To Russian Proposal On Integration, Abkhazia Says "Not So Fast"
As Russia and Abkhazia negotiate closer ties, the Abkhazian side is signaling that it is no Crimea and that it has no wish to be annexed into its neighbor and patron.
A draft of a proposed "Treaty on Alliance and Integration" between the two parties was released in October and caused a substantial outcry in Abkhazia, where many objected to what they said was in effect a sacrifice of their sovereignty to Moscow. Abkhazia won de facto independence in the early 1990s after a war with Georgia, and although Russia today is essentially Abkhazia's only ally and protector, Abkhazians remain ambivalent about Russia's heavy hand in their affairs.
Last week, Abkhazia released its own proposal for the agreement. It makes some substantial changes, starting with the name: it replaces "Integration" with "Strategic Partnership." And it gives Abkhazia more control over the joint armed forces and "unified defense space" that the agreement envisages.
The new public draft comes after Abkhazian officials acknowledged that the proposal -- like nearly all agreements between Russia and Abkhazia -- was drafted by Russia and signed by Abkhazia. But government officials in Sukhumi say they're not working that way any more. At an October 17 public meeting on the agreement, covered by local newspaper Chegemskaya Pravda (not online, via BBC Monitoring) Deputy Foreign Minister Irakli Khintba said:
No one says that the agreement has to be signed and accepted. We are surprised at the fact that we received the draft, which was prepared by the Russian side. The thing is that 99.9 per cent of drafts and bilateral agreement, which were concluded between Abkhazia and Russia, were prepared by the Russian side. The 2008 agreement was not preceded by extensive discussions. The republic of Abkhazia was recognized on 26 August . The agreement was signed in 20 days, on 17 September. On 24 September, it was ratified by the people's assembly [parliament] of Abkhazia. I do not mean that things were wrongly done then and everything is fine now. What I mean is that today, we have an opportunity to voice our substantiated opinion on the proposal offered by the Russian side. If the proposal does not suit us, we will demonstrate this in a substantiated manner. No one is going to force [people] to accept it.
Georgian newspaper Civil.ge has a very good rundown of all of the changes that the Abkhazian side proposed, but some of the highlights from the defense and foreign policy section of the document:
-- Rather than a "mutually agreed" or "harmonized" foreign policy, as the Russian draft had it, the Abkhazian draft instead proposes that the two sides "coordinate" their foreign policy "on issues representing mutual interest, as well as informing one another about activity (or inactivity) carried out in that regard."
-- In a section where Russia had promised to help Abkhazia gain international recognition and membership to international organizations, Abkhazia added an interesting qualifier, noting that it wanted to be part of organizations "including those initiated and created by Russia" (an apparent reference to Abkhazia's desire to join the Eurasian Union).
-- Language on creating a "united defense space" and "joint armed forces" was kept, though the Abkhazian version specified that the two forces would have "separate military facilities."
-- While the Russian text is silent on who would command the joint armed forces during normal circumstances, the Abkhazian version specifies that command of the joint force would be rotated between the two sides. And while Abkhazia left in the provision that under immediate threat of aggression that Russia would appoint a commander, it also specified that Abkhazia would appoint a deputy commander.
-- The Abkhazian side also specified that the decision to use the joint forces would be a joint decision between the Russian and Abkhazian presidents, and that likewise the determination of what constitutes an "immediate threat" would be jointly carried out.
-- The Abkhazian draft adds language calling for "the equipping of the Abkhazian armed forces with modern weaponry" and "training of the armed forces of Abkhazia taking into account the newest forms and methods of waging war including by means of carrying out joint command-staff and operational-tactical exercises."
-- The Abkhazian version removes language calling for the gradual removal of forces and means separating the Russian-Abkhazian border and moving those assets to the Abkhazian-Georgian border, but replaces it with language calling for "engineering-technical equipping" of the Abkhazian-Georgian border to be carried out in the next two years.
Interestingly, Russian officials seem to have had little to say (publicly) about the new draft. Meanwhile, poor South Ossetia is trying in vain to get annexed. Is this new agreement enough to keep Abkhazia's sovereignty intact? If nothing else, it shows Russia that a stealthy annexation isn't going to work this time around.
Joshua Kucera, a senior correspondent, is Eurasianet's former Turkey/Caucasus editor and has written for the site since 2007.