Russian President Vladimir Putin visited the breakaway republic of Abkhazia and pledged to support its “stability and independence” on the anniversary of the outbreak of war with Georgia in 2008.
The visit, on August 8, marked the ninth anniversary of Russia’s war with Georgia over another breakaway republic, South Ossetia. Shortly after the end of that five-day war, Russia recognized both Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states. Only a handful of countries have followed suit, and most of the rest of the world continues to regard the two entities as part of Georgia.
“For South Ossetia and Abkhazia, August 8 is a day of mourning,” said Raul Khajimba, the de facto president of Abkhazia, at a joint appearance with Putin. “On this date began the large-scale operation by the Georgian army and the decisive actions taken by Russia, which enabled the preservation of South Ossetia and of course gave the possibility for further recognition of our governments, for which we convey enormous thanks.”
Putin added, “We faithfully guarantee the stability and independence of Abkhazia, and I am sure that this will continue.”
Putin’s visit came just a week after United States Vice President Mike Pence visited Georgia, observed a joint U.S.-Georgia military exercise, and offered vocal support for Tbilisi’s struggle over Abkhazia.
Georgian analysts speculated that Putin’s visit was timed to respond to Pence’s. That remained unclear, but an article in the local branch of the Russian state-run Sputnik news agency quoted Abkhazian presidential adviser Vladimir Zantariya as saying that Abkhazia was a “trusted partner” of Moscow, using the same phrase as the Russian translation of the name of the military exercise Pence visited, “Noble Partner.”
Putin’s visit was likely planned before Pence’s, but the Russian president no doubt relished the coincidence nevertheless, said Sergey Markedonov, a Caucasus expert at the Russian State University for the Humanities. “If this visit gives some grounds for talking about Russia’s response, Putin was glad – he’s happy to see his role as an obstacle to the U.S.,” Markedonov told EurasiaNet.org.
While it may have appeared incongruent to make that statement from Abkhazia, rather than from South Ossetia itself, Putin’s secondary agenda was to shore up relations with Sukhumi. Abkhazia often chafes at the overbearing behavior of its powerful patron, and the internal politics of Abkhazia are more volatile than those of South Ossetia. “It would have looked better to go to South Ossetia, but in Russia that is seen as the less problematic republic,” Markedonov said. “Russia is very concerned about potential challenges and instability in Abkhazia.”
The Georgian government, which held an event commemorating the Georgians killed during the 2008 war, condemned Putin’s visit.
“Such cynical action at the 9th anniversary of the Russia-Georgia war serves for legitimization of forceful change of borders of the sovereign state through military aggression, ethnic cleansing and occupation. By this step, the Kremlin tries in vain to support and legitimize its occupation regimes,” Georgia’s foreign ministry said in a statement.
Putin is one of the relatively few Russians to be arriving in Abkhazia these days. On August 2, a massive explosion at an ammunition dump in the village of Primorskoe wounded 64 people and killed two tourists from Saint Petersburg. The news spooked Russians who had been planning to vacation in Abkhazia, resulting in “a massive wave of cancelations,” the head of the Abkhazia Tourism Union, Anna Kalyagina, told RIA Novosti.
Three weeks earlier, in the same village, a local man attacked a group of Russian tourists, killing one of them. And even before that, tourism numbers for the year had been down 30 percent from the same period in 2016, a result of bad weather and the struggling Russian economy. “It rained in May, rained in June. Things had just started going in July and then these high-profile cases,” Kalyagina said. “Of course people were horrified, panicked, shocked.”
Putin said security for tourists was on the agenda of the meeting, and referred to an agreement on cooperation between the internal affairs ministries of both sides. “Citizens of Abkhazia, of Russia, and guests from no matter where, including from Russia, should understand and feel that they are under reliable protection,” he said. “I very much hope that this joint work will increase the level of security for tourists coming here.”
Joshua Kucera is the Turkey/Caucasus editor at EurasiaNet.org, and author of The Bug Pit. He is based in Istanbul.