As many as 145 Syrians have collectively moved to breakaway Abkhazia this week as part of the region’s latest social engineering experiment.
Entire peoples have for centuries been moved in, out and around in the Caucasus at imperial whims. The Abkhaz were among the nations banished from the Caucasus in the 19th century as Russia tried to consolidate its conquest of the region.
After the war with Tbilisi two decades ago resulted in the ousting of most of Abkhazia’s ethnic Georgian population -- again, not without Russia playing a role – the territory's separatist authorities tried to reconnect with Abkhaz Diasporas scattered around the Middle East in hopes they could help repopulate the area. No significant number of these groups took up the invite until war broke out in Syria.
The latest arrivals bring the total number of Syrian-Abkhaz migrants up to over 300 and Abkhazia’s de-facto government hopes to bring in thousands more. The breakaway authorities are paying for transportation, residences and the assimilation of the transplants, who are invariably described as “returnees” even if they have never been to Abkhazia and do not speak the Abkhaz language.
But, as elsewhere in the South Caucasus, in Abkhazia it is common to discuss century-old events as if they happened yesterday.
Russia is building up its military presence in the breakaway Georgian territory of Abkhazia in a way that suggests that Moscow anticipates a long-term presence there, according to a new report by the International Crisis Group. As is often the case with ICG reports, the whole thing (pdf) -- titled "Abkazia: The Long Road To Reconciliation" is worth reading. But Bug Pit readers will be especially interested in the details it provides on Russia's current military posture in Abkhazia:
The 2008 war with Georgia allowed Russia to greatly enhance its already considerable military presence. Russian officials say there are roughly 5,000 Russian personnel in Abkhazia: 3,500 military and 1,500 Federal Security Service (FSB) officers and “border guards”. Moscow allocated $465 million over four years to the rehabilitation and construction of military infrastructure. This included work on Bombora, the largest military airfield in the South Caucasus, in Gudauta. Though Russian media sources describe significant weapons at the base, Western military officials in late 2012 said intelligence indicated only four fighter craft there on a regular basis – two Sukhoi 27s and two MiG-29s.
The Russians also refurbished a smaller, though strategically and symbolically important naval port in Ochamchire, just 30km from Georgian-controlled territory. Eight Russian “border patrol” boats are reportedly there – including two new craft that arrived in 2012. According to FSB officials, they likewise set up several radar stations along the coast to cover Abkhazia’s “territorial waters” and monitor areas under Georgian naval control.
Vanuatu, a diplomatically schizophrenic island in the South Pacific, just had another of its many mood swings vis-à-vis the South Caucasus' territorial disputes. The island nation, which has been twitching between recognizing and not recognizing breakaway Abkhazia’s independence from Georgia, now says it is picking Tbilisi over Sokhumi, Radio New Zealand International reports.
The 12,000-square-kilometer archipelago with the self-conscious national motto of “Yumi, yumi, yumi” ("We, we, we") has asked Georgia to forget about the misunderstandings of the past and come into its diplomatic embrace.
Vanuatu threw itself into the middle of the international controversy over Abkhazia’s status in 2011 after the breakaway region's de-facto government reported that the country had become the sixth to recognize Abkhazia's Russia-backed independence from Georgia. Journalists and diplomats went chasing Vanuatu officials for confirmation, but they just could not get a definitive response.
Foreign Minister Alfred Carlot was first to confirm that his nation had recognized Abkhazia's recognition, then Vanuatu’s UN envoy Donald Kalpokas said it had not. Carlot responded by saying it had. Abkhazia's de-facto foreign ministry, for its part, waving a signed document establishing diplomatic relations "on the level of ambassadors," said it had the proof.
Venezuela is among six countries which have recognized the independence of one or both territories from Georgia. And in the Caucasus, the deed of "a good friend" is not easily forgotten.
At a March 8 funeral rally in the South Ossetian capital Tskinvali, officials and public figures took turns to remember the Chavez they knew, the Chavez they loved, and queued to sign a memorial book to be sent to Caracas.
The mourners said they were forever thankful to the Bolivarian revolutionary for standing up to the West and recognizing South Ossetia’s still largely unrecognized independence from Georgia. “Since then, the people and the president of Venezuela have become close friends to us,” elaborated the territory's de-facto president, Leonid Tibilov.
For a musical memorial, South Ossetia’s singing talent Alla Byazrova, of course, performed her serenade to the late Venezuelan leader. “Hugo Chavez, Hugo Chavez, my best friend, my faraway friend!” she sang to a catchy, syncopated beat.
In the true holiday spirit, Abkhazia's separatist authorities have requested seniors to show up in de-facto government offices after New Year’s and certify that they are alive. Only those with vital signs will receive a pension, the de-facto officials said, reasonably enough.
To get the allowance, pensioners “need to turn up at the social security agencies and prove the fact of being alive,” is the blunt way de-facto Minister of Labor and Social Development Olga Koltukova put it.
Responding to the request, scores of men and women in their 60s and older spent the festive period between New Year’s and Christmas (celebrated on January 7) doing just that.
One elderly man told the Kavkazsky Uzel news service that he was happy with how fast the certification that he's alive was going. “This is good,” he said.
Some even hold three passports - Abkhaz, Russian and Georgian – and, therefore, technically, could be entitled to state benefits from all three places.
But it is not clear just how the de-facto Abkhaz officials are testing that these elderly individuals are, in fact, alive. Perhaps the procedure involves a photo ID and mirror. In any case, by all accounts, the death check will become an annual winter holiday tradition, to be observed right after New Year’s.
Abkhazia may be an impoverished, largely unrecognized piece of separatist Caucasus territory, but, for many, it sure beats Syria these days.
