Abkhazia chooses Russia “à la carte”

The Abkhazian army under Russian structural, infrastructural and legal control – Common social, economic and customs space – Abkhazian-Georgian border and customs control: these were some of the Russian chef’s initial suggestions to the Abkhazians in a 6-chapter and 25-article Russo-Abkhazian Integration and Alliance  ‘table d'hôte’ menu (October 13th, 2014). Yet, Abkhazia did not settle for a set meal and opted for a Russian ‘à la carte’ instead. On October 30th, an Abkhazian watered-down version of the original treaty was submitted to the Kremlin for review and approval. On November 24th, the final compromise text of the Treaty on Alliance and Strategic Partnership was signed in Sochi near the Russian-Georgian/Abkhazian border. Whereas the final text has not yet been made public yet, it turns out that the chef has agreed to most of the changes introduced by the Abkhazian “sous-chef” to the preparation of the main dishes. Even if their taste has changed a bit as a result, the character of the menu has remained.

The Abkhazian version of the treaty establishes the principle of “Strategic Partnership” as opposed to the term “integration” proposed by Russia. The title (“Treaty on Alliance and Strategic Partnership” instead of the “Treaty on Alliance and Integration”), preamble/general provisions (“Alliance, strategic partnership and security” as opposed to “cooperation, integration and partnership”), and body text (“coordinated foreign policy” contrary to “mutually agreed”; “assistance to the social-economic development of the Republic of Abkhazia” versus “common social and economic space”; “consultations on all important matters“ rather than “all matters”, etc.) of the original Russian draft have been revised accordingly. Changes to the wording throughout the text echo the main concern on the Abkhazian side – namely, to secure the republic’s de facto independence. This stance is clear from the preface of the Abkhazian draft, which suggests the “reinforcement” of Abkhazia’s alleged state sovereignty, as opposed to the Russian pledge to just “preserve” it. In the same vein, a new paragraph was added to article 3 of the Russian draft. This additional clause calls for “the creation of conditions for Abkhazia’s full-fledged participation in integration projects on the post-Soviet space, implemented upon the initiative of or/and with assistance of the Russian Federation”. It reads as a clear indication of Abkhazia’s aim to join the Eurasian Union, in an attempt to extend its international recognition through the political and economic exchange with other Eurasian Union members.

Provisions on security and defence are also adapted to reflect Abkhazia’s plea for sovereignty. The Abkhazian draft promotes relatively similar administrative and infrastructural rights of Abkhazians and Russians over their combined armed forces. It recasts the joint command through allocating duties and responsibilities to both parties (rotating leadership in the time of peace; Abkhaz-appointed Deputy Commander in war-time) rather than merely submitting to Russia’s unilateral rule (Russian commander of the joint army). In their variant of the treaty, the Abkhazians also requested joint decision-making on what would be considered an “immediate threat” as well as on executing military operations and/or military trainings.  The Abkhazians also managed to stave off the incorporation of their entire military into the joint Russian-Abkhazian army and asked for the “separate military facilities”.

In the realm of low politics, article 14 of the Russian draft offers reciprocal simplification of the citizenship-granting procedure. However, such a commitment vis-à-vis Russians is absent in the Abkhazian version. The rationale behind such disengagement is apparently to prevent the Georgian refugees of the 1992-1993 Abkhazian war, now residing in Russia, from reclaiming their property. Abkhazia also eliminated the customs control clause (including at ports) on movement of people, transport and merchandise suggested by the Russian side. However, the Abkhazian draft leaves the social welfare package offered by the Russian Federation largely unchanged. As an additional clause, the Abkhazians have asked for Russian assistance to the “development of the Abkhazian language”.

As noted, most of the amendments introduced by the Abkhazian side have been included in the final draft approved by the Kremlin. The only major modification concerns the clause on the command of the combined armed forces, which will now be executed by “authorized agency representatives” from Russia and Abkhazia (instead of rotating leadership as proposed by the Abkhazians). Russia has also committed itself to supporting Abkhazia financially. Within six months, a separate agreement dealing with the financial issues shall be signed. 

Altogether, the recent Russian-Abkhazian Treaty on Alliance and Strategic Partnership is not just a paper tiger. It builds on the 2008 Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation, which first earned Abkhazia its recognition of de facto independence in the wake of the Russian-Georgian war of August 2008. There are many local, national, regional and even international concerns to this renewed form of cooperation: Local, in that it unnerved a part of the Abkhazian government and population; National, as it both enraged and intimidated the Georgians; Regional, as a continuation of the Kremlin’s post-Soviet divide and rule manipulation in its so-called ‘near abroad’ (1989-1993 Civil War in Georgia (the 1st South–Ossetian conflict, Abkhazian war and coup d’état); the 2nd South Ossetian conflict or the 2008 Russian-Georgian war;  the ongoing skirmishes over Nagorno-Karabakh; the frozen conflict over Transnistria; and the 2014 the Crimean and Ukraine crisis); International, as it came in the tensest time of relations between Russia and the EU/NATO since the cold war, further intensifying Western angst over the Kremlin’s expansionist politics. The new Russian-Abkhazian Treaty thus indirectly conveys a message that Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations cannot go scot-free, that Russia can always use the leverage of frozen conflicts in the region to coerce its neighbouring countries into abandoning their pro-Western orientation; and that the Kremlin has other retaliatory moves in store for the West which lie above and beyond counter sanctions.