A recent treaty sighed with Abkhazia signals Moscow’s strategic priorities in the region. The more that Georgia leans toward NATO and the West, the more that Moscow will engage Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Abkhazia's newly elected President Raul Khadzhimba, left, takes office in an inauguration ceremony on Sept. 25, 2014. Photo: RIA Novosti
The Treaty on Alignment and Strategic Partnership between Russia and the Republic of Abkhazia signed on Nov. 24 did not make headline news but, nevertheless, was an important signal of the direction Russian foreign policy is taking in the region.
In the West, the treaty between Russia and Abkhazia predictably triggered a highly critical reaction. For example, the 22nd paragraph of the 16-page House Resolution 758, which was overwhelmingly passed by the U.S. House of Representatives on Dec. 4, mentioned the treaty as one of the ''measures intended to progressively integrate these regions [Abkhazia and South Ossetia] into the Russian Federation.''
In Georgia, the stream of reactions was more variable – from strong condemnation by some parliamentarians to feelings of concern and sadness among diplomats. Such a response is understandable: In today's extremely polarized political context, any Russian initiative is usually viewed as targeted towards expansionism and aggression.
Remarkably, the treaty even won itself many opponents in Russia and Abkhazia. The product of several previous drafts, it covers bilateral political, economic and military cooperation. The Abkhaz opposition argued it would make the Republic more dependent on Russia, thus depriving it of long sought-after independence. Russian critics, in turn, insisted it would put Moscow in a position of being an eternal donor to Abkhazia without any viable gains.
Indeed, the way the treaty is worded leaves many loopholes for vastly different interpretations. What matters most, however, is the rationale behind it and the larger implications the accords may entail.
Russian-Abkhaz relations have been firmly established since 2009. Over the past five years, Moscow and Sukhumi have signed more than 80 bilateral agreements detailing practically every aspect of the relationship. In substance, the current treaty re-emphasizes some areas agreed upon in previous accords, while laying out a roadmap for the implementation of others. In this regard, it is nothing sensational and concerns over ''dramatic regional transformations'' that will follow are to a certain extent exaggerated.
Abkhazia is playing its own game here. It is much better off than South Ossetia but is still an underdeveloped entity. The treaty ultimately outsources the Republic's social and economic policy to Russia. This leaves enough time and resources for the Abkhaz leadership to focus more on constructing a virtual ethnocracy.
Ideally, Moscow might have wished to fully integrate Abkhazia into the Eurasian Union. But facing strong opposition from Belarus and Kazakhstan - as well as potential international repercussions - Russia is using tools available at the moment to engage Abkhazia in bilateral cooperation. Therefore, the treaty definitely has some practical value and is mutually beneficial at a tactical level.
Its long-term dimension is also visible. Since the emphasis on '''strategic cooperation'' was meant to be central, it signals Moscow's strategic choice. As attempts to build a constructive dialogue with new Georgian authorities crashed against the stumbling block of the status of the disputed territories, both Moscow and Tbilisi foresaw little progress in dealing with each another. Subsequently, the Georgia-EU association agreement signed on June 27th and Georgia’s new status as one of five ''enhanced NATO partners'' that was acquired in September, produced real concerns in Moscow over a potential beefed-up foreign military presence close to Russia's borders in the South.
Russia’s concerns are obviously multiplied by the current crisis in relations with the West. Understanding that the situation won't get better any time soon, Moscow thought it was the right time to consolidate its volatile southern flank, no matter how bold the move could have been considered. Since neither Russia nor the West is able to tailor the security pattern in the South Caucasus their way, both try to secure as much geopolitical loyalty as they can. In a way, it is a reflection of what Putin alluded to during the NATO Bucharest Summit in 2008, when he boiled it down to a simple logic: ''NATO status for Georgia will entail buffer zones in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.”
In this respect, for the Kremlin there's as much strategic calculation as symbolism in the treaty with Abkhazia. It may all be quite costly – financially and politically - especially against the background of Russia's limping economy, but Moscow demonstrates it is ready to pay the price. It doesn't have the privilege to give up on emerging geopolitical opportunities, merely because there are not too many partners the Kremlin can rely on.
The Caucasus has enough conflict potential to worry about without big power rivalries complicating the picture. But the developments in Ukraine definitely create a more antagonizing framework for regional dynamics. In this regard, contradictory policies between Russia and the EU (and, more broadly, with the West) have never left the Caucasus. Now that the stakes are higher and no party is willing to compromise its interests, the fragile balance between cooperation and confrontation has further swung to the latter.
The opinion of the authors may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.