Over objections and protests from near and far, separatist Abkhazia signed an agreement on November 24 on closer integration with Russia. To sweeten the deal, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that Moscow will double the amount of aid it gives to the breakaway, Georgia-claimed region. Many believe the pact is a step toward the eventual absorption of Abkhazia by Russia.
The move fits in with the trend of the changing political order in the post-Soviet space, with countries and regions pulling in opposite directions of associating with the European Union or Russia.
The signing in Sochi by Putin and fellow former KGB'er, Raul Khadjimba, Abkhazia's de-facto leader, has touched off an outcry in Tbilisi. From the Georgian perspective, the pact marks the virtual annexation of its territory and the ultimate failure of the current Georgian government's latter-day policy of reconciliation with Moscow.
“Despite the many constructive steps… no progress in political terms has been achieved with Russia,” the Georgian foreign ministry announced in a statement. “Together with the Georgian government and the Georgian people, we will resist this absurd move,” said Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili.
There are not too many mechanisms in Georgia’s diplomatic or economic arsenal for resisting Russian expansionism other than requesting the international community to pressure Moscow away from its perceived attempts of stealing another piece of land.
But if the row over Ukraine is any indication, pressure from the West carries little weight in Moscow these days.
Ironically, the views of some Abkhaz and most Georgians, normally worlds apart, somewhat coincide on the agreement.
Many Abkhaz believe that the deal, which simplifies the distribution of Russian citizenship for the Abkhaz and calls for a "common space" in defense matters, will cost them their hard-earned de-facto sovereignty from Tbilisi. The political party Amtsakhara, which boasts of veterans from the early 1990s separatist war against Tbilisi, staged a protest rally in the capital, Sokhumi, against the agreement's signing.
Moscow has tried to drown out such qualms with promises of ever more generous aid. Details about the size of its latest aid-present were not immediately available, but a five-billion-ruble handout is already in the can and Russia is expected to underwrite the plans to increase salaries and pensions in Abkhazia to match the rates in neighboring Russian regions.
In practical terms, the agreement lays out in writing much of what is already in place. Abkhazia uses the Russian ruble, its de-facto borders are guarded by Russian troops and its economic reliance on Russia is near total. But, for observers and participants alike, the deal is no less of an historical milestone -- for bad or for good.