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Fuller: Russia May be Seeking ‘Joint State’ of Abkhazia-Georgia

Interviewee: Elizabeth Fuller, Analyst, Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
April 25, 2008

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Russia’s signals of closer ties with the breakaway Georgian provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia have prompted concerns about a Russian reprisal for Western recognition of Kosovo’s independence. But Elizabeth Fuller, an expert on Georgian and Transcaucasus affairs, says she does not believe Moscow is seeking to recognize an independent Abkhazia or South Ossetia. In part, she says, that would clash with its own rejection of Chechen efforts to secede. Fuller believes Moscow may instead be seeking to promote a joint-state approach for Georgia and its secessionist republics. Russia is currently advancing this approach in another former Soviet republic where it has leverage, Moldova, which has been unable to resolve its conflict with the breakaway Trans-Dniester region.

The UN Security Council on Wednesday took up the complaint of Georgia against the Russians for allegedly shooting down an unmanned reconnaissance plane over separatist Abkhazia. Can you give us a short description of what the situation is regarding Abkhazia and Georgia, as well as recent steps the Russians have been taking toward Georgia?

The shooting down of the reconnaissance aircraft was something that obviously couldn’t have been planned in advance, but it was a situation that, if you like, played into Russia’s hands in that it gave Moscow an opportunity to try to prove that Georgia is in the wrong. The Russian argument is that Georgia violated the cease-fire agreement which Tbilisi signed with Abkhazia in 1994. That agreement says the two sides should observe peace on the ground, at sea, and in the air, and it says that there should be no heavy military equipment in the “conflict zone” of which Abkhazia is a part. The agreement is clearly open to multiple interpretations, but Russia has seized on it as a way to beat Georgia over the head with it.

For years the Russians have felt threatened and boxed in by the United States’ clear support for Georgia and Georgia’s accession to NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization]. Russia has consistently used every opportunity, every weapon that it can to try and undermine Georgia. Two years ago it cut off gas supplies to Georgia. In the spring of 2006 Moscow banned all imports of Georgian agriculture produce. Russia will do anything to weaken Georgia without caring how the international community responds. But at the same time, the Russian leaders have a very cool head. They know exactly how far they can go in baiting Georgia and there is a red line beyond which it would be counterproductive to proceed.

Prior to all of this there was a lot of speculation that after most of the key Western countries recognized the independence of Kosovo, which split off from Serbia, the Russians might retaliate by recognizing the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, also formerly part of Georgia. Do you think this is at all related?

The more I think about it the more I am inclined to believe that Russia has never intended to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia. If Russia had done that, after it protested the recognition of Kosovo, it would have laid itself open to allegations of double standards. Russia had not let Chechnya secede. It would be difficult for Russia to argue that Abkhazia and South Ossetia have the right to become independent from Georgia but that Chechnya doesn’t have the right to become independent from Russia. I suspect, but this is something I cannot document, that the Russian leadership found all of this intensive speculation within Russia, within Georgia, and abroad about the possibility that it might recognize Abkhazia as a very useful smokescreen while they sat down and decided on their “Plan A” and their “Plan B.” Particularly interesting is that Russia has now come up with a new plan to resolve the conflict between Moldova and Trans-Dniester. They are apparently trying to shove this plan down the throat of the Moldovan president, Vladimir Voronin.

This is a plan that would create a so-called joint state between Moldova and Trans-Dniester. Trans-Dniester is in the same position vis-à-vis Moldova as Abkhazia is vis-à-vis Georgia. The big plus of the Russian plan for Moldova compared with [Georgian President] Mikheil Saakashvili’s plan for Abkhazia is that it doesn’t use the word autonomy, which is something that the Abkhaz reject. It is a way of keeping Trans-Dniester in Moldova, without labeling it in a way that Trans-Dniester would find unacceptable. I wonder whether Russia will say—if and when Moldova accepts this peace plan for Trans-Dniester—why will Georgia not accept this model for resolving its conflicts with Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

If Tbilisi decided to accept such an idea, what would be different?Would Abkhazia be part of a joint Georgian-Abkhazia state?

It would be part of a joint state but it would not have this derogatory label, “autonomous,” which is the one thing that really sticks in the Abkhaz’s throat. This is, to a very large degree, a question of semantics.

