Almost inured to conflict, residents of Sukhumi, capital of Georgia's breakaway region of Abkhazia, are focusing less on the Georgian plane shoot-down incident and fears of fresh fighting, and more on the likely benefits to be had from Moscow's recent lifting of an economic embargo against the region.
One ethnic Armenian office manager in Sukhumi sees the decision, announced on March 6, as a sign that Abkhazia can regain a sense of normalcy, if not outright independence. "Maybe now, after some time we will have a normal economy, step by step," said Gayane Chakharian.
Reports that Sukhumi will now attempt to reopen its airport, closed since 1994, and supply various construction materials for Russia's 2012 Olympics in Sochi have raised alarm bells in Tbilisi. The reports, coupled with Moscow's April 16 decision to forge closer official ties with Abkhazia, have been seen in Tbilisi as a probable prelude to recognition of the region as an independent state. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
But the Abkhaz do not necessarily make the same prediction. Russia, they say, has its own concerns about separatism. "(Russia) recognizing our independence is not a simple matter," commented a city resident. "It is a big country with its own territorial problems."
One separatist official agrees. "If Russia had wanted to recognize our independence, they would have done so already, right after Kosovo," said Maxim Gunjia, the territory's de facto deputy foreign minister. At the same time, he added, "[l]egally opening the gates is a practical goal, especially in light of the Sochi Olympics."
Within Georgia, both the embargo decision and the cooperation resolution have been interpreted as a tit-for-tat for Georgia's efforts to secure a Membership Action Plan for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization at the end of this year. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
In an April 16 interview with EurasiaNet, Sergei Shamba, Abkhazia's de facto foreign minister, agreed that Moscow's decisions were politically motivated, but stressed that the separatists themselves would welcome Georgia's accession into NATO. The alliance, he continued, could act as a restraint on any Georgian "intrusion into the Russian sphere of influence."
Playing babysitter for Georgia, though, does not appear to figure into NATO's plans. At an April 24 press conference in Tbilisi, NATO's special representative to the Caucasus and Central Asia, Robert Simmons, stressed that the alliance "is not seeking direct participation in these conflicts." At the same time, Simmons underlined NATO's objection to "Russia's attempts to violate Georgia's territorial integrity," and urged "Georgia to demonstrate reserve and not yield to any provocative acts," the Kavkaz Press agency quoted Simmons as saying.
What passes for relations between Tbilisi and Sukhumi is more like a verbal badminton match of claims and counter-claims. Tension has risen in the days since Georgia released a video recording it claims shows a Russian MiG-29 shooting down one of its reconnaissance drones over Abkhaz territory. Both Russia and Abkhazia have denied the claim. [For details, see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The April 20 drone incident sparked mutual recrimination about troop buildups along the Abkhaz-Georgian administrative border, not far from the western Georgian town of Zugdidi. None of the claims have been verified to date.
On April 25, Ruslan Kishmaria, the representative of de facto Abkhaz leader Sergei Bagapsh in the Gali District, claimed that some 300 Georgian soldiers had moved into the area for "military exercises." He also alleged that "eight howitzers" had been moved into the Upper Kodori Gorge, a strip of Abkhazia still held by Georgia, news agencies reported. The Georgian side has denied the claims.
In a gesture that could only raise the level of acrimony, Russian Foreign Ministry official Valeri Kenyaikin stated on April 25 that the Kremlin would take "all possible measures" to defend its citizens in Abkhazia and South Ossetia if armed conflict should break out. Many of the residents of both breakaway regions are Russian citizens. Abkhaz television has broadcast footage of the separatists' own military training.
Meanwhile, Georgia has come up with its own claims. The same day that Kishmaria made his allegation, Georgia's pro-government Rustavi-2 television reported that the Russia's Maykop brigade had been deployed to Ochamchira, an Abkhaz seaside town south of Sukhumi. The report also claimed that the Abkhaz military was forcing residents to take Russian passports, and that additional forces had been moved into Gali. Both Abkhaz and Russian leaders denied the report. Gali residents interviewed by EurasiaNet on April 17 reported seeing no unusual movement of military hardware.
While NATO envoy Simmons and Western diplomats place an emphasis on dialogue, prospects for talks appear remote. Shamba, a member of the Abkhaz hierarchy, claimed that he had heard nothing about earlier proposals by Georgian State Minister for Reintegration Temur Iakobashvili for a direct meeting prior to a potential summit between Saakashvili and Bagapsh.
The Georgian State Ministry for Reintegration was closed on April 28 for Georgia's Easter holidays and could not be reached for comment.
At the same time, statements from the United States, United Kingdom, France and Germany that they are "highly concerned" about Moscow's decision to forge closer ties with Abkhazia are being taken by the Abkhaz as signs of support for Georgia. "Abkhazia will consider the expedienc[y] of continuing dialogue with the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany, which are members of the UN Secretary General's group of friends on the settlement of this conflict," Bagapsh told Interfax on April 24. "These countries hold a unilaterally pro-Georgian position."
Paul Rimple is a freelance writer based in Tbilisi.