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Georgia To Continue Talks With Russia Despite Landmark Abkhaz Treaty

Abkhazian leader Raul Khajimba (left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin exchange documents during the signing ceremony at the Bocharov Ruchei residence in Sochi on November 24.

Georgia plans to continue talks with the Russian Federation despite the implications of the Russian-Abkhaz treaty "On Union Relations And Strategic Partnership" signed late last month, according to veteran Georgian diplomat Zurab Abashidze, who represents Tbilisi at those talks.

On November 28, the Georgian parliament voted down a resolution put forward by former President Mikheil Saakashvili's minority United National Movement (ENM) faction calling for suspending those talks in retaliation for what the ENM termed "Russia's attempts to annex occupied Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region," meaning the breakaway region of South Ossetia.

Georgia formally severed diplomatic relations in late August 2008 to protest Russia's formal recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states. The talks between Abashidze and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin began two years ago, shortly after the October 2012 parliamentary elections in which the Georgian Dream coalition headed by billionaire philanthropist Bidzina Ivanishvili defeated the ENM.

The new Russian-Abkhaz treaty was reportedly first mooted in June of this year at the time of the political standoff in Abkhazia that culminated in the resignation, apparently with Moscow's consent, of then de facto President Aleksandr Ankvab. Raul Khajimba, the opposition leader who coordinated the campaign for Ankvab's ouster and was elected his successor in August, stressed during his inauguration address on September 25 the need to sign, before the end of the year, "a new treaty directed at deepening integration, in the first instance, in the sphere of defense, of border protection, and of broadening our economic possibilities."

The initial version of the treaty, drafted in Moscow and provisionally titled "On Union Relations And Integration," was unveiled in mid-October. It immediately triggered outraged protest both in Tbilisi, where it was construed as heralding Abkhazia's imminent incorporation into the Russian Federation, and in the Abkhaz capital, Sukhumi, where politicians across the political spectrum saw it as a threat to the region's self-proclaimed independence, which only a handful of states in addition to Russia have recognized.

Abkhaz commentator Aslan Basaria pointed out that some provisions of the preamble contradicted the main body of the treaty; he added that the document as a whole appeared to have been drafted by persons who were totally unfamiliar with the situation in Abkhazia. Even Khajimba went on record as admitting in a televised address to the nation that he disagreed with some articles of the draft (he did not specify which ones).

The Abkhaz duly sent back to Moscow a revised version that omitted or rephrased those points perceived as posing a threat to the region's sovereignty. Most, but not all, of those proposed revisions found their way into the final version, which at least from the Abkhaz point of view constitutes an exception to T.E. Lawrence's maxim that "all the revision in the world will not save a bad first draft." Russian analysts Sergei Markedonov and Aleksei Malashenko both commented that Moscow attached such importance to the treaty that it took into consideration virtually all the Abkhaz objections.

Arguably the most significant, if purely semantic change was to the formal title of the treaty, the hot-button term "integration" that set off alarm bells in both Tbilisi and Sukhumi being replaced by the more anodyne "strategic partnership."

The treaty encompassed three main components: military-security, foreign policy, and socioeconomic.

The military-security provisions included the creation of a "joint group of forces" that would defend Abkhazia in the event of attack in line with Article 51 of the UN Charter. According to Khajimba, not all Abkhaz military units will be subsumed into that joint group. The stipulation in the initial draft of the treaty that the joint group of forces would be commanded by a Russian was dropped from the final version.

A related provision in the first draft allowing citizens of Abkhazia who also possessed Russian passports to enlist as contract servicemen in either the regular Russian forces stationed in Abkhazia or the proposed joint group of forces was likewise dropped from the final text.

A parallel provision on the creation of a joint coordinating center for the two polities' Interior Ministries with the aim of combatting crime and extremism in Abkhazia was also fine-tuned at Abkhazia's insistence. The name was changed to "coordinating-information center," and the clause stipulating it will operate on Abkhaz territory and the reference to "extremism" were both dropped. That means Russian Interior Ministry troops will not be legally empowered to pursue suspected Caucasus Emirate fighters if they take refuge on Abkhaz territory.

Moreover, the revised Abkhaz version and the final version of the treaty contain an additional provision under which the Russian Federation undertakes to pay for providing the Abkhaz police force with new equipment and increasing police officers' salaries.

The articles of the initial draft dealing with foreign policy and with socioeconomic development underwent similar changes that reflect Abkhaz sensitivity to possible encroachment on the region's sovereignty. The initial formulation obliging the two sides to implement a "mutually agreed foreign policy" was changed, reportedly at the insistence of de facto Abkhaz Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Chirikba, to read "coordinated foreign policy."

While the reference in the initial draft to Abkhazia's independence was dropped from subsequent versions of the preamble, Article 4 in all three versions obliged Russia to help enlarge the number of states that recognize that independence. The Abkhaz and final drafts also include provision for Abkhazia to participate in any integration projects in the former Soviet space, a clear reference to the Eurasian Economic Union. In anticipation, Abkhazia pledged (Article 11) to bring its customs legislation into line with that of the Eurasian Economic Union within three years.

A further concession to the Abkhaz side was the removal from the final draft of measures to facilitate the acquisition by citizens of the Russian Federation of Abkhaz citizenship -- which would have created the legal foundation for the mass purchase by wealthy Russians of real estate in Abkhazia.

The initial commitment to create a "common socioeconomic space" was rephrased in the Abkhaz variant and final draft to read "jointly contribute to the socioeconomic development of the Republic of Abkhazia." Russia's contribution will include raising Abkhaz pensions, allowances, and the salaries of public-sector employees to the average level in Russia's Southern Federal District on which Abkhazia borders. A separate article of the treaty (Article 21 in the final version) pledges Russian assistance to Abkhazia in implementing a program to promote the use of the Abkhaz language.

From the point of view of semantics and diplomatic terminology, there is little in the final version of the treaty to justify the stated fears of the Georgian leadership and the international community that the Russian Federation intends to annex Abkhazia as it did Crimea earlier this year, especially given the substitution in the revised and final versions of the preamble and Article 4 of "Caucasus region" for "Transcaucasus region" in reference to the signatories' shared commitment to "strengthening peace and stability."

On the other hand, insofar as the treaty is clearly intended to strengthen Abkhazia militarily and economically and bind it more closely to the Russian Federation, it enhances the potential for Moscow to use Abkhazia as an instrument to further its own interests vis-a-vis Georgia or, conversely, to thwart the regional designs of Georgia's Western partners, including perhaps plans to expand Georgia-NATO cooperation. Or, to quote Russian commentator Anton Krivenyuk, "Moscow's interest is in the region as a whole. And Sukhumi is viewed in this account as a conduit, a political and military ally, whose loyalty can help secure Russia's military-political interests in the region."

The final version of the treaty was signed in Sochi on November 24 at a meeting between Khajimba and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Putin announced later the same day that Russia will make available to Abkhazia in 2015 5 billion rubles ($111.5 million) to cover the cost of implementation of the treaty's provisions, in addition to the 4 billion rubles already envisaged under a new investment program for 2015-17.

Krivenyuk had predicted in October during the impassioned debate about the shortcomings of the initial draft that the new Abkhaz leadership had no choice but to accept it, given that without that badly needed cash injection it would be unable to deliver on Khajimba's election promises to raise salaries and pensions and create new jobs. If the Abkhaz leadership (or Khajimba personally?) viewed the treaty from the outset in terms of absolute loyalty in return for minimum concessions and maximum cash and support, they certainly drove a hard bargain.

-- Liz Fuller

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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