A contentious election in Georgia's breakaway region of Abkhazia is stoking new questions about Georgia's territorial integrity. The leading candidates in the Abkhaz "presidential" election say they will pursue efforts to secede from Georgia. In Moscow, meanwhile, influential policy experts are calling on the Kremlin to recognize the sovereignty of Georgia's two separatist regions Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Political observers characterized the situation in the unrecognized republic of Abkhazia on October 4 as "tense," as various political factions disputed the elections tally. Preliminary results announced by local election officials said that Raul Khajimba, the candidate favored by the Kremlin, had triumphed with just over 50 percent of the vote. Later, amid reports of rampant electoral violations, officials backtracked and indicated that the ballot-counting process was incomplete. Khajimba's chief rival, Sergei Bagapsh, who reportedly received 33 percent of the vote in the preliminary tally, complained about massive ballot-rigging and claimed that he had won an outright majority of the votes.
International organizations, including the Council of Europe and the OSCE have refused to recognize the validity of the vote, viewing Abkhazia and a constituent part of Georgia. In sharp contrast, a Russian Foreign Ministry statement characterized the vote as "calm and democratic."
With a new leadership team in place, Abkhazia may again move to the forefront of the separatism issue, which has dogged Georgia for over a decade. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has made the country's territorial reintegration a top priority of his administration. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Abkhazia, which has operated beyond Tbilisi's control since defeating the Georgian army in a 1992-93 conflict, has expressed no interest in submitting to Saakashvili's authority.
On October 3, Khajimba told the Russian RIA news agency that he would actively seek to secure international recognition of Abkhazia. "We have been with Georgia once and we had enough of it," Khajimba said. "The Czech Republic and Slovakia separated peacefully in Europe. ... Why can't Abkhazia be a free state?"
The lack of international recognition, specifically from Russia, has been the primary impediment to Abkhazia's long-standing independence aspirations. Moscow's own struggle to contain Chechen separatism has prompted Russian leaders to express support over the past decade for Georgia's territorial integrity even though Russia during the same period has taken action to undermine Tbilisi's grip on the separatist regions.
Recent signals coming out of Moscow, however, indicate that Russian officials are contemplating a policy shift that could result in the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, along with Moldova's Trans-Dniestr region. A combination of factors including the Beslan hostage tragedy and Saakashvili's rise to power are forcing Russian officials to confront a difficult geopolitical choice. Before Saakashvili assumed the Georgian presidency in January, Russia maintained a two-pronged policy towards Abkhazia and South Ossetia: Russia said it respected the inviolability of Georgia's internationally recognized borders, while propping up the leaderships of the separatist regions, and granting Russian citizenship to inhabitants of the two areas. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Faced with Saakashvili's persistent action to bring the breakaway regions back under Tbilisi's authority has many in Moscow contemplating the abandonment of the two-track policy. A growing number of Russian experts and officials appear to be giving greater consideration to the diplomatic recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
The foundation for such a policy switch was outlined in two recent policy papers published in Moscow by prominent political analysts. In one, Andranik Migranyan, a professor at Moscow's prestigious Institute of International Relations, said international law should not be viewed as an obstacle to Russia's recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. "No common rules exist in the international community, and in each individual case, the great powers make decisions proceeding from their own interests," Migranyan wrote in a lengthy analysis published September 17 in Izvestiya.
Migranyan argued that since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Abkhazia and South Ossetia had done a better job of developing the attributes of statehood, in particular government institutions, than had Georgia, which he classified as a "failed state."
"Neither economically, nor military-politically, [Georgia] has become a state with consolidated power and efficiently working economic and political institutions," Migranyan contended. "It survives due to the support coming from the West, and from international financial organizations."
Another prominent political thinker, Boris Mezhuyev, argued that Russia needed to be more assertive in what it considers its zone of vital interests. Writing in an analysis posted on the Agentstvo Politicheskikh Novostei web site, Mezhuyev stated that Russia should "honestly and clearly" call itself a former colonial empire, identify its post-imperial status and fashion the CIS after the British Commonwealth. He also explicitly called for Russian recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Both Migranyan and Mezhuyev seem to think that a neo-imperialist policy, in which Russia dominates its fellow CIS member states, would best address Moscow's security concerns. Those concerns have heightened in recent weeks, following the Beslan hostage tragedy. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. "At this moment in history, he who himself creates the principles according to which he acts, acts rationally," Mezhuyev wrote.
The emerging neo-imperialist trend in Russian foreign policy is fueling concern among Western politicians and analysts. In a September 28 open letter, a large group of American and European foreign policy analysts accused Russia's President Vladimir Putin of building an authoritarian regime. "President Putin's foreign policy is increasingly marked by a threatening attitude towards Russia's neighbors
Igor Torbakov is a freelance journalist and researcher who specializes in CIS political affairs. He holds an MA in History from Moscow State University and a PhD from the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences. He was Research Scholar at the Institute of Russian History, Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow; a Visiting Scholar at the Kennan Institute, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington DC; a Fulbright Scholar at Columbia University, New York; and a Visiting Fellow at Harvard University. He is now based in Istanbul, Turkey.