not quite correct to talk about “recovery”, because the task will not be to return to the old economic structure that the country had in the beginning of the century, but to create an entirely new economy, which could organically fit into the international (global, not just European) division of labor of the mid-21st century. In this process, the role of external sources of funding will be significant, although not decisive. Much more will depend on the strategic economic decisions made in Kyiv, as well as on the long-term vision that the European Union might or might not develop regarding a unique future role of Ukraine in the Forth Industrial Revolution, which is already sweeping across the continent.

Another feature of the Marshall Plan should be noted. The program was launched two years after the end of World War II, when not only the military actions in Europe were completely stopped, but the post-war European order was defined as a whole. If we draw an analogy with the present, a successful Marshall Plan for Ukraine can also be possible only once the conflict is over and when minimal stability is restored on the European continent. This, in turn, means that each new day of the conflict results in new human casualties and causes greater damage to the Ukrainian economy, pushing the prospect of the beginning of the post-conflict reconstruction farther away.

From our partner RIAC

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Azerbaijan is to open an embassy in Israel: timely or little late?

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Image source: twitter @GeorgeDeek

Time to open that bottle!” tweeted with joy George Deek, Israel`s Ambassador in Azerbaijan on November 18, by posting a photo of wine flanked by the flags of the two countries. What lit him up was the decision of the Azerbaijani parliament to (finally) open an embassy in Israel.

The joy was shared by Israeli officials and media outlets: for instance, Prime Minister Yair Lapid praised the decision, calling Azerbaijan “an important partner of Israel and home to one of the largest Jewish communities in the Muslim world”. The Jerusalem Post, in its turn, referred to Azerbaijan as the first Shiite country to open an embassy in Israel.

The two countries have established and been successfully leading one of the unique, if not strange, case of partnership since the early 1990s: a Shiite Azerbaijan plays an incredible role in the energy security of the Jewish state surrounded usually by antagonistic states: according to some estimates, Israel receives 40-50% of its oil imports from Azerbaijan.

Another, no less important, director of the bilater relations is security-oriented. Israel has managed to become the largest supplier of weapons to Azerbaijan. SIPRI estimates that some 60% of Azerbaijan’s defense imports in 2015-2019 originated in Israel, while in 2020, that number jumped to almost 70%. This partnership benefited Azerbaijan, who successfully used the Israeli-manufactured state-of-the-art military technology during the 2020 Karabakh war to defeat its arch-nemesis Armenia and liberate the formerly occupied territories. The contribution of Israel to the historic triumph was acknowledged both by political elite and general society in Azerbaijan: seeing Israel flags, along with Azerbaijani and Turkish ones, across the entire country is therefore not uncommon nowadays.

Last May, amid regional tensions with Iran, reports emerged on Azerbaijan buying Iron Dome missile defense batteries. Then in October 2021, Azerbaijan reportedly considered buying Israel’s Arrow-3 missile defense system. Neither Israeli authorities nor Israeli defense firms commented on the news.

Another sign of deepening ties and mutual trust came to light lately when the Israeli government approved an emergency plan to receive Jews fleeing from Russia. The plan involves possible transition camps for Russian Jews in Finland and in Azerbaijan ahead of their arrival to Israel.

Add to this, Azerbaijani-Jewish diaspora who naturally forges the warm relations between the two countries. While the Jews were persecuted, oppressed and driven out both in Christian and Muslim worlds in the Middle Ages, Azerbaijan always served as a safe haven for them: an all-Jewish town just outside of Baku, Azerbaijan`s capitol city, Red Town is home to at least 4,000 people and is sometimes referred to as Jerusalem of the Caucasus. This fact also boosts the image of Azerbaijan as a reliable and amicable land in the Jewish perception. According to historians, the indigenous Mountain Jews have been living in geography for at least 2,000 years. A unique sub-group of the Jews, they now protect the interests of both Azerbaijan and Israel.

Despite the nearly perfect ties between the two countries, Azerbaijan had for decades avoided opening an embassy in Israel, although the latter has been diplomatically represented in Azerbaijan since 1993. The reason could be related to the assumption that such a move could alienate the huge Muslim world, most of whose members had been quite hostile towards Israel. However, things started changing with the signing of the Abraham Accords. The thaw between some Gulf countries and Israel heralded a new era in the Middle Eastern geopolitics and Azerbaijan had to rethink its relevant policies.

The signs of Azerbaijan`s intention to finally set up a mission in Israel had been observed for some years until when Baku opened Trade and Tourism Representative Offices in Tel Aviv in the summer of 2021.

While elevating its diplomatic presence in the Jewish state, Azerbaijan, known for its skillful balancing, did not forget Palestine and passed a parliamentary resolution on opening a representative office in Ramallah as well.

Yet, Azerbaijan`s historic decision amid its tensions with Iran and the comeback of Netanyahu, who is expected to resume Israel`s assertive policy especially in the Iran direction could not be only a coincidence. Intriguingly, in early October Israel`s Defense Minister Benny Gantz paid a visit to Azerbaijan, where he met not only his counterpart but also Azerbaijan`s president Ilham Aliyev. This visit overlapped with the attempts of Israel and Turkey to finally overcome their past disagreements and open a new chapter in the relations, something the Azerbaijani side had for years desired for and worked on.

It can be predicted that Azerbaijan`s foreign policy priority for the next period will be focusing not only on cementing bilateral ties with the Jewish state, but helping to establish what some Azerbaijani experts see as Azerbaijani-Israeli-Turkish triangle, a geopolitical constellation, which would also determine the regional picture in the coming years.

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