Thirty-two Syrians of Abkhaz descent have escaped the violence at home and moved to the breakaway territory in a transfer facilitated by the de-facto Abkhaz authorities (and, perhaps, their patrons in Moscow).
Another 50 Syrian-Abkhaz are expected "in the near future," the region's de-facto Repatriation Committee Chairperson Zurab Adleiby told Kavkazsky Uzel news service. One hundred total are expected this year, Apsnypress reported.
The de-facto Abkhaz government reportedly is trying to fix them up with jobs and is preparing permanent housing near the capital city, Sukhumi.
As they have for Abkhaz-Turks as well, the Abkhaz have hailed the Syrians' arrival as a homecoming. It may have been a while (a century and half, to be specific) since these families’ ancestors were driven out of Abkhazia by Tsarist Russia, but, in the Caucasus, centuries-old events are often discussed as things that happened yesterday.
Some Syrian-Abkhaz have done a better job preserving their knowledge of Abkhaz language and customs over the generations, than others, however. A video report from the Kavkazsky Uzel shows a seven-year-old Syrian girl reciting a poem in Abkhaz, while an elderly woman in an Arab-style headdress says it is harder for older people to learn the local language.
Moscow is never happy to see a US secretary of state lounging about in what it considers to be its backyard; in other words, Georgia. Routine expressions of support for Georgia’s territorial integrity, democratic and NATO aspirations are one thing. But don't get talkin' about those "provocative" identification papers for residents of breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
The documents are meant to provide an international travel option to residents of the two regions -- their independence from Georgia still largely unrecognized -- without specifying their citizenship status. They also, though, are intended to encourage separatist Abkhaz and South Ossetians to come back to Tbilisi's still-waiting embrace.
Granted, the Abkhaz and South Ossetians are not exactly lining up for the Georgian-made documents and a hefty dose of skepticism persists about the prospects for reconciliation-through-IDs. But, still, securing Hillary Rodham Clinton’s public support for the documents was one tangible bonus for Tbilisi from her June 4-5 visit to Georgia.
Nonetheless, despite the IDs' less-than-certain chances for success, Moscow’s thin-skinned reactions suggested that the documents' existence do at least exert a certain psychological influence on the Kremlin.
Moscow, the chief lobbyist for international acceptance of Abkhazia and South Ossetia’s independence, had been quite happy for years to provide both regions with Russian passports for international travel -- even while, before 2008, still recognizing them as part of Georgia.
After securing support from an archipelago of Pacific island nations for the independence of breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia, Moscow may now have netted a bigger catch -- Serbia.
During his visit to Moscow last week, Serbia's new president, Tomislav Nikolić, promised to push for recognition of the duo's independence in the Serbian parliament; a pledge that sparked optimism in Abkhazia. And, by now comfortably settled into its role in the two breakaway regions, Russia has made plain that it's happy to sweeten the deal.
Other Russian soul mates, the South Pacific countries of Nauru, Tuvalu and Vanuatu, also received or are believed to have received gifts from Moscow, but the Kremlin maintains their recognitions of the independence of the two Russian-guarded territories came from the heart.
Georgia may not have $800 million to spare, but Tbilisi also sees Belgrade as a soul mate.
Deputy Foreign Minister Nino Kalandadze noted that Georgia and Serbia share an Orthodox Christian faith (for that matter, so do Georgia and Russia), and an aspiration to integrate with the European Union. Beyond guilt-tripping Serbia's government into respecting Georgia’s territorial integrity, Tbilisi expressed hope that Belgrade will not choose to buck the EU’s position on the Georgian breakaways.
The plot is thickening in the alleged Georgian-Chechen Sochi Olympics terror plot: the Abkhazian security services are casting doubt on the Russian version of events. According to the Russian Antiterrorism Committee, an arms cache discovered in the Gudauta region of Abkhazia was intended to be used by Chechen terrorists, with assistance from the Georgian security services, to stage an attack in Sochi. The Abkhazian official news agency, Apsnypress, even cited the State Security Service of Abkhazia as confirming that account.
But now a source in the Abkhazian government is saying that the arms cache was not intended for Sochi, but for use in Abkhazia. From a report in the newspaper Kommersant (translation by BBC Monitoring):
Part of the alleged Chechen-Georgian arms cache discovered in Abkhazia
The Russian and Abkhazian security services say they have broken up a Chechen-Georgian plot to carry out terrorist attacks against the Sochi Olympics. According to a report from the Abkhazian official news agency ApsnyPress, the leader of the "Abkhazian Jamaat," an organization affiliated with the Caucasus Emirate, was arrested and a cache of weapons uncovered in the Gudauta region of Abkhazia. The list of weapons Apsny provides is pretty substantial, and includes a variety of anti-aircraft weaponry and grenade launchers.
The operation was masterminded by the leader of the Caucasus Emirate, Doku Umarov, with "direct involvement" of the Georgian security services and their allies in Turkey, according to a statement by the Russian Antiterrorism Committee:
Russian Federal Security Service was able to establish that the militants were planning to move these weapons during the 2012-2014 to Sochi and to use them to commit terrorist acts before and during the Olympic Games. Russia managed security services at an early stage to prevent the thugs attempting to launch their criminal plans....
They [the weapons] were brought into Abkhazia from Georgia. According to operational data, their transfer to Russia directly involved the Georgian special services and allied representatives of illegal armed groups in Turkey. The ringleader of an international terrorist organization "Caucasus Emirate" Umarov, maintaining close ties with the Georgian special services, coordinated all the activities of the organization of delivery of the commission of terrorist acts in close proximity to Sochi and marking these caches.
The Antiterrorism Committee website also has a number of photos of the alleged cache.