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Georgia: Abkhaz Opposition Appeals To Russia For Recognition Of Independence

  • Liz Fuller --> A challenge to President Bagapsh's rule? (file photo) Deputies to the founding congress of the opposition Forum of People's Unity of Abkhazia (FNEA), which took place in Sukhum on 7 October, issued two statements that, taken together, could be construed as a warning or even a challenge to the Abkhaz leadership that came to power in January as a result of Sergei Bagapsh's victory in a repeat presidential election.

The first statement noted that the tensions generated by the struggle for power between Bagapsh and main rival Raul Khadjimba (Moscow's preferred candidate) have not yet dissipated, but gave credit to Bagapsh's team for amending its domestic, economic, and foreign policies in response to criticism from the FNEA. The second called on Russian President Vladimir Putin and the international community as a whole to recognize the Republic of Abkhazia as an independent state, adding that the forum supports the prospect of Abkhazia becoming an "associate subject" of the Russian Federation.

The FNEA was founded in early February as an umbrella organization grouping together 12 opposition parties and groups, including the Apsny party of former President Vladislav Ardzinba, the Social Democratic Party of Abkhazia chaired by Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba, and the Abkhaz chapter of Vladimir Zhirinovskii's Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 11 February 2005). It immediately announced that it would support Bagapsh's administration "to the extent that it serves the interests of the Abkhaz people." Within months it publicly criticized government initiatives that it considered to run counter to those interests. In mid-July, the FNEA issued a statement denouncing the new government's privatization plans and its imputed willingness to allow Georgian displaced persons who fled Abkhazia during the 1992-1993 war to return to their former homes -- many of which have since been taken over by Abkhaz families. It called for legislation to bar returning Georgians from reclaiming their former houses or apartments. It also slammed purported plans by the Abkhaz government to invite Russian oil companies to prospect for oil in Abkhazia on the grounds that such development would negatively impact the tourist industry, which is Abkhazia's largest single source of revenues.
The narrow obsession with protecting personal and group financial interests to the detriment of broader national interests could ultimately destroy Abkhazia's chances of winning international recognition as an independent sovereign state.

The government responded, deploring the tone of the FNEA criticism, but it apparently did not address the criticism of its privatization plans. It stressed that the repatriation of Georgian displaced persons take place in accordance with international agreements the previous Abkhaz leadership signed, and challenged the FNEA to list specific cases in which Georgian repatriants have obviated the requirements stipulated in those agreements. In that context, Bagapsh ordered police to question FNEA members to determine whether they were engaging in "political speculation," according to on 19 July. The government response denied the existence of concrete plans to prospect for oil, while reaffirming the government's right to "hold consultations" on the possibility of doing so. (In a rare public statement to the media, former President Ardzinba, too, warned against drilling for oil either on- or off-shore on the grounds that doing so would inflict irreversible damage on Abkhazia's unique tourist potential, Caucasus Press reported on 18 August.) Finally, the response affirmed the Abkhaz government's readiness for constructive dialogue with all opposition forces.

The estimated 500 delegates to last week's FNEA founding congress (they included Vice President Khadjimba, parliament speaker Nugzar Ashuba, and Deputy Prime Minister Leonid Lakerbaya) noted that in the nine months since its inception, the FNEA has evolved from a political bloc to a full-fledged political movement with chapters in all six of Abkhazia's districts. They listed as the forum's main objectives defending the right of the Abkhaz people to self-determination and independent statehood; creating the conditions for implementing political, economic, and social reform; and establishing close ties with Russia. They also elected a political council and three co-chairmen: Avtandil Gartskia, Vitalii Gabunia, and Daur Arshba. Ardzinba's former aide, Astamur Tania, was elected FNEA executive secretary, according to on 8 October.

Noting with approval that the government has taken its previous criticisms into consideration, the FNEA reaffirmed its readiness for cooperation and dialogue. At the same time it implicitly claimed a greater political role, proposing the establishment of formal mechanisms for dialogue, including live TV debates, according to on 8 October. The Abkhaz authorities have not yet commented on those proposals.

If one reads between the lines, however, the two appeals adopted at the FNEA congress could be interpreted as conveying a very different message to Bagapsh's administration, namely: we've forced you to make concessions before, and we can do so again if we want. And, the Russian leadership is watching and waiting, ready to intervene if you go too far in making concessions to Tbilisi. If you do prove too conciliatory, Moscow is ready to engineer your overthrow and install us in your place, especially as we have demonstrated our loyalty by signaling our willingness to accept associate membership of the Russian Federation as an alternative to full-fledged independence.

If, under international and UN pressure, Bagapsh did agree to concessions to Georgia that Russia considered unpalatable, securing his replacement by representatives of the opposition grouped under the FNEA umbrella could serve Moscow's interests in the short- and medium-term. Whether it would benefit the people of Abkhazia in the long-term, however, is another question. In an analysis published in "Ekho Abkhazii" No. 35 in August of this year, historian Guram Gumba identified three parallel trends that he said pose a danger to Abkhaz' collective aspirations to independent statehood. They are the fragmentation of the political spectrum; the ongoing rapprochement with Russia; and the concomitant erosion of the cultural component of national identity.

Gumba complained that "we still do not have a political elite that is capable of thinking in the categories of an independent state. Instead, we have an administrative elite with a deficit of national consciousness and which personifies narrow group and clan economic and financial interests." He went on to argue that in the wake of last year's bitterly contested and divisive presidential ballot, "our society is divided not into two [conflicting] sides, but as before into dozens of groupings and clans." During the presidential election campaign, Gumba explained, those multiple groupings coalesced into two larger groups, on two levels: microgroups from within the administrative elite that sought to defend not political but their own personal financial interests, and individuals who enjoyed broader social support. Gumba suggested that the new leadership wants to promote societal consolidation, but is setting about doing so by attempting to win over the first group by brokering compromises between the various microgroups rather than by reaching out to the second category of influential individuals.

The narrow obsession with protecting personal and group financial interests to the detriment of broader national interests could, Gumba warned, ultimately destroy Abkhazia's chances of winning international recognition as an independent sovereign state. In that context he quoted Georgian Minister for Conflict Resolution Giorgi Khaindrava's recent prediction that "one day you [Abkhaz] could wake up and find yourselves in Krasnodar Krai," meaning without even the status of a separate subject of the Russian Federation -- a fate to which, Gumba suggested, many Abkhaz would not object.

For more news about events in Georgia, see RFE/RL's webpage News and Features on Georgia