|A Russian Land Grab in Abkhazia?|
|March 31, 2011|
When Russia recognized breakaway Abkhazia's independence from Georgia in August 2008, very few countries followed suit. But there was nonetheless jubilation and gratitude in Sukhumi.
Today, many Abkhaz are wondering whether the cost of Moscow's support may have turned out to be a bit too high.
As a joint Abkhaz-Russian commission on border demarcation met in Moscow this week, residents of the territory became increasingly alarmed about reports that Russia was seeking to annex 160 square kilometers of Abkhaz territory.
The opposition Abkhaz newspaper "Novy den" reported earlier this month that Russia has sent a proposal to Abkhazia's de facto authorities asking them to cede a sliver of land in the territory's Gagra region.
The land in question is in a mountainous area near the Psou River, which forms Abkhazia's natural boundary with Russia. It is also close to Russia's Krasnaya Polyana ski resort, a key venue for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.
Speaking to RFE/RL's Echo of the Caucasus -- which broadcasts to Abkhazia and Georgia's other breakaway region, South Ossetia -- the prominent Sukhumi-based journalist Inal Khashig said Moscow's proposal appeared to be an opening gambit from which they would ultimately back down from in exchange for a smaller chunk of land -- the Abkhaz village of Aibga, which straddles the Psou River.
But Khashig said any territorial concessions, no matter how small, were staunchly opposed by an overwhelming majority of the population and by the territory's political elite:
Public opinion is opposed to giving up 160 square kilometers or even ten square meters. It is a matter of principle. This is Abkhaz land and we're not going to sacrifice a single meter or square mile. I went out to the central part of Sukhumi and people were already gathering signatures against this and many were already stopping to sign. Abkhaz society is very concerned about this.
Speaking later with RFE/RL's Russian Service, Khashig said the controversy put Abkhazia's de facto president, Sergei Bagapsh, in an impossible position:
Any concession on his part on the territorial issue could lead to destabilization of the country and possibly to the president's resignation. But if he does not give in [to Moscow's request], Russia might be offended. And here Bagapsh would also have a problem -- 70 percent of the Abkhaz budget consists of Russian subsidies. And if Bagapsh loses this, it could also end in his resignation.
If this came to pass, it would be an ironic twist. In the 2004 election, Abkhaz voters rejected Moscow's handpicked candidate, former KGB officer Raul Khajimba, who was soundly defeated by Bagapsh.
In an interview with RFE/RL's Russian Service, Ivlian Khaindrava, director of South Caucasus programs at the Tbilisi-based Center of Development and Cooperation, said attempted land grabs like this could lead to a rise in anti-Russian sentiment among the Abkhaz:
Abkhaz society is maturing and I'm not sure that this process, if it continues, will be painless. It is possible that in Abkhazia people will realize that the threat from north [Russia] could be more dangerous than the threat from the south [Georgia]. Of course, this will not happen all at once...but gradually the emphasis will shift.
Russian officials have yet to comment publicly on the controversy.
The current fears of Russian domination are, in fact, not new. When I visited Abkhazia in the June 2009, the signs of accelerating Russification were everywhere.
More than 90 percent of Abkhaz residents, for example, carry Russian passports. The Russian ruble is the territory's official currency. The Russian language is dominant. Russian flags are everywhere. Russian television rule the airwaves and Russian newspapers are ubiquitous.
Moscow was building a naval base in the port of Ochamchire. Russian businesses were snapping up prime real estate along Sukhumi's seaside promenade. Russia's state-run oil giant Rosneft won the right to explore and develop Abkhazia's maritime oil fields.
And a controversial provision to give Russian soldiers serving in Abkhazia the right to purchase property sparked howls of opposition.
"After recognizing Abkhazia, Russia is now swallowing us," Khashig told me at the time. "This is happening economically, politically, militarily, and socially. Every day we are becoming more and more dependent."
But at the same time, many Abkhaz also proudly pointed out that their ancestors fought a series of bloody rebellions against the Russian Empire in the 19th century. The largest of these, in 1866 and 1877, resulted in hundreds of thousands of Abkhaz being deported -- ironically, they were deported mainly from the very same Gagra region where the land Russia now covets is located.
Copyright (c) 2011. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.
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