"Russia's slippery foothold in Abkhazia becomes a slide"

Over the past two months, Moscow's geostrategy has suffered serious setbacks in Ukraine and Abkhazia, a mini-state on the Black Sea that broke away from Georgia in 1993 and has since been dependent for its existence on Russian support.

The guiding aim of President Vladimir Putin's geostrategy is to restore Moscow's influence over its periphery, which it lost after the fall of the Soviet Union. The Putin regime envisions a trade and security alliance that would incorporate some of the republics of the former Soviet Union in Central Asia, the Caucasus and Eastern Europe, in which Russia would be the dominant power. Moscow pursues its goal by trying to promote and cultivate friendly governments in the target states.

Wherever Moscow attempts to reassert its influence, it meets with opposition from the Euro-American alliance, which has the strategic aim of incorporating Russia's periphery -- especially in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus -- into the Western system of market democracies. If Ukraine tilted westward, it would be a candidate for admission to the European Union and N.A.T.O. If Abkhazia were to be reabsorbed into Georgia, Moscow would lose one of its important footholds in the Transcaucasus to a pro-Western state.

The Putin regime has responded to its persistent structural conflict with the West by taking a proactive approach toward the political systems of its target states and dependencies. In Ukraine and Abkhazia, Moscow has most notably attempted to influence the outcomes of presidential elections overtly through Putin's endorsements of favored candidates and by sending in political operatives to strategize and support those candidates.

In both cases, Moscow's tactics have backfired; it has not been able to overcome internal divisions within the target states and it has awakened resistance in electorates to outside influence, resulting in disputed elections that have brought endemic conflicts to a head and, in Abkhazia's case, institutional failure. Through overplaying its hand, Moscow now finds itself threatened with a permanent loss of influence in Eastern Europe and the Transcaucasus. The situation in Abkhazia is particularly revealing, because that small country with a quarter-million people shows in microcosm how even a society that is radically dependent on Moscow and is pro-Russian will resist its protector when it feels that it is subject to undue pressure.

Abkhazia's Disputed Election

Until its first contested presidential election on October 3, 2004, Abkhazia was ruled by strong man Vladislav Ardzinba who had followed an unwavering pro-Moscow line. Unrecognized by any state, including Russia, Ardzinba's regime was subject to an economic blockade by Georgia and was only able to survive through the presence of Russian "peacekeepers" who kept the Georgian military at bay.

During Ardzinba's tenure, Abkhazia's economy collapsed, leaving half the country's working-age population unemployed. Criminal activity became rampant and corruption and cronyism were rife within the state bureaucracies. Nonetheless, when it came time to replace the aging Ardzinba, Moscow hit upon a plan of contested elections, which it calculated would result in the victory of its favorite, Raul Khajimba, an ex-K.G.B. agent and the incumbent prime minister, and would have the added benefit of conferring a modicum of legitimacy on the mini-state, which would strengthen its position in any future deal with Georgia or pave the way to some regularized and permanent form of separation.

From all appearances, the Abkhazian elections seemed to be a win-win situation for Moscow. All five candidates were pledged to maintain Abkhazia's special relation with Russia. Indeed, they could not do otherwise: the civil war of 1992-1993 had resulted in the ethnic cleansing of the Georgian half of the country's population, leaving its ethnic Abkhaz, Armenian and Russian components completely dependent on Moscow for protection against an irredentist Georgia, which gained enhanced Western backing after the 2003-2004 Rose Revolution.

Despite the fact that Russian interests were not likely to be impaired whomever won the presidential election, Putin made it clear that he endorsed Khajimba by meeting with him and no other candidate, and posing with him for a photograph that became an icon of the campaign. Moscow also dispatched operatives to plan and support Khajimba's campaign.

To the surprise of Moscow and political analysts, Putin's efforts to manipulate the election had the opposite of their intended effect. Opposition candidate Sergei Bagapsh, running on a platform of continued ties with Russia and promises of an anti-crime and anti-corruption administration, won slightly more than 50 percent of the vote (44,002) to Khajimba's 30,815 votes, with the other candidates splitting the rest.

Analysts attributed Bagapsh's unexpected showing to widespread public resentment against Abkhazia's corrupt political system and Moscow's efforts to perpetuate it. The slogan "We Can Decide Ourselves" appeared on the streets, signaling popular defiance of Moscow.

Although Abkhazia's Central Electoral Commission certified Bagapsh's victory, the election was clouded by charges of irregularities and an unconstitutional revote in the Gali district, to which Bagapsh and Khajimba agreed. When the Central Electoral Commission met to reach its decision on October 6 and 11, supporters of Bagapsh occupied the building where it was deliberating, setting a precedent of direct action that would be repeated over the coming weeks by both sides, finally eventuating in institutional failure and political paralysis.

