The de facto authorities in the breakaway Georgian republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia have expressed concern and outrage over the implications of the Swiss-mediated compromise between Georgia and Russia that paves the way for Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO). Whether they can thwart the signing and implementation of that agreement is doubtful, however.
The compromise agreement partly meets Georgia’s long-standing demand for monitoring the traffic of goods between the Russian Federation and the two breakaway regions. Russia formally recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states in the wake of Georgia’s disastrous attempt in August 2008 to bring South Ossetia back under its control by military force. The Swiss-mediated agreement reportedly envisages the deployment at both ends of “trade corridors” across Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and at the Zemo Larsi border crossing between the Russian Federation and Georgia, of international monitors from a private company. (Tbilisi had long insisted on the deployment of Georgian customs officials at those border crossings.) The international monitors will report their findings to a “third party” — presumably Switzerland — which will then relay them to both Moscow and Tbilisi.
Georgia joined the WTO in 2000, thereby acquiring the right to veto membership applications from other countries, including Russia. Since at least 2004, Georgia has used that veto right as leverage in its protracted standoff with Moscow.
In 2004, Georgia pegged its approval of Russia’s WTO membership bid to the deployment of Georgian customs officers to check goods transiting the border crossings between the Russian Federation and the republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which had broken free of Tbilisi’s control in the early 1990s, and on the lifting of a Russian ban on imports of Georgian wine and mineral water. Tbilisi dropped the latter condition in July 2007.
In early 2008, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili said tentative agreement had been reached with Moscow on setting up joint border-crossing and customs points, including on Russia’s borders with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but the Russian Foreign Ministry promptly denied this. Tbilisi suspended talks with Russia two months later in retaliation for then-President Vladimir Putin’s orders to the Russian government to institutionalize contacts with the de facto leaderships of the two breakaway regions. The entire negotiating process was then frozen following the August 2008 war that precipitated Moscow’s recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states. Formal talks were resumed only in March 2011.
The Swiss compromise proposal, which is due to be signed in Geneva on November 9, does not envisage the deployment of monitors on the territory of either Abkhazia or South Ossetia. Even before the details of the compromise agreement were made public, de facto Abkhaz Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Chirikba told the Russian news agency Regnum that “Abkhazia will not tolerate any monitors on its territory, that would be a violation of our country’s sovereignty.” De facto President Eduard Kokoity similarly said South Ossetia would never allow international monitors access to its borders. The South Ossetian Foreign Ministry for its part affirmed that the republic, as a sovereign state, bases its trade relations with Russia on international law and does not consider the deployment of international or other monitors either necessary or permissible.
The most vociferous reaction to date, however, has come from two Abkhaz opposition parties. The Forum of National Unity of Abkhazia headed by defeated presidential hopeful Raul Khadjimba issued a statement on November 7 saying the Russian-Georgian agreement constitutes “an attempt to sabotage Abkhazia’s independent status and sovereignty” and “poses a threat to the national security of the Abkhaz state.” The statement further predicted that it will seriously damage Abkhaz-Russian relations.
The war veterans union Aruaa similarly expressed concern that “under the pretext of carrying out international monitoring, Georgia is trying to establish control over the state borders of Abkhazia and South Ossetia” as a first step toward downgrading Abkhazia’s independent status.
Both groups urged the republic’s new leadership under President Aleksandr Ankvab to “take appropriate measures” to defend Abkhaz sovereignty. But however loudly the opposition may scream blue murder, the authorities in both republics have little choice but to accept Russia’s perceived stab in the back as the price for its continued financial support and military protection.