The fallout from the May 19 murder of Giga Otkhozoria has put to the test Tbilisi’s policy of piecemeal reconciliation with Abkhazia and its separatist twin, South Ossetia, and their overlord, Russia.
Georgian public anger over Otkhozoria’s slaying has been directed mainly at Russia, seen as the one calling the shots in both of the breakaways. Russian troops are stationed along both Abkhazia’s and South Ossetia’s administrative borders with Georgian-controlled territory.
That view of Russia’s role may not jive with that of Abkhazia’s separatist government, but, for now, Tbilisi is sticking with it.
Thirty-year-old Giga Otkhozoria was beaten and shot dead on Georgian-controlled territory by Abkhaz border guards in broad daylight and full public view on May 19. The murder was caught on camera.
Otkhozoria, who was displaced from Abkhazia, but, like many in western Georgia, had relatives there, was trying to cross into Abkhazia but was not allowed by separatist border guards, which led to a brawl.
CCTV footage aired on Georgian television showed Otkhozoria pursued by four men into the Georgia-controlled side of Georgia-Abkhaz de-facto border crossing of Nabakevi-Khurcha.
An elderly woman tried to pull them apart, but one man pulled Otkhozoria down and another, uniformed assailant shot him twice, firing the second bullet into his head at near point-blank as people milled about the place. The attackers then scurried off back to the Abkhaz side.
Police on either side of the separatist line have launched investigations. Abkhazia’s de-facto military prosecutors acknowledged the incident took place, and said they would ask the Georgian side to share their own evidence. The Georgian prosecutors identified the shooter as Abkhaz resident Rashid Khajinogli. How they arrived at that conclusion is not clear.
Separatist Abkhazia wants to have a boat link to no less separatist Crimea to ship tourists and trade across the Black Sea.
A Crimea-based ferry company, which suspended commutes to Turkey out of supposed patriotic considerations in the wake of the hostility between Turkey and Russia, now plans to send its ferry shuttling to and from Abkhazia. De-facto officials on the peninsula, which Russia wrested away from Ukraine in 2014, hope that this water link with Abkhazia, another Moscow protégé, can help mitigate the economic impact of the diplomatic chill and severed trade ties between Russia and Turkey.
“[The Crimean capital of] Sevastopol is mainly interested in bringing food products – vegetables and fruits -- from Abkhazia to replace imports from Turkey,” said Kiril Moskalenko, spokesperson for the Sevastopol Governor’s Office, the Russian-government-financed Sputnik news service reported. He said he is not quite sure what products Crimea can offer Abkhazia in return. Some, especially Abkhazia’s de-facto government, hope that one such commodity could be tourists.
Russia-endowed Abkhazia reportedly is now a shell of its former Soviet Riviera self. Russian tourists often complain about the lack of infrastructure and basic services, but many are still drawn by the palm trees and mountain vistas, and Abkhazia’s former reputation as the most desirable seaside resort in the USSR.
For Crimeans, as for many Russians, Abkhazia likely appears as an affordably exotic vacation destination. The peninsula’s tour companies say that the West’s sanctions and refusal to call Crimea part of Russia made it harder for Crimean residents to travel abroad.
Separatist Abkhazia has been picked as the venue for the wannabe and stateless nations’ soccer championship in 2016.
It is soccer without borders in a direct sense. Arameans, Laplanders, Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians and all sorts of “sportingly isolated” peoples will be heading down to the Russian-backed, Georgian-claimed Black Sea region for the next installment of the soccer event that debuted in Sweden last year.
Twelve teams, including from Darfur and the Isle of Man, participated in the competition with the County of Nice as the winner.
The enthusiast group behind the event – the Confederation of Independent Football Associations (CONIFA) that some describe as the anti-FIFA – is on a mission to put unrecognized or less-recognized self-declared countries like Abkhazia “on the world map” to have them share “the joy of international soccer.
“We are sure that Abkhazia is a perfect choice to enjoy a perfect football and cultural experience,” CONIFA said in a statement. Although Abkhazia has the reputation of a twilight zone still recovering from the ruins of the early 1990s separatist war with Tbilisi, CONIFA claims that “top-class infrastructure” can be found there.
Russia has already poured big money into building bases in scenic, separatist Abkhazia, but now it claims that it plans to pour big money as well into the iconic resort town of Gagra — the ruble equivalent of about $25 million over the next two years.
The amount makes up a big chunk of both the 4 billion rubles ($76 million) in annual investment and 5 billion rubles ($95 million) in annual aid that Russian President Vladimir Putin pledged to Abkhazia when the breakaway region agreed in 2014to address many policy-areas with the Russian Federation's assistance.
The breakdown about how the cash will be used is not yet clear. But, with summer on the way, no public sign that anyone in Abkhazia is sweating the details.
Many older people throughout the former Soviet Union pine over Gagra, once the Saint-Tropez of the Soviet Union, and the times when it was synonymous with swanky beach-holidays. Getting a путёвка (putyovka) – a vacation voucher – for a trip to Gagra was like winning a jackpot and many a popular movie was set in the town.
