Russia, Abkhazia Discuss Forming "Unified Defense Space"
The newly elected de facto president of Abkhazia Raul Khadjimba has made his first trip abroad, to Russia, where he discussed with President Vladimir Putin the deepening of ties between the two countries' militaries and security services. The two sides are discussing a "unified defense space" and uniting the Abkhazian armed forces with the Russian troops in the territory under a single command. This will be worked out in a new agreement to be completed by the end of the year.
Russia already has about 3,500 troops in Abkhazia, which broke off from Georgia after a war in the early 1990s. In the wake of the 2008 war with Georgia, Russia officially recognized Abkhazia as an independent country and has already made several moves to make its military presence more permanent.
"I know that you are a proponent of expanding the relations between Abkhazia and Russia and deepening integration processes: this concerns defence, security, law enforcement activities and fighting crime, as well as the economy and the social sector," Putin said at his August 27 meeting with Khadjimba. "With regard to matters relating to defence, the state border and socioeconomic issues, we have our own proposals, and they are within the Russian side’s line of vision, so to speak. As we move forward on these issues, we are ready to continue our dialogue and talk about these topics. I think that they will develop positively," Khadjimba replied.
Khadjimba expanded on this in an interview with ITAR-TASS: "The creation of collective armed forces is a normal process, and we see in this the possibility the resolution of all issues connected with security... We have our own armed forces, and there is a Russian military base," Khadjimba said. "Corresponding efforts are needed to coordinate the activities between them on the basis of a united command.... We discussed the possibility of this solution, I think Russia won't be against it."
And in an interview with RIA Novosti, Caucasus expert Vladimir Zakharov speculated what else could be in the works between the two countries in the security sphere:
First, on the territory of Abkhazia should be located what we call a Russian military base. As long as there is no peace agreement between Abkhazia and Georgia, this Russian base should be located closer to the border with Georgia. Secondly, of course, border guards. Because the sea border there is practically open. It's necessary to equip the marine border guards, which Russia should do, because Russia already has experience.
The "unified defense space" would also entail a "single external contour of defense" allowing Abkhazia and Russia to have effectively open borders. "This is basically the Belarussian variant," wrote RIA Novosti. "Independent countries, but a single space."
Enthusiasm about the alliance with Russia is far from universal in Abkhazia. Defense issues, though, aren't the most sensitive between the two countries; even skeptics of Russia in Abkhazia accept the need for a Russian security umbrella. And it's not clear what the two sides may have discussed on what is perhaps the most sensitive bilateral issue, the possibility of Russian businesses owning land in Abkhazia. (It's perhaps telling that the ITAR-TASS interview discussed mainly security issues, and didn't mention the land issue at all.) But if it looks like Khadjimba is going to make serious concessions on that front, some Abkhazians may not be sure that the "single space" is really contributing to the independence of their country, and whether this tight security alliance is worth it.
Joshua Kucera, a senior correspondent, is Eurasianet's former Turkey/Caucasus editor and has written for the site since 2007.