Institutional Failure

Despite having agreed to the revote in Gali, Khajimba did not accept the Commission's verdict and sued to have the vote overturned by the country's Supreme Court. On October 28, after having heard testimony that Bagapsh supporters had threatened commissioners during their deliberations, the Court declared the Commission's decision to be valid. Upon learning of the Court's verdict, Khajimba's supporters seized the court building and held the judges hostage until they reversed their decision and replaced it with a ruling ordering the Central Electoral Commission to set up a revote. On October 29, incumbent President Ardzinba issued a decree requiring new elections, setting the stage for a downward spiral to institutional failure.

In quick succession, Bagapsh's forces took over the state television and Khajimba's sealed off parliament, in which Bagapsh supporters have a majority, to prevent it from declaring Ardzinba's decree unconstitutional. Meanwhile, the Central Electoral Commission refused to meet to plan new elections and Ardzinba replaced Khajimba as prime minister with former Russian Ministry of Emergency Situations operative Nodar Khashba, a Moscow loyalist.

With different institutions under the control of opposing factions, Abkhazia's political system became paralyzed as neither candidate proved willing to compromise, despite repeated negotiations. Bagapsh insisted that he would be inaugurated on December 6, whereas Khajimba demanded a revote.

The stand off spiraled out of control on November 12 when, during a large rally of Bagapsh supporters, a group of them seized control of the government complex in Abkhazia's capital Sukhumi, including the president's office, supposedly to allow Bagapsh to set up his new administration. In the commotion, 78 year old Tamara Sharkyl -- a linguist, human-rights advocate and respected Abkhaz nationalist -- was killed by a ricocheting bullet fired by Ardzinba's presidential guard.

At the urging of Bagapsh, his supporters left the government complex, but remained outside it, preventing official business from being conducted there. Since then, the tensions have deepened. After Bagapsh supporters brought two presidential guards to the prosecutor's office in connection with Sharkyl's death, security forces loyal to Ardzinba launched a commando raid on the office and freed them, setting off a chain of events leading to a "declaration of disobedience" by 2000 police officers who vowed to refuse to follow orders from the government.

Throughout the deepening tensions, Moscow supported Ardzinba, Khashba and Khajimba, refusing to concede anything to Bagapsh. On November 12, Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Alexander Yakovenko placed Moscow's support behind the Ardzinba regime and threatened Russian intervention: "If the situation continues to follow the illegal track, the Russian side will have to protect its interests. In Abkhazia one and all should know that all responsibility for the likely effects will be placed on Bagapsh and his followers."

Not only did Moscow's hard line fail to break the resolve of the Bagapsh faction; it also provoked a strong response from Tbilisi, which regards Abkhazia as part of Georgia. Despite the failure of its assertive posture, Moscow has continued to try to exert pressure, redeploying some of its peacekeepers from Abkhazia's Georgian border toward Sukhumi and temporarily closing crossings along Abkhazia's border, threatening to impede Abkhazia's citrus harvest from going to market.

With Moscow taking one side in the election dispute and Abkhazian state institutions divided and deadlocked, a last attempt at conflict resolution was undertaken by the Council of Elders, an extra-constitutional public body of clan and local leaders. When the Council met in Sukhumi on November 20, its proceedings were disrupted by an invasion of 100 old people bussed in by the Bagapsh camp. The meeting was quickly called off after a decision was made to reconvene the Council with new membership.

On November 23, the Council met again and declared that Bagapsh should assume the presidency and that he and Khajimba should form a team. Earlier, Bagapsh had offered Khajimba the posts of prime minister or vice president, which the latter had refused, calling instead either for a revote or for both candidates to drop out in favor of a new election with new candidates, one of whom presumably would be Moscow's current protйgй Khashba. Khajimba responded to the Elder's decision by appearing to back down for the first time, saying that he would consult with his supporters before reaching a decision. Meanwhile, Khashba threatened to resign as prime minister if the supporters of both candidates did not vacate the public property that they had seized and disband their militia, and Ardzinba announced that he would not vacate the presidency on December 6.

In response to Ardzinba's announcement, parliament passed a resolution on November 26 declaring Bagapsh's victory to be valid and demanding that the State Guard Service "provide for the inauguration of the president elect" on December 6. Khajimba labeled the resolution "absurd" and Ardzinba's office announced that the incumbent president had not instructed state agencies to obey the parliamentary instructions. Deputies in the Parliament who are opposed to Bagapsh reported that 200 of his supporters had invaded the chamber, demanding that their candidate's victory be recognized.

