Abkhazia and South Ossetia: Russia’s friends, Georgia’s headache

Most countries regard the two small South Caucasus republics as non-sovereign, albeit they operate independently from Georgia with Moscow’s support

El ministre d'Afers Exteriors rus, Serguei Lavrov, amb el llavors president d'Abkhàzia, Raul Khadjimba, el 2017.
El ministre d'Afers Exteriors rus, Serguei Lavrov, amb el llavors president d'Abkhàzia, Raul Khadjimba, el 2017. Author: MFA Russia @ Flickr
During its short history as an independent state, Georgia has witnessed how up to three of its regions have sought to follow their own course: Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Adjara. While the latter is currently controlled by Tbilisi, the two former are two sides of the same coin. It is now much easier to access those republics from Russia than from Georgia. Even though, in the eyes of most countries in the world, they continue to be officially part of Georgia.

The two small republics are recognized only by Russia and a handful of Kremlin-aligned governments, such as Venezuela, Syria, Nicaragua, and the tiny Pacific Ocean nation of Nauru, as well as by other unrecognized states such as Transnistria or Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh). With the latter two, Abkhazia and South Ossetia make up the Community for Democracy and Rights of Nations, an international organization aimed at establishing links between these states. The community members have lifted visas among themselves, and have talked about integrating their economies and seeking to join the Eurasian Economic Union, the Moscow-driven bloc more or less inspired on the model of the European Union.

Internacional recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. / Image: Àlex Bustos

Both South Ossetian and Abkhaz citizens know what a war against Georgia means, as they have fought it twice. The first one was in the 1990s, amid Soviet disintegration. Starting from 1991, Abkhazia and Ossetia subsequently gained de facto independence from Georgia. The end of the armed conflict in 1993 did not ease tensions between Tblisi and the Tskhinvali-Sukhumi duo. Moscow supported the pro-independence side. After the conflict, the two rebel territories suffered blockades and international isolation.

The second war took place in 2008, when Russia intervened in a conflict that only lasted 12 days. The Seeking to regain control of the two territories, the Georgian government attacked them during the Beijing Olympics ceremony. Moscow came to Tskhinvali’s and Sukhumi’s rescue, and not only militarily: the Kremlin also recognized the two countries as full-fledged states and immediately established diplomatic relations with them. Other Moscow-allied countries, such as Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Syria, followed suit later. The Syrians did so following Russian support for Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad during the civil war in the Middle Eastern country.

Russia has provided the essential support these republics needed, as has been the case for Transnistria or Artsakh. But, what project do the two states have while they do not enjoy wide recognition? Whereas Abkhazia has sought to build bridges with different countries, South Ossetia has reiterated that its future is to meet with the North Ossetians as part of the eponymous republic of the Russian Federation.

Abkhazia’s (supervised) free flight

Abkhazia, located in what the international community considers northwestern Georgia, has not been controlled by Tbilisi for 30 years now. During this time, it has tried to establish diplomatic links with several countries in order to cement itself as an independent state. For this reason, Abkhazia is open to visitors and, especially when compared to South Ossetia, it is easy for foreigners to visit. However, tourists going there are mainly Russian citizens.

Despite its willingness to seek links with more countries, Abkhazia is now heavily dependent on Moscow: 90% of its exports and 99% of its foreign investment come from Russia. Sukhumi, however, would like to fly more freely, despite Moscow’s refusal. The most recent example of this has been Abkhazia’s rejection to receive EU and UN funds. Despite the fact that the refusal was made public by the Abkhaz Foreign Minister, some experts see Russia’s hand behind it, as Moscow wants to restrict the activities of international organizations and NGOs operating in the small Caucasus republic.

Talking to Nationalia, former Foreign Minister of Abkhazia (2011-2016) Vyacheslav Chirikba says that his country will “maintain its independence” for the next 20 years and notes that “given the pace of economic development, it can become an affluent country, probably within a 10-year period.”

Russian support for Abkhazia goes beyond the military field. The former minister says: “We are very grateful to Russia for financial support. Without Russia, it would be extremely difficult to restore the country.” However, Chirikba argues Sukhumi needs even more assistance “in the production of goods, food, industry, construction, perhaps textiles, so that we can boost our economy and develop both the domestic market and our export potential.”

Despite pressure, the largely unrecognized state understands that it is isolated internationally, and has carried out various initiatives, such as “de-isolation”, aimed at approaching the European Union. The European bloc could pursue a policy of engagement without recognition, similar to what some countries such as France or the United States apply to Artsakh. Chirikba explains that his country could have good relations with “any state that reaches out in friendship.” The former minister further says that Sukhumi could “(have good relations), certainly, with Catalonia.” Key moments in recent Catalan history such as the October 2017 referendum or the declaration of independence were followed in Abkhazia, and Abkhaz government sources even showed the republic’s willingness to recognize Catalan sovereignty.

Ossetian reunification

South Ossetia, on the other hand, seems from the very beginning on track for joining its brothers in the Russian republic of North Ossetia. In North Ossetia itself, South Ossetian license plates are commonplace. Many South Ossetians already have a Russian passport that allows them to travel much more easily than with their own.

Asking for the union of the two Ossetias is a common demand among South Ossetians. This is the case with Alan, who currently lives in North Ossetia, although he was born in South Ossetia. He recalls that “in fact, the same people live in South Ossetia and North Ossetia; historically we lived in the same region.” Alan regrets that “unfortunately, because of wars between other countries, but never between us, we were separated.”

“I remember as a child that we had a referendum,” Alan says. He is referring to the 1992 referendum, in which both the independence of South Ossetia and its subsequent union with Russia were voted for. He points out that “almost 99% of the citizens voted to be part of Russia and to unify the two parts of our people.” Indeed, in that vote, only 57 of the 53,441 voters who went to the polls voted against Ossetian reunification under Russia’s mantle.

Such an idea has been circulating for years now among the South Ossetian authorities, who have approached Moscow with symbolic gestures such as making Russian an official language or changing the official name of the territory, which came to be called “South Ossetia-Alania”, mirroring the nomenclature of their North Ossetian brothers.