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Tensions Rise In Georgia's Breakaway Regions

A woman peddles metal basins at a street market in Sukhumi, Abkhazia.
A woman peddles metal basins at a street market in Sukhumi, Abkhazia.
Five years after their formal recognition by the Russian Federation as independent states on August 26, 2008, Georgia's breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia are on very different trajectories in terms of relations with their northern neighbor. But both are plagued by growing domestic political instability.

Abkhazia has experienced a modest economic upswing that together with the financial support it continues to receive from Moscow has underpinned the conviction that independent statehood is viable in the long-term, even in the absence of broad international recognition, given the region's continued attraction to millions of Russian tourists.

Tom de Waal recently noted that 25 percent of Abkhazia's annual budget comprises subsidies from Russia, not counting "a massive Russian-funded infrastructure program for roads, schools, government buildings and agriculture."

South Ossetia, by contrast, remains totally dependent on Russian subsidies to rebuild infrastructure and industrial capacity destroyed during the August 2008 war with Georgia. That dependence has fueled an ongoing debate as to whether the Republic of South Ossetia should join the Russian Federation, whether as a separate federation subject or through unification with the Republic of North Ossetia-Alania.

Meanwhile, the Russian troop presence in both regions has removed the ever-present threat of a new Georgian attack. (Prior to the ill-fated attack on South Ossetia in August 2008, Georgia had tried in 1998 to invade Abkhazia [see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," May 26, 1998] and in 2004 to reimpose its control over South Ossetia by military force.)

In Abkhazia, the ensuing geopolitical stability contributed to the strengthening of civil society and has emboldened opposition parties to close ranks and extract concessions from two successive de facto presidents. Sergei Bagapsh died of lung cancer in May 2011 at the age of 62, 18 months after being reelected for a second presidential term. Three months later, Vice President and former Interior Minister Aleksandr Ankvab was elected his successor, defeating Bagapsh's perennial rival, Forum of National Unity of Abkhazia (FNEA) head Raul Khadjimba.

It was Khadjimba who in the summer of 2009 coordinated criticism of Bagapsh for what the opposition termed ignoring the constitution, restricting the activities of opposition parties, and denying them access to the media. The opposition also accused Bagapsh of unwarranted concessions to Russia, including signing away control of the region's borders, airport, and rail network and granting Rosneft the right to prospect for oil off the Abkhaz Black Sea coast. The opposition failed to bring about Bagapsh's resignation but in September 2009 forced the parliament to backtrack on planned legislation that would have granted Abkhaz citizenship to Georgian residents of Abkhazia's southern Gali district that borders on Georgia proper.

Over the past six months, Khadjimba has spearheaded a similar assault on Ankvab. On February 28, his Forum of National Unity convened a demonstration in Sukhumi to protest electricity price hikes and increase in bread prices. Ankvab met with the protesters and concedes that situation was "difficult" but said the problems the republic faced cannot be resolved immediately.

Ten days later, the opposition staged a second demonstration to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Leonid Lakerbaya and the formation of a provisional government as a sign that the authorities were ready to implement reforms. Addressing that meeting, Khadjimba accused the Abkhaz leadership of failing to deliver on Ankvab's campaign promises and of taking decisions without consulting the parliament or informing the population. But Ankvab rejected every single one of their demands, including that for the creation of a parliament commission to monitor how the financial aid received from Moscow is spent.

Then on June 12, the ruling United Abkhazia party announced the withdrawal of its support for Ankvab, triggering the resignation of many of its members. United Abkhazia joined one month later with the FNEA, the People's Party of Abkhazia, the centrist Economic Development Party (PERA), and five other political organizations in a Coordinating Council with the shared objective of "jointly drafting a political platform aimed at overcoming the crisis in society and creating conditions for implementing political and economic reforms," conducting a dialogue with the authorities, defending citizens' constitutional rights, and strengthening statehood.

Two more political organizations representing Abkhazia's Russian minority have since joined the Coordinating Council, which has launched a series of meetings across the region in a bid to rally popular support. It plans to submit to parliament draft constitutional amendments redistributing powers and prerogatives between the executive and legislative branches.

