De Facto Russian Annexation of Georgian Regions
Svante E. Cornell and David J. Smith

Moscow’s promised response to the Kosovo settlement in the Caucasus appears to be materializing. For several weeks, Russian leaders from President Vladimir Putin down have taken new bold steps that encroach even further and more directly on Georgia’s territorial integrity than is already the case. On April 16, Russia’s outgoing president Vladimir Putin signed a decree moving toward the de facto annexation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, removing the tiny fig leaf still present regarding Moscow’s ambitions of direct control over Georgia’s breakaway regions. These moves could to trigger a spiral of instability in the wider region, unless a forceful western response is found.

BACKGROUND:  Moscow departed from its usual practice in deciding against a declaratory, knee-jerk reaction to the western recognition of Kosovo’s independence. Indeed, it is believed that Abkhaz, and perhaps also South Ossetian, leaders were disappointed by Moscow’s failure to live up to earlier threats to move toward recognizing the independence of Georgia’s breakaway regions. But far from moving toward recognition, Moscow has taken significant steps to further consolidate its own influence and control over these regions, culminating in the April 16 decree signed by Vladimir Putin, opening direct trade, transportation, and political links with the territories.

Moscow’s first reaction to the Kosovo process, on March 6, was to unilaterally withdraw from the sanctions regime imposed by the CIS on Abkhazia, in place since 1996. This move removed all remaining halts on direct Russian economic relations with the breakaway province, ignoring the complex and contentious issue of property rights in a post-conflict situation involving the forced exile of half the region’s population.

Russia has also been monopolizing on its long-standing argument of a “right” to protect Russian citizens in Abkhazia and South Ossetia; notwithstanding that the populations of these regions were provided with Russian citizenship in an illegal and unilateral manner only in the past several years. Hence a March 21 Duma resolution, which urges the government to consider granting recognition to the two territories, also supports moves to support Russian citizens in these regions.

On April 3, in the middle of the NATO summit in Bucharest, President Putin communicated by letter to the respective leaders of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, expressing strong support for them, addressing them as “presidents” and promising Russian support that would be “practical, not declaratory” in nature. Five days later, the Georgian Ministry of Justice receives a letter from its Russian counterpart, announcing that Russia would upgrade its direct relations with the two territories, featuring language such as “closely cooperate, hold talks and make legal-related decisions with the Abkhaz authorities”. On the same day, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov explicitly stated Russia would “do everything” to stop Georgia and Ukraine from acceding to NATO.

These moves point to a an intensification of Russia’s already long-standing policy of creeping annexation of Georgia’s separatist provinces. These policies have to date included direct military support for the separatists; a consistent refusal to even discuss changes to the Russian-dominated peacekeeping and negotiation formats in the conflicts; the imposition of a discriminatory visa regime on Georgia excepting the two regions; the blanket extension of Russian citizenship to their populations; a total economic embargo on Georgia; bombings of Georgian-controlled territory in and around the conflict zones; and a growing tendency to directly interfere in the internal governance of the separatist regions, replacing native Ossetians and Abkhaz with Russians, often serving members of the security services, in government positions in the breakaway regions.

These policies are serious enough in terms of their destabilizing effects on Georgia, their contribution to undermining conflict resolution, and their open flaunting of international law. But these moves pale in comparison to steps taken on April 16.

As had been foreseen in an April 14 article in Nezavisimaya Gazeta, hardliners in Moscow were able to push through a decree whereby Russia will open “representations” in Sukhumi and Tskhinvali, capitals of the Georgian territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.  While analogies with U.S. relations with Taiwan have been made by Russian officials, Moscow’s plans go far beyond that. Employees of these “representations” would be active service Russian diplomats technically employed by the Russian Embassy in Tbilisi. Under the umbrella of this first “representation,” Russian state ministries and regions of Russia could open further “representations” in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, tantamount to treating the two Georgian territories as autonomous republics of Russia.

In an interview with Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Konstantin Zatulin, Deputy Chairman of the Duma Committee on CIS and Compatriot Affairs, suggested the draft presidential decree may be just the first step toward Russian recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.  It is important to move now, said Zatulin, while Kosovo is still a fresh issue and well before the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.

The next steps planned by Moscow include the opening of air and sea links between Russia and Abkhazia and South Ossetia.  Meanwhile, Russia maintains a near complete embargo on Georgia, excepted only recently restored air passenger traffic.  The stepwise net effect is to treat Abkhazia and South Ossetia as parts of Russia while maintaining barriers against Georgia.  Further, Zatulin foresees a threefold increase (to the allowed maximum) of Russian peacekeeping forces in the territories.

