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.)
Yet the Wednesday deal does merge certain parts of key institutions (de jure in Russia's case; de facto in South Ossetia's) -- namely, in the army, intelligence, law enforcement and customs.
South Ossetians long have been going around Moscow asking to be annexed (and united with neighboring North Ossetia), but the Kremlin has been rolling its eyes at the idea as “out of the question.”
Last week, the region’s separatist leadership had an embarrassing moment, when they arrived with their agreement in Moscow, but could not even catch Putin, much less have him sign on the dotted line.
Still, happy as Russia seems with the status quo, it won’t pass up an opportunity to blur the distinction between it and South Ossetia a bit more.
Not amidst the war in Ukraine. And particularly not so close to the anniversary of Moscow's takeover of Crimea.
March 11 was supposed to be a big day for South Ossetia, the tiny breakaway region with a wish to become one with Russia. A South Ossetian delegation had arrived in Moscow with an engagement ring — the so-called Treaty on Alliance and Integration — but Russia was just not ready to commit. Perhaps because it has too much going on in its life right now.
The main battleground for the 2008 Georgian-Russian war, South Ossetia never made a secret of its desire to become the next Crimea. Its leadership had left for the signing-ceremony in Moscow to much fanfare at home and teeth-grinding in jilted Tbilisi, which claims the mountainous border region as its own.
But Russian President Vladimir Putin did not even receive the delegation, much less sign the agreement meant to merge the Russian and South Ossetian economies and government agencies.
Russian media was awash with speculation: Putin had a running nose or thinks the territory did a sloppy job with the agreement or is bogged down in Ukraine and does not feel like adding another region to his land-grab collection right now. “Indefinite postponement of such a document’s signing on the eve of an event is an unprecedented development,” wrote Russia’s Vzglyad newspaper.
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.
Keeping up with the regional fad of being annexed by Russia, the separatist territory issued terms of reference for how it would like to be absorbed.
The draft document offers to surrender to Russia such attributes of de-facto statehood as the army, police and courts. Not to mention, the "protection and patrolling of national borders."
Customs checkpoints (not generally accepted for South Ossetia internationally) would be eliminated between the region and the Russian Federation and any restrictions on citizens moving across the de-facto border would be abolished, the draft continues.
In other words, no need to send little green men. There is a catch, though -- South Ossetia, an impoverished region of some 50,000 residents, wants Russia to pretty much sustain it financially.
The region, which was recognized by Moscow in 2008 as an independent country, purportedly sees this takeover as a way of reuniting with its Ossetian kin in neighboring North Ossetia, part of the Russian Federation.
The notion has been around for awhile, but the annexation of Crimea and proclamations of independence by Russian-backed separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk in Ukraine, breathed new life into South Ossetia’s plans.
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.
Two self-proclaimed statelets that are widely viewed as creatures of the Kremlin, Novorossiya and South Ossetia, seem to be really hitting it off.
Oleg Tsarev, the speaker of the assembly representing the Ukrainian separatist entity, the People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk in Ukraine, recently visited Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian capital. There, he expressed thanks for Ossetian support for the ongoing separatist campaign in Ukraine.
“We would not have made it, had it not been for the support of the Russian and South Ossetian people,” said Tsarev. Many South Ossetians have volunteered to fight on the side of the Ukrainian separatists and appear in video dispatches from the war zone. “They are heroes who will remain in our memory forever,” Tsarev told South Ossetia’s separatist leader, Leonid Tibilov.
De-facto President Tibilov said that his South Ossetia hopes to provide military assistance to Ukrainian rebels on a regular, not volunteer basis. To cement their separatist bonds, Tibilov awarded Tsarev an order of friendship during the latter’s visit.
South Ossetia also plans to strengthen ties with Moscow, the benefactor it shares with Novorossiya, through a new bilateral agreement. That pact would potentially pave the way for Ossetia’s annexation by Russia. Details of the pact, prepped by presidential administrations of Russia and South Ossetia, are unknown. But the agreement should take relations “to a qualitatively” new level, intimated Tibilov’s chief of staff, Boris Chochiyev. South Ossetian officials have repeatedly expressed desire for the territory to become a part of the Russian Federation.
While Russia is on a land-grabbing binge, South Ossetia hopes Moscow will not forget about its aspirations, too. The region’s separatist leadership is drawing up an agreement meant to insert the disputed territory into the Russian Federation.
The agreement is influenced by a recent integration plan that Moscow offered to South Ossetia’s separatist twin, Abkhazia, but reportedly goes far beyond it. Both regions maintain de-facto independence from Georgia and almost existentially rely on backing from Russia. Abkhazia, however, insists on some ground rules in its relationship with Moscow, such as keeping space for sovereignty.
The particulars of the changes made by the Abkhaz remain under wraps, but, reportedly, they took out the clause on bilateral simplification of naturalization of each other’s citizens. Also, reportedly, axed was the most contentious part that proposed to allow Russians to take the command of a joint military force in times of war in Abkhazia.
But if the Abkhaz found the Russian integration plan overbearing, the South Ossetians believe that such a deal would not be going far enough. “The version of the agreement, which is being prepared for signing between Russia and Abkhazia, would not reflect all the yearnings of the South Ossetian people, their aspirations for the Russian Federation,” said the region’s de-facto parliamentary speaker, Anatoly Bibilov.
Tbilisi has accused Moscow of plans to pull a Crimea in breakaway Abkhazia through a treaty that proposes a merger of military forces, coordination of police and an alignment with the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union.
On the surface, it may seem that Abkhazia's fate could not be any more tied to Moscow than it already is. The Russian military is the only outside guarantee of the region's de-facto independence from Georgia, while the Russian market provides an economic lifeline. But for all that, Abkhazia is actually serious about its claim to independence from everyone, Russia including.
In an interview with Ekho Kavkaza, the speaker of Abkhazia's de-facto parliament, Valery Bganba, complained that the document "in many places" amounts to a "loss of sovereignty."
The cornerstone of the treaty is the formation of a collective military force, with Russia appointing an ad-hoc command in times of crisis. Many Abkhaz think such force is necessary to repel any attempt from Georgia to retake the territory; an event which Abkhazia has been expecting ever since its 1992-1994 war with Tbilisi. Many believe that events in Ukraine have increased the likelihood of such an attack.