The statement in the title may surprise many visitors to SOS Georgia. Surely an article on a website created to protest the illegal invasion and annexation of Georgian territory cannot be advocating Abkhaz independence? However, here I indeed intend to argue that for Georgia, the more autonomy the Abkhazians manage to win for themselves from Russia, the better.
Let us face the facts, both Abkhazia and South Ossetia are now effectively under Russian control, and will be for a while yet. The Georgians do not possess the military strength to win them back by force and do not have the economic strength to win them back peacefully…yet. The West is not going to come running to Georgia’s aid either, if anything it looks like “old” Europe is fully prepared to sacrifice Georgia’s occupied territories at the altar of Gazprom (Europe are protesting only the “disproportionate” nature of Russian actions, essentially conceding the reality that Russia will remain in the two secessionist regions). Whatever remained of Georgia’s relations with the Kremlin are in tatters, so no rapprochement is likely with Russia whilst Putin’s siloviki clan remains in power in Russia.
So what can the Georgians do now? The answer is not a lot. But already even at this early stage there are signs of hope amidst the overall gloom of the current situation. Yesterday, de facto Abkhaz leader Baghapsh declared that there would be no new Russian military base in Abkhazia and that Sukhumi would not host ships of the Russian Navy. Further to this Sergei Shamba, Abkhazia’s de facto foreign minister declared in line with previous policy that Abkhazia would not join the Russian federation but instead seek “associate status” with Russia alongside Belarus. This at the same time as South Ossetia’s leaders are declaring their intention to join Russia and allow the Russians to set up a full military base there.
So why the difference in approach between two de facto governments who are equally dependent on their Russian masters? This question is interesting and important as “Presidents” Baghapsh and Kokoity have looked like peas in a pod recently as they lined up to speak to various Russian leaders and legislative chambers. The reason is that unlike the South Ossetians who have been totally cowed by the Russian FSB agents who currently run the place, the Abkhazians still believe in the dream of true independence. Of course there too the Kremlin has its slavish advocates but many, perhaps including Baghapsh himself, will not want to be mere vassals of the Kremlin. Remember that in 2006, the Kremlin had to impose the appointment of more reliably pro Kremlin vice president Raul Khajimba on Baghapsh after the latter beat the former in elections there. Until now, the threat of Georgian “invasion” has kept the whole political spectrum in Abkhazia strongly in favour of closer ties to Russia which is seen by the Abkhaz as the only realistic alternative to Georgian rule.
However, now this may slowly change. Now it has been made clear that the Georgian military threat is negligible in the face of Russian “protection” some in Abkhazia may begin to question Russia’s intentions. I have heard countless Abkhazians tell me before this conflict that they fear cultural assimilation into Russia: “they want our territory, not our wellbeing” was a common statement. And who can blame them when prominent Russian politicians like Vladimir Zhirinovsky state that: “Russia does not need Abkhazian and Ossetian people, but their territories. There is no reason to hide this. After achieving this we will make them servants”.