A rationale for the timing of Russia’s assertive moves in the conflict zones is put forward to Nezavisimaya Gazeta by an anonymous “Russian diplomat with extensive experience in Georgia”, who makes it clear that the draft decree is aimed at de facto annexation rather than recognition.  The Bush Administration is seen as being in its waning months and seeking to keep an image of good US-Russian relations; no US presidential candidate is seen as likely to become embroiled in this issue; the next American president is thought to need time to understand the issue upon being elected. Georgia’s friends in Europe might complain, the diplomat says, but this will amount to little. An eventual military arrangement with Abkhazia is not ruled out, either.

The journalist’s “sources” say that the MFA, which drafted the decree,  recommends outright recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia only in case Georgia joins NATO or commits aggression against Abkhazia or South Ossetia.  Again, this points toward de facto annexation, not recognition.

IMPLICATIONS : The decree signed by President Putin on April 16 is tantamount to making Abkhazia and South Ossetia, in practice, autonomous republics of the Russian Federation. By opening direct relations in the political and economic fields with unrecognized states, Russia is removing the remaining fig leaf of its long-standing efforts to directly control these territories, in flagrant violation of international law.

Meanwhile, Russia has opened lucrative contracts associated with the 2014 Sochi winter Olympics to contractors in Abkhazia.  Abkhazia will be the main supplier of building materials for construction work in the run-up to the Sochi Olympic Games in 2014, de facto president of the breakaway region, Sergey Baghapsh recently said. Tenders for the construction of concrete factories have already been reported.

Moreover, the military buildup advocated by some Moscow hardliners has already begun—again, creeping along.  Last November, Georgian State Minister for Conflict Resolution David Bakradze detailed that additional T-72 tanks, Grad rocket launchers, APCs, and about 200 new Russian troops appeared in Abkhazia. In South Ossetia, Russian forces control both the north and south ends of the Roki tunnel, though the latter is in Georgian territory, thereby controlling all commerce between Russia and the Georgian territory.

It is indeed ironic that western leaders so far appear to turning a deaf ear to concrete Georgian proposals for both Abkhazia and South Ossetia.  Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili in late March detailed an offer of far-reaching autonomy for Abkhazia in Georgia, while Georgian State Minister for Reintegration Temuri Yakobashvili, as reported in the 19 March 2008 issue of the CACI Analyst [0], suggested a new negotiating formula (called 2+2+2)  recognizing the interests of Russia and the de facto regime in Tskhinvali, including representatives of the Georgian-administered regions of South Ossetia as well as the European Union (the region’s largest donor) and the OSCE.

CONCLUSIONS: Russia’s recent moves are certain to have a devastating effect on prospects for conflict resolution in the South Caucasus. Beyond this, they will affect negatively Georgia’s stability, as well as the future of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Indeed, the moves further curtail the ability of Abkhaz and South Ossetian separatist leaderships to take their own decisions based on their understanding of the national interest of their titular populations. Instead, it consolidates Moscow’s influence over them, robbing them of a future opportunity to make peace with Georgia should they want to do so, or to develop relations with Europe. As such, these steps further undermine the possibility of building confidence and finding ways to a viable compromise between an increasingly European Georgia and these territories.

As the moves accelerate already acute Georgian fears that Russia is gobbling up Abkhazia and South Ossetia, they also have the potential to deal a strong blow to Georgia’s efforts to put forward constructive thinking on the conflicts, and could instead strengthen militaristic attitudes and damage Georgia’s reform process. As such, Moscow’s moves have a strongly negative influence on the security of the wider region.

To what extent Moscow’s plans are implemented is likely to depend in great deal on the reaction of the West. If the West turns a blind eye to these developments, Moscow may well sense an opportunity to further step up its aggressive actions against Georgia as well as Ukraine, which would wreck considerable damage to Western interests not only in Georgia but in the Black Sea region as a whole. Should the West react strongly, on the other hand, and make it clear that these Russian policies are associated with a tangible cost, the cooler heads in Moscow that understand the potential damage of the steps currently being considered may well prevail.

Authors` bios:  Svante E. Cornell is Research Director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, and Editor of the CACI Analyst. David J. Smith is Director, Georgian Security Analysis Center, Tbilisi, a columnist for 24 Saati, Tbilisi, and Senior Fellow, Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, Washington. This article first appeared in the April 16 issue of the CACI Analyst: http://www.cacianalyst.org/?q=node/4839.