Moscow Hardens its Line and Georgia Senses an Opportunity

With Moscow's strategy in a state of collapse, Abkhazia appears to be headed for yet another confrontation on December 6, when Bagapsh has vowed to be inaugurated as president and Ardzinba has pledged to remain in power. In order to head off a Bagapsh takeover, Moscow, speaking through anonymous government sources and Alexander Tkachov, governor of Krasnodar territory, which borders Abkhazia, ratcheted up its hard-line rhetoric, threatening -- if Bagapsh assumed the presidency -- to cut off pensions to Russian citizens in Abkhazia and to close the country's border with Russia, blocking the citrus exports and tourist trade that are Abkhazia's major sources of income.

In a sharp break from his previous pro-Russian position, Bagapsh responded that if Moscow followed through on its threats, Tbilisi would have an opportunity to restore its control over Abkhazia, an opinion echoed by Alexander Shakov, an analyst at the Russian Institute of Strategic Research.

Thus far, Moscow's position has been eased by the reluctance of the United Nations, which monitors the cease-fire between Georgia and Abkhazia, and the United States to intervene in the conflict. Tbilisi, however, has sensed an advantage and has stated that the "people's will" should prevail in Abkhazia, a shift from its standard line that nothing that transpires in the breakaway republic's political system is legitimate or worthy of comment. Georgian Minister for Conflict Resolution and Prevention Georgy Khaindrava offered Sukhumi "the widest authority ever known in international practice."

Tbilisi believes that time is on its side. In a news conference on November 24 celebrating the anniversary of the Rose Revolution, Georgia's President Mikhail Saakashvili noted that Georgia's budget in 2005 will be triple its current figure, that much of the increased spending will go to beef up the military and that N.A.T.O. and the E.U. are considering Georgia as a candidate for membership. With reference to Abkhazia, Saakashvili said that "it is the main goal and task of my life, my personal life," adding that Tbilisi is getting ready to reassert sovereignty over the breakaway region and that "we need patience," but not "excessive pacifism."

Conclusion: The Pitfalls of Neo-Imperialism

It is reasonable to conclude that Moscow has acted to the detriment of its interests in Abkhazia. The cause of the mini-state's institutional failure and political implosion resides less in the internal divisions of its society than in Moscow's "neo-imperialist" policies. Like their neo-conservative counterparts in Washington, the Russian neo-imperialists are long on vision and short on a realistic appraisal of actual conditions. Just as the neo-conservatives believed that U.S. forces would be welcomed in Iraq, Moscow hard liners were confident that their favored candidate would win in Abkhazia's contested election, simply by dint of Putin's endorsement, government control of the local media, the Abkhazian population's pro-Russian attitudes and its dependency on Moscow, and Moscow's campaign support. They did not reckon with the large number of people in the mini-state who were disaffected by a decade of economic depression, rampant crime and corrupt rule, and were willing to back a member of the established political class who promised to bring reform while maintaining good relations with Moscow.

When the election did not yield Moscow's desired result, Putin could have accepted defeat and turned it into an opportunity by playing the role of honest broker and arranging the kind of deal that the Council of Elders proposed and Bagapsh offered, allowing Bagapsh to assume the presidency and giving the prime minister's post to Khajimba. Instead, Moscow refused to recognize its mistake and has continued to back the losing side, now to the point of threatening the population with severely punitive economic sanctions and possible military coercion.

Moscow has stood by and watched Abkhaz political society split apart, counting on the resulting stress to bring its adversaries and the general population around to heed its dictates. Abkhazia's plunge into direct action and political gang rule, verging on civil warfare, cancels any possibility of a legitimized pro-Moscow regime there. If Moscow succeeds in installing a president to its liking in Sukhumi, his regime will be perceived as an imposed domination both inside and outside Abkhazia. If Bagapsh assumes the presidency, Moscow will either institute punitive measures, driving Sukhumi to bargain with Tbilisi, or it will have to mend fences with its former opponent. The latter option is the only one that is consistent with Russian interests, but it is not clear that Putin will take it.

Moscow has managed to cause a shift in attitudes that was unthinkable before the October 3 election. Bagapsh, who consistently asserted that Abkhazia had to be pro-Russian, because if it was not, it would be "swallowed" by Georgia, is now saying that Moscow is forcing Abkhazia into Tbilisi's arms. Tbilisi is now signaling that it will be generous to a "popular" government in Sukhumi. It is a difficult feat to bring Georgians and Abkhazians together after a bloody civil war and ethnic cleansing, but it seems possible that Moscow is doing just that.

The Euro-American alliance stands to gain the most from Moscow's mismanagement of Abkhazia, just as it does in Ukraine. What appeared immediately after the October 3 election to be a minor slippage in Russia's foothold in Abkhazia has now become a slide that will be difficult to arrest.

Dr. Michael A. Weinstein

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Author`s name Andrey Mikhailov