Moscow has apparently decided to support the embattled Abkhaz leadership -- at least for now. Russian Presidential Envoy to the North Caucasus Federal District Aleksandr Khloponin traveled to Sukhumi last month to meet with Ankvab. Khloponin expressed admiration for the "huge amount of reconstruction work" carried out. He promised that Moscow would provide the Abkhaz government with a further 1.1 billion rubles ($33.3 million) before the end of this year within the framework of the three-year investment program funded by the Ministry of Regional Development.

Then on August 15, Ankvab met in Sochi with Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss emergency aid for those regions of Abkhazia worst hit by torrential rains in recent weeks. Putin paid a one-day visit to Abkhazia on August 25.

In contrast to Abkhazia, little has been accomplished in South Ossetia in the way of postconflict reconstruction. Most of the total 27.3 billion rubles allocated in 2008-11 has vanished without trace; political commentators hypothesized that the public feud in 2010 between then de facto President Eduard Kokoity and Vadim Brovtsev, the Chelyabinsk businessman named in August 2009 by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev as prime minister, was in fact a struggle for control of those funds.

Following the election in April 2012 of Leonid Tibilov as Kokoity's successor, South Ossetia's new prosecutor-general, Merab Chigoyev, has opened up to 70 criminal investigations, some involving former government officials; Interpol has been asked to issue international arrest warrants for nine people, including three former South Ossetian government ministers, but Brovtsev and his team are not among them.

Russia's Audit Chamber conducted an investigation of how the money was embezzled, after which funding for the current year was scaled back (to 4.25 billion rubles, compared with 6.4 billion in 2011 and 5.5 billion in 2012) and responsibility for disbursing and coordinating the use of Russian subsidies to South Ossetia was transferred from the Ministry of Regional Development to one of its subsidiary agencies.

Tibilov's election also marked the start of a gradual political liberalization. Eight new political parties have been registered since his inauguration in April 2012, including Nauag Iryston (New Ossetia), headed by David Sanakoyev, whom Tibilov defeated in the presidential runoff. True to his pledge to create a government of national unity, Tibilov appointed Sanakoyev de facto foreign minister and Alla Djioyeva, whose victory in the November 2011 presidential election was annulled by the Supreme Court, a deputy premier.

In his annual address to parliament in April, however, Tibilov admitted that South Ossetian society remains profoundly divided. He also conceded that the anger of those families who have still not been allocated new housing to replace homes destroyed during the August 2008 war is justified.

Within months of his inauguration, Tibilov was subjected to a barrage of media criticism that some analysts attributed to Brovtsev. Others suspected Kokoity, whose calls in September 2012 at a meeting of his Unity party for the consolidation of society Tibilov's entourage construed as a veiled demand for the post of premier. Kokoity has since quit the Unity party but has also made clear his intention to remain in politics: In an interview pegged to the fifth anniversary of the start of the August 2008 war, he sought to portray himself as the savior both of the South Ossetian people and the region's self-proclaimed independence from Georgia. Yevgeny Krutikov, a former aide to the commander of South Ossetia's National Guard, has predicted that Kokoity will systematically try to win back the support of both the South Ossetian electorate and the Kremlin in the run-up to the parliamentary elections due in April 2014 and create a new political party to compete in that ballot.

The parliamentary election campaign is likely to focus on two interrelated issues: rebuilding the region's economy and its future relations with Russia. South Ossetia has a population of approximately 20,000, compared with Abkhazia's 240,000, and few natural resources apart from timber. The region imports virtually all its food from Russia, at inflated prices. It is the lack of a functioning economy that has led many to conclude that becoming part of the Russian Federation, whether as an independent federation subject or by united with North Ossetia, is the only hope for the future.

Tibilov's pronouncements on the issue have been inconsistent. He told journalists last month that if South and North Ossetia unite within the Russian Federation during his presidency, he would consider his life's mission fulfilled. But that decision does not lie with South Ossetia alone, and as Krutikov points out, successive Russian presidents have stressed repeatedly that recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia is nonnegotiable and irreversible.

About This Blog

This blog presents analyst Liz Fuller's personal take on events in the region, following on from her work in the "RFE/RL Caucasus Report." It also aims, to borrow a metaphor from Tom de Waal, to act as a smoke detector, focusing attention on potential conflict situations and crises throughout the region. The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.


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