Abkhazia: Russia guarantees our economic security for now, but NATO could be in the future
A senior adviser to the president of Abkhazia, Nadir Bitiev, is visiting Washington this week. Bitiev is the highest-ranking Abkhazian official ever to visit D.C., but he is doing it in an unofficial capacity (and traveling on his New Zealand passport, to ease visa troubles). He sat down with me for a conversation at the National Press Club; following are some of the excerpts of his take on Abkhazia's military and security situation, in particular the Russian military presence on Abkhazian territory.
The 2008 war between Russia and Georgia resulted in Russian recognition of Abkhazian independence, and agreements with Moscow that have resulted in 1,200 Russian troops each at a naval border patrol base in Ochamchire and at a land forces base in Gudauta, leading many (especially Western) observers to conclude that Abkhazia was merely a Russian colony. But Bitiev emphasized the Russians' role in preserving Abkhazian independence.
Bitiev was in town to promote Abkhazia at a Russia investment forum and to him, the Russian military presence in Abkhazia is key to the territory's economic success: “We need them to stay there. The reason we have 2.5 million tourists a year is that the Russian troops are there... We need something to patrol our borders, in addition to our troops, in case of a conflict to make it bigger.”
I asked if he saw the Russian military presence as permanent, or just a step on the way to military self-sufficiency.
“That's what investment does – the more successful we are, the quicker we'll restore ourself to full capacity, and there will be no need for...” He trailed off; at several points he seemed to stop himself before he even implicitly criticized Russia. “And if Georgia recognizes us, of course, there will be no need at all,” he added.
The Russian security guarantee has allowed the Abkhazian government to focus limited resources on development, he said: “We want our border to be secure, that's all we need. We could do it with our resources, also. But if we can do it this way it's a lot more productive and we can free up the resources to go into hospitals and education and health care, to restore the tourism and economic infrastructure to attract investment.”
Sitting in on our conversation was Bruce Talley, an American real estate developer who has been working in southern Russia and is working with “some deep-pocketed American investors” to develop a tourist resort in Abkhazia. I asked him if the Russian role in Abkhazia makes him more confident to invest there. “Unquestionably. In fact, it's a very propitious time to be involved. It's definitely safer for tourists, and safer for me as well,” he said.
The day before, a couple of notable news items had come out of Abkhazia: that the Russian FSB in Abkhazia said that Georgian UAVs had made 40 incursions into Abkhaz airspace over the past year, and that several top members of the Abkhazian military, including the chief of staff of the armed forces and deputy defense ministers, had been “transferred to the reserve because of their age.” Bitiev's brief does not include the military, but presumably both of these issues would reach the level of the presidency. But he had not heard of either one of them (in fact, he had suggested that I talk to one of the “transferred” officers for more information on the military), suggesting a certain amount of Abkhazian disengagement (to be generous) in some of their crucial security affairs.
Finally, I asked Bitiev is he could imagine a day when Abkhazia was part of NATO. And he left the door open.
“I don't know, the future will say,” he said. “Who knows.”