For the moment, Abkhazia, for all practical purposes, is independent of Georgia?

It’s independent of Georgia but by the same token it is economically very dependent on Russia. Russia provides funds for the budget and a lot of Russian businessmen have invested in Abkhazia. I think that Russia pays all the pensions that are drawn in Abkhazia. Abkhazia uses the Russian ruble as its currency, not the Georgian lari.

And of course in the days of the Soviet Union, Abkhazia was an Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic within the Georgian Republic?

Exactly. This is why they hate the term “autonomous.” Under the Soviet Union, it didn’t mean anything; it didn’t give you any special benefits at all. You were simply the underdog. Vis-à-vis the associations the term “autonomy” has for the Abkhaz, this is why they reject any peace proposal Saakashvili comes up with that is based on “autonomy.”

Again, the proposal they might like would say that there is a joint Georgia-Abkhazia republic or something like that?

A joint republic and within that republic Abkhazia would be free to make decisions on this and this and this on its own but then in other areas, presumably foreign policy, it would take decisions in consultation with the Georgians.

It sounds like the early days of the United States when the states had to be persuaded to join the United States.

Yes, that’s a nice comparison.

The Russians before the shooting down of the unmanned aircraft had eased the boycott of Georgia, right?

Yes, this is what I mean when I said that Russia is blowing hot and cold. It is all part of a carefully calibrated strategy. It will do something that looks like a major concession and then it will turn around and toughen up when the Georgians are off their guard.

President Vladimir Putin’s main goal in all of this was to make sure that Georgia does not join NATO, is that correct?

This is something that neither Putin nor Dmitri Medvedev will be able to prevent or delay indefinitely. They did manage to delay it although NATO now lays the responsibility firmly on Georgia. The document that was adopted at the end of the Bucharest summit [in April] was possibly a saving way of getting around the fact that a lot of people thought Germany and France caved in to Russian pressure. This document says that Georgia’s chances of being offered a Membership Action Plan [MAP], the final stage before they are invited to join NATO when the foreign ministers meet in December, depends on the conduct of the May 21 parliamentary elections, meaning if the ruling party tries to rig the ballot, that is going to damage Georgia’s chances just as Georgia’s chances were damaged at the Bucharest summit by the state of emergency and the reprisal against opposition demonstrators in Georgia in November.

Please recall that “state of emergency.”

In early November last year, the Georgian opposition took to the streets and started protesting against what they said were undemocratic policies adopted by Saakashvili and his government. These protests went on for something like a week and after a week the police and security forces were deployed to crack down. People got bashed on the head and in the wake of that, Saakashvili declared a state of emergency. He said that the opposition was acting at Russia’s behest, that it was all a Russian plot to try and overthrow him. Then he called a snap presidential election in January, which of course he won by the skin of his teeth.

Is he trying to use this crisis with Russia as a way of building up his own political standing?

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that he is deliberately provoking a crisis with Russia in order to play the role of the great patriot, but he went on television and said, “Russia is trying to induce us to turn away from the democratic path that we’re on but I pledge”—he always says this— “I will protect Georgia’s territorial integrity and sovereignty and I will not let us be lured away from a democratic path.” The bottom line was that he said whatever happens, the May 21 elections will go ahead as scheduled.

Tell me a little about the people who live in Abkhazia and the people who live in South Ossetia. Are they different ethnically from the people who live in Tbilisi in Georgia? Do they speak different languages?

Yes, they do. This is part of the nature of the conflict. This is why when the Soviet Union was established, both the Abkhaz and the Ossetians had separate republics on the territory which was historically their homeland. The Abkhaz are a North Caucasian people; they speak a language that is totally different from Georgian. They claim that in the Middle Ages they had their own independent kingdom with their own king. They bitterly resent the Georgians. They especially resent Stalin’s policies that started just after the Second World War that settled en masse Georgians in Abkhaz to dilute their population. It ended up with the Abkhaz being something like 20 percent of their own republic.

The Ossetians are Indo-Europeans. They speak an Indo-European language. The historic homeland of the Ossetians is split between Georgia and Russia. There is a North Ossetia republic just the other side of the Georgia-Russia border and its president is very, very keen on bringing South Ossetia into the Russian Federation so that all the Ossetians will live together in one republic even if it is not an independent republic.

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