By Lincoln Mitchell
Last week, while most Western policy makers were busy telling themselves that the election of Petro Poroshenko to the presidency in Ukraine meant that the crisis in Ukraine was winding down, another corner of the former Soviet Union descended into a period of brief, but potentially significant, political turmoil.
Demonstrators took to the streets in Abkhazia, a breakaway region of Georgia, demanding the resignation of de facto President Alexander Ankvab, who they accused of failing to tackle corruption and economic problems, among other things. Within days, Ankvab resigned and parliamentary speaker Valery Bganba was appointed as an interim president. Presidential elections are scheduled for late August.
At first glance, this seems like a minor event. The resignation of a non-president of a non-state in a small and poor region of the Caucasus is not the kind of thing that generally grabs headlines, and it probably shouldn’t. The broader context, however, suggests that we should pay a bit more attention to these events, particularly as the West is increasingly concerned about Russian aggression.
Abkhazia has been the site of unresolved conflict since the end of the Soviet period. While most of the world sees it as part of Georgia, the Abkhaz people see it as an independent state. In practice, Abkhazia is essentially a Russian colony.
Abkhazia relies on Russia for its security and economic survival, so support for Russia is reasonably widespread. While these events may not have had anything to do with Abkhazia’s orientation towards Russia, Abkhazia – like southern and eastern Ukraine – is a place where instability is good for Russia and bad for pro-Western governments in Tbilisi or Kiev.
Georgia is scheduled to sign an association agreement with the European Union in a few weeks. We know from recent events in Ukraine that Russia is capable of doing a lot to undermine the European aspirations of neighboring former Soviet Republics. In this context, Ankvab’s resignation, regardless of why it happened, looks somewhat different and potentially more significant.
The new leadership of Abkhazia may create more trouble with Georgia through skirmishes or tensions across the non-border between the two polities, or by harassing the remaining ethnic Georgians in Abkhazia. Perhaps Russia will encourage Abkhazia’s new leaders to do this in exchange for support in the August elections, or perhaps Abkhaz politicians will turn to a harder-line Georgia policy to win support in the upcoming election.
Either way, this could create problems for Georgia at a critical time: The signing of the association agreement in late June will be followed by a NATO summit in the fall that is of great import to Tbilisi.
It is too early to tell whether Ankvab’s ouster is part of a Russian attempt to create problems for Georgia, but it is nonetheless a reminder of the breadth of ways Moscow can foil the plans of post-Soviet countries seeking integration into NATO and the EU.
Russia’s reasons for opposing NATO expansion are clear, but the hard and soft power at the country’s disposal are easy to overlook. Six months ago, Moscow offered then-Ukrainian-President Viktor Yushchenko a substantial counteroffer so that he would reject the EU association agreement offer. Six years ago, Russia invaded Georgia, not least because NATO pledged that Georgia would eventually become a member.
Given this recent history, the possibility that Russia played a role in the change of leadership in Abkhazia should not be overlooked.
Russia’s enormous influence in Abkhazia is exacerbated by the West’s policy of ignoring internal politics in Abkhazia. As the crisis unfolded, Western policy makers and journalists struggled to get information about the causes of the demonstrations, Russia’s role in those demonstrations, and the political leanings of the new leaders.
At a moment of instability and potential change in Abkhazia, the West had no way to influence outcomes and almost no relationships with important actors in the political or civic life of Abkhazia. The lack of Western influence – or of any alternative to Russia –may not seem important, but because a Moscow-backed Abkhaz leadership can always cause problems for Georgia, it probably is.
Lincoln Mitchell was Chief of Party for the National Democratic Institute (NDI) in Georgia from 2002-2004, and is currently an associate at the Arnold A. Saltzman Institute for War and Peace Studies at Columbia University.
This article first appeared in www.themarknews.com