West backs Georgia as Russia stokes new annexation fears

Moscow’s far-reaching deal with Abkhazia comes months after Crimea seized from Ukraine

 

The European Union, United States and Nato have joined Georgia in denouncing a “strategic partnership” pact between its breakaway Abkhazia region and Russia, which Tbilisi fears could lead to Moscow’s annexation of the province.

Kremlin leader Vladimir Putin and Abkhazia’s separatist president Raul Khadzhimba signed the deal on Monday in the Russian resort of Sochi, only 40 km north around the Black Sea coast from the rebel region.

Under the agreement, which is intended to address “new global and regional challenges and threats”, Russia pledged to create a “joint defence and security space” with Abkhazia and protect its de-facto border with the rest of Georgia.

As well as helping modernise Abkhazia’s military, Moscow agreed to boost economic ties with 240,000-strong Abkhazia and raise pensions and state wages to the level of those paid in southern Russia.

“We have set new tasks and long-range goals. They are backed up with serious financing,” Mr Putin said, stating that Moscow intended to give Abkhazia the equivalent of about €165 million in 2015.

Mr Khadzhimba told his host that Russia and Abkhazia were entering “a new stage in our relations.”

The sub-tropical province of palm-fringed beaches and dilapidated villages, sitting in the shadow of the Caucasus mountains, broke from Tbilisi’s rule in a bloody early-1990s war. Russia recognised its independence along with another separatist region, South Ossetia, after a brief war with Georgian forces in 2008.

Only Nicaragua, Venezuela and Nauru – a tiny island republic in the South Pacific – have followed suit, with western powers and even all the ex-Soviet republics refusing to acknowledge the sovereignty of the provinces, which now host thousands of Moscow’s troops.

Russia strengthened its hold over the province this summer, when street protests prompted an early election that was won by Mr Khadzhimba who – like Mr Putin – served as a Soviet KGB officer.

The deal stoked fears in western capitals and Russia’s pro-EU neighbours over Moscow’s drive to reassert influence in its former empire, coming just eight months after it annexed the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea from Ukraine.

Georgia’s foreign minister Tamar Beruchashvili called the pact “a step towards annexation of Abkhazia by the Russian Federation” which would “have a negative impact on the security situation in Georgia’s occupied territories as well as in the broader context of European security”.

Nato’s secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg said the “so-called treaty…violates Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and blatantly contradicts the principles of international law…and Russia’s international commitments.”

Brussels and Washington condemned and refused to recognise a pact that has also increased friction in Georgia, where the main opposition party accuses the government of seeking to appease Russia and failing to create strong policies on integration with the West and on “reintegrating” Abkhazia and South Ossetia.