(“Yakin broke up with his hag and talked me into going with him to Gagra!” enthused one parvenue in a famous moment in the 1973 Soviet comedy hit, “Иван Васильиевич Меняет Профессию" (released in the US as "Ivan Vasilievich: Back to the Future"). The line turned into a popular meme when Russian President Vladimir Putin divorced his wife, Lyudmila, in 2014.)
Abkhazia has appointed a retired senior Russian military officer as its new chief of general staff of the armed forces, suggesting a tightening control by Moscow over the nominally independent breakaway Georgian territory.
De facto President of Abkhazia Raul Khajimba announced the appointment of General Anatoliy Khrulev to head the armed forces on May 18, just three days after Khajimba met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi. Until his retirement in 2010, Khrulev had commanded the Russian 58th Army, and was wounded in South Ossetia fighting in the 2008 war between Georgia and Russia.
In announcing the appointment, Khajimba said it would help improve "cooperation" with Russia: "Our army isn't large, but in conditions of great military difficulty, when it was formed, it showed itself to be capable," Khajimba said. "Today is a different time, and we are taking on new missions, including those connected with the development of military-technical cooperation with Russia. We are counting on your [Khrulev's] knowledge and experience."
The appointment follows last year's signing of an integration deal between Abkhazia and Russia, which called for a "unified defense space" and other forms of tighter military coordination.
Khrulev isn't the first non-Abkhazian to hold such a high-ranking role in the security services: Sultan Sosnaliyev, a native of Kabardino-Balkaria who fought in Abkhazia's war against Georgia in the early 1990s, served two terms as defense minister, including as recently as 2007.
Three-and-a-half tons of mimosas allegedly now are crossing each day from separatist Abkhazia into Russia, Russian news outlets allege. The tiny, subtropical region is hoping to make a roaring trade out of its resplendent yellow blossoms ahead of the March 8 International Women’s Day, a combination of Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day in the post-Soviet world.
As it blossoms early, mimosa, or acacia dealbata, makes a prime gift for the big day. Mother Nature has helped out as well. A moderate winter led to early blossoms this year on Abkhazia’s Black Sea coast, Russian media claim.
Yet contraband is also on the increase. Some smugglers are trying to hide Abkhazia’s mimosas in their car trunks, Russian customs officials complained, Vesti.ru reported, citing TASS.
A standard mimosa bouquet sells for 100 rubles, or $1.60, in Sochi, the largest Russian city near Abkhazia, according to one outlet.
But, soon, those mimosas may not rank as contraband. Russian President Vladimir Putin, ever land-hungry, would like to eliminate Russia’s de-facto border with flowering Abkhazia, which Moscow recognises as an independent country from Georgia.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has modestly understated the number of military bases that Russia operates outside its borders, apparently forgetting about the several bases Russia has in the Caucasus and elsewhere.
In his big annual press conference on December 18, the BBC's John Simpson asked Putin about the breakout of a "new Cold War" and Russia's aggressive moves around its Western borders. Putin said that it was in fact the West who was aggressive:
We have basically only two bases abroad, and those are in terroristically dangerous directions: in Kyrgyzstan after militants from Afghanistan entered that country, at the reqyest of the Kyrgyz authorities, then President Akayev, and in Tajikistan -- also on the border with Afghanistan. I think you also would be interested in everything being stable there, too.
American bases are all over the globe. And you want to say that we're acting aggressively? Does that make sense? What are American armed forces, including tactical nuclear weapons, doing in Europe? What are they doing there?
Now that separatist Abkhazia had been tied to Russia through an essentially federal pact, setting up a train link to the rest of Georgia may be the next stop in Vladimir Putin’s plan for cementing Russian hegemony over the region.
Strictly from a pragmatic point of view, in theory, everyone along the route could potentially benefit from it, including Georgian exporters. Landlocked, semi-blockaded Armenia would benefit the most from such a link to its main trade-partner, Russia.
But many Georgians fear that giving the green light to the project would reduce their chances for negotiating the return of hundreds of thousands of IDPs to Abkhazia and, also, precariously increase Georgia’s economic dependence on Russia. That could spell a potential threat to the country’s longheld EU and NATO ambitions, the thinking goes.
And signal a wider battle for the post-Soviet space as well. In response to Abkhazia’s agreement-signing with Moscow, Georgia has made a cry of creeping annexation of its territory, and the US and EU have denounced the document as a violation of Georgia’s territorial integrity.
The move fits in with the trend of the changing political order in the post-Soviet space, with countries and regions pulling in opposite directions of associating with the European Union or Russia.
The signing in Sochi by Putin and fellow former KGB'er, Raul Khadjimba, Abkhazia's de-facto leader, has touched off an outcry in Tbilisi. From the Georgian perspective, the pact marks the virtual annexation of its territory and the ultimate failure of the current Georgian government's latter-day policy of reconciliation with Moscow.
“Despite the many constructive steps… no progress in political terms has been achieved with Russia,” the Georgian foreign ministry announced in a statement. “Together with the Georgian government and the Georgian people, we will resist this absurd move,” said Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili.
There are not too many mechanisms in Georgia’s diplomatic or economic arsenal for resisting Russian expansionism other than requesting the international community to pressure Moscow away from its perceived attempts of stealing another piece of land.