|Self-Ruled Region Remains Wary of Russian Backers|
|May 16, 2009|
By Ellen Barry
MOSCOW — Sergei Bagapsh wants to make it perfectly clear: Abkhazia is not now, and will not become, part of the Russian Federation.
Almost five years after being elected president of the breakaway Georgian territory, Mr. Bagapsh owes an enormous debt to Russia, his northern neighbor. Russia went to war last August to support Abkhazia’s and South Ossetia’s claims to independence from Georgia, and the Kremlin recognized both territories as sovereign nations, fulfilling the wish that has driven separatists through two decades of war and privation. No other country, he said, has shown “any concern for the Abkhaz people.”
But his gratitude is not without limits. With Russian border guards taking up long-term positions on Abkhazia’s periphery and Russian investors eager to buy up beachfront property, Mr. Bagapsh said Abkhaz independence remained a central worry. He also said he had been forced to push back on several occasions when Russian partners asked too high a price for their assistance.
“A small country is obliged to defend its statehood,” he said, in an interview in Moscow. “This is our main question now — that we should never again experience the kind of assimilation that Georgia forced on us.”
Last summer, after Russia threw its weight behind separatist governments in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, it was easy to conflate the two enclaves. But they are fundamentally different. In South Ossetia, a landlocked valley whose prewar population was 70,000, many people long to unite with ethnic kinfolk within Russia, which they see as the only way to guarantee permanent military and financial support.
Abkhazia, by contrast, is a piece of land so desirable that its residents compare it to a beautiful woman, with the protective jealousy that implies. It has an ethnically distinct population as well as a potentially abundant source of income: before the collapse of the Soviet Union, two million tourists vacationed there every year. And its leaders pride themselves on stubbornly resisting the rule of larger nations — most recently Georgia, but before that the Soviet Union and the Russian empire.
Mr. Bagapsh himself is testimony to that resistance. When he ran for president in 2004, Russian consultants threw their weight behind his opponent, Raul Khajimba, a former agent with the Russian F.S.B. security force. Billboards showed Mr. Khajimba with Vladimir V. Putin, then Russia’s president. Russian pop stars held free concerts in his honor, and Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky, a nationalist Russian politician, warned voters that if they did not back Mr. Khajimba, Russia could cut off their pensions and stop the import of Abkhaz tangerines, severing an economic lifeline.
But to the shock of strategists in Moscow, the effort backfired. Mr. Bagapsh, an energy tycoon, won more than 50 percent of the vote. Russia challenged the results and imposed a blockade, so that much of that year’s citrus crop rotted in trucks at the border. But Mr. Bagapsh simply moved into the presidential headquarters and set about negotiating, finally forming a coalition government with Mr. Khajimba.
Almost five years later, Mr. Bagapsh said there was no bad blood over the election.
“I understood that it was politics, and it would pass, and I was right,” he said. “All the people who swore at me, said I was a Mafioso and a bandit and so forth — today, they are my friends.”
Political observers say the episode revealed much about Mr. Bagapsh, 60, whose affable manner masks a chess player’s calculation. A former leader in the Soviet-era Komsomol Communist youth wing, he married into a large Georgian family and has remained close to his in-laws in Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital, even as war split the country. There may be more intelligent candidates in Abkhazia, said Paata Zakareishvili, a Georgian political analyst, but none with Mr. Bagapsh’s political instincts.
“He is able to maneuver and reach the goal,” Mr. Zakareishvili said. “He always tries to take the right and careful steps. He measures a hundred times and then he cuts.”
Like his counterpart in South Ossetia, Eduard Kokoity, Mr. Bagapsh has cemented his government’s ties to Russia with a series of treaties. Russia now has 49-year leases on a naval base at Ochamchire and an air base at Gudauta, and about 800 Russian border guards patrol Abkhazia’s boundary. But he has also complained loudly when he felt Abkhaz interests were ignored.
The clearest example came in December, when the Russian state energy company InterRAO announced an agreement with Georgia to jointly operate the Inguri hydropower plant, which straddles Abkhaz and Georgian territory. Mr. Bagapsh reacted angrily, telling the state news agency that the plant “belongs to us, and no agreements or accords signed behind our back and without due consideration of our interests will have any force.”
Mr. Bagapsh said he insisted on renegotiating the deal with InterRAO, which he said had “a very big desire to buy everything and privatize everything.” Since then, he said, he has had to rebuff efforts to privatize important assets, offering Russian partners 5- or 10-year leases instead.
“As far as energy is concerned, they wanted to privatize practically everything in Abkhazia,” he said. “We did not agree to this variant. The same thing happened with Sukhumi airport. They wanted to privatize it, and we said that it would be state-owned. Same with the ports.”
Another pressure point is real estate; Russian buyers have shown “a very great desire to build houses near the sea,” Mr. Bagapsh said, but they are hampered by a law that prevents noncitizens from owning real estate, and must become Abkhaz citizens, a process that takes 10 years, or work through an Abkhaz partner.
But Mr. Bagapsh’s maneuvering room is becoming increasingly limited. By his own calculation, 99 percent of investment flowing into Abkhazia comes from Russia. On Thursday, he visited Mr. Putin, now prime minister, to request a credit of about $46 million to build an Abkhaz banking system, according to the RIA-Novosti news service. On Friday, he announced that Sukhumi’s airport and railroad would be put under “temporary Russian management.”
And though Mr. Bagapsh has been adamant about maintaining a “multivector” foreign policy, ties to the West are fraying badly over the policy of nonrecognition and could decline further this summer, when the United Nations mission there could be forced to close. Domestic critics like Inal Khashig, an opposition journalist, worry that if the law regulating real estate sales is changed to allow foreign ownership, “within a week, all of Abkhazia will be sold,” and they despair of the region’s dependence on Russian money.
“Even if the authorities had a plan, they would hardly cut off the branch that they are so comfortably sitting on,” Mr. Khashig wrote in his newspaper, Chegemskaya Pravda, in December. “Nothing is worse than uncertainty for them — even a golden cage.”
Much will depend on Mr. Bagapsh himself, who is expected to run for re-election in December. He was coy about his plans in an interview, saying only that he will not run as a candidate of United Abkhazia, which has partnered with Mr. Putin’s United Russia, but instead collect signatures and appear on the ballot as an independent candidate.
He said he had no interest in endorsements from Russian celebrities.
“There isn’t a person who has experienced greater pressure than me,” he said. “This is why I am categorically against this. I am offered assistance if I run from United Abkhazia. No assistance, thank you. When somebody comes and starts campaigning for one candidate, the result is a protest vote.”
Olesya Vartanyan contributed reporting from Tbilisi, Georgia.
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