Five years on, breakaway regions find orientation towards Moscow a mixed blessing
South Ossetia and Abkhazia are long spilt from Georgia. But they are left in limbo
Russian soldiers riding an armoured personnel carrier on August 22nd, 2008, near Igoeti, on the road from Tbilisi to Gori, Georgia. Photograph: Uriel Sinai/Getty Images
Mobile phones ping with a peculiar message in the Georgian village of Ergneti: “Welcome to Russia! ”
Tbilisi’s official territory stretches on for another 50km or more, but a network of trenches and razor wire – not to mention observation posts manned by Russian soldiers – make it impossible to go further. Two flags fly together at the checkpoint down the road: the red, white and blue of Russia alongside the red, white and yellow of South Ossetia, a region of Georgia which, five years ago today, the Kremlin recognised as a sovereign state.
The anniversary finds the province still living in limbo however, having swapped a limited form of de-facto independence from Georgia for total dependence on Russia.
Moscow not only defends South Ossetia’s disputed border and provides most of its services – including the mobile phone network – but serves as its sole trading partner, investor and supplier of aid. This tiny region is not a priority for the other four, very distant, nations that recognise its independence: Venezuela, Nicaragua, Nauru and Tuvalu.
Russia recognised South Ossetia’s sovereignty just weeks after thwarting Tbilisi’s apparent attempt to reclaim it.
The five-day war and its aftermath put Moscow at loggerheads with Georgia’s US and EU friends, but demonstrated Russian dominance of its post-Soviet “backyard”, blocked Tbilisi’s push for Nato membership, and served as an apt response to western recognition of Kosovo’s independence six months earlier, which the Kremlin fiercely opposed.
But Russia is losing patience with its small but expensive ward. Moscow has ploughed more than €750 million into South Ossetia since 2008, but much has been stolen or wasted, and war damage and crumbling infrastructure still blight the region.
Two developments last week highlighted the problems facing South Ossetia and, by extension, Russia: the failure of old pipes cut off water supply to the local capital, Tskhinvali; and president Leonid Tibilov announced that arrest warrants had been issued for nine former local officials, including ex-ministers, for stealing money from reconstruction projects.
Tbilisi lost control of South Ossetia after a 1991-1992 war, and the province limped along, without any international recognition of its independence declaration, until the 2008 conflict. But while there is no desire among its 30,000 or so residents to return to Georgian rule, South Ossetians admit they hoped for more after Russia formally acknowledged their sovereignty.
“Today, I see all the elements of national psychological depression – people do not believe in themselves, have no confidence in their society, their leaders or their country,” Irina Gagloyeva, a former spokeswoman for the South Ossetian government, told a Russian newspaper this month. “Life goes on by inertia, with no activity. Perhaps this is due to the fact that the economy is not developing – we are seeing complete economic stagnation.”
The future is still foggy for this self-declared statelet, smaller than Co Tipperary, in the southern foothills of the Caucasus mountains. It is not even clear whether South Ossetians really want independence, or would rather unite with relatives in the Russian republic of North Ossetia, on the other side of the Caucasus.
“Today we are practically in one economic and cultural space, and of course every Ossetian thinks that in the future we should unite, and be together within Russia. It is the dream of every Ossetian,” Tibilov said last week.
Abkhazia is different. This region on Georgia’s Black Sea coast is also marking five years since Moscow recognised its independence but – even though people here also use Russian passports and roubles – there is far less support for unification with Russia.
More than twice the size of South Ossetia, Abkhazia has a population of more than 200,000 and a diaspora of similar size living mostly in Turkey.
This sub-tropical region of soaring mountains, citrus trees and palm-fringed beaches was one of the most desirable stretches of the “Soviet riviera”. It broke from Georgia in a 1992-1993 war that killed several thousand people and forced 200,000 non-Abkhaz to flee.
As in South Ossetia, several thousand Russian servicemen are stationed here, and locals value the promise to protect them from any Georgian attempt to reassert control.
Abkhazians have a long history of conflict with Russia as well as Georgia, however, and many fear the growing tightness of Moscow’s embrace. However, determined not to return to Tbilisi’s rule and ostracised by the EU and US, they have to rely on Russia for almost everything.
“Where is the alternative? All doors are shut,” Abkhazia’s foreign minister, Viacheslav Chirikba, told The Irish Times.
“Russia is vital for security and trade. Some two million Russian tourists come here each year. Russia prevented Georgians killing our people. It helps us pay pensions and restore infrastructure. Our country is so dilapidated, so destroyed by war, and no other country except Russia is ready to provide assistance.”
Chirikba said Abkhazia signed a deal in 2008 to let Russia base troops here for 49 years and is now “open to talk” about the creation of a Russian naval base in the region. “For 15 or 16 years, everyone in Abkhazia went to bed worrying there could be war the next day,” said Chirikba. “Now we have security, we are determined to preserve or heighten it.”
Politics of lure
Georgia is not giving up on South Ossetia or Abkhazia, and considers one-fifth of its territory “occupied” by Russian troops. But prime minister Bidzina Ivanishvili has softened Tbilisi’s stance, swapping a policy of isolation for one of persuasion that they would be better off back with Georgia.
“We need to make Georgia attractive to them, with a strong democracy, institutions and economy,” he said recently.
“They need to want to live with us again. So we should not talk about regaining territory, but about restoring relations with our own people.”