Russia’s brutal war against Ukraine expands Moscow’s “separatist empire.” But it also puts tremendous pressure on Georgia’s occupied territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Prospects of economic development are bleak, while dependence on Moscow will only grow bringing Russian demands on sale of lands and infrastructure in Abkhazia.
When a new Russian invasion against Ukraine began in late February, following the decision to recognise the independence of two separatist entities in Donbas, the prospects for Abkhazia and South Ossetia seemed propitious. The invasion plan was assumed to be a well-prepared campaign that would end in a devastating blow to Ukraine. Moreover, the expansion of Russia’s separatist empire was also considered in Sokhumi and Tskhinvali as a positive sign. Russia was building a new order and the chances that Abkhazia and South Ossetia would be getting larger recognition, for a moment, seemed more realistic.
Despite these high hopes, the opposite happened. Russian moves proved Moscow has no regard for separatist entities except for using them for military plans. The arguments, believed by many in the West, that Russian moves in Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014 were (at least partially) motivated by fears of Russian speakers being oppressed turned out to be false. Moreover, claims that NATO was an instigator of rivalry with Russia by drawing Georgia and Ukraine into the alliance likewise proved inaccurate.
The 2022 invasion showed that there was a different mentality that dominated the Russian elite when it was making a fatal decision. In Russia imperial vision has never faded. Side-lined for some time following the Soviet collapse it resurfaced with new force in 2010s. It is now clear that the second war with Ukraine is nothing but an attempt to build a territorial empire.
Russia has faced an unexpected resistance. And not only from the Ukrainian people, but from the liberal order. Weakened and denigrated by many as a historical relic no longer applicable to the realities of the 2020s, the order has once again showed its vitality and ability to re-emerge as a concept still dear to many. And this is where the hopes of Abkhazia and South Ossetia seem unrealistic. Russia’s sprawling separatist empire is ever more difficult to govern. Too many players and too many needs, both military and economic put pressure on Moscow financially.
From February 2022 there are simply too many separatist entities supported by Russia. This lessens the chances for Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Few if any, especially amid the global condemnation against Russia, would support recognising Abkhazia and South Ossetia, plus the two Donbas entities.
But arguably the biggest problem for Georgia’s occupied territories is the economic situation. Even before the invasion, the Covid-19 pandemic undermined the fragile balance Abkhazia and South Ossetia depended upon. Global recession coupled with particularly poorly handled pandemic in Russia hit the separatist territories. Abkhaz and South Ossetian leaders often had a hard time extracting money from their superiors in the Kremlin. Russian politicians too were increasingly unwilling to commit finances to the ever-growing predatory elites in the separatist territories.
With the second invasion of Ukraine, Russia has now come under an unprecedented range of Western sanctions. Its economy is set to plummet in the coming by the yearend if not in the next several months. Seeming stability of the ruble is very much illusory.
Dependent on Russia, the economic situations in Abkhazia and South Ossetia will deteriorate. Russian tourists might visit Abkhazia this summer in much bigger numbers, but whatever scant financial aid Sokhumi will be getting, it will be contingent upon meeting specific Russian demands. And those are some big demands by Abkhaz standards. Moscow wants land and critical infrastructure of the region be legally available for purchasing by Russians. Allowing it equals Abkhazia losing whatever minimal semblance of autonomy it still enjoys from Moscow.
Moscow has already indicated that it will be less willing to finance Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In early March in an interview with state-affiliated TASS news agency, Russian Deputy Economy Minister Dmitry Volvach argued that it is time that the two regions become more independent from Moscow’s aid.
The situation with the South Ossetia is different. It has a much smaller array of what it can offer to Russia. In fact, its geographic position is the only advantage the region has. Thence comes, in a striking difference with Abkhazia, Tskhinvali’s occasional attempts to seek to unification with Russia.
Thus, the long-term picture seems less promising. The two separatist regions hoping for economic development will be heavily impacted by unfolding crisis in Russia. Perhaps in Abkhazia this will once again engender talks on some kind of economic rapprochement with Tbilisi. The Abkhaz leader Aslan Bzhania has long argued that trade relations and some kind of political dialogue with Tbilisi will be helpful. The opposition is against it constantly threatening unrest and violence.
The fate of the two separatist regions is closely linked to Russia. This is seen as a boon in terms of security, but also as a huge liability when it comes to the economic stability of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Ramifications will be wide-ranging. Corruption and ever decrepit infrastructure will hamper the two territories’ development. In a way, for Tbilisi it is an opportunity. In the longer run some kind of talks could be entertained with Sokhumi. Contingent upon Georgia’s internal economic development, Tbilisi could become more attractive for ordinary Abkhazians and Ossetians. Some experience in that regard is already there. Before 2020 and especially following the pandemic, Georgian medical services have attracted numerous residents from the two territories. Similarly, education sector with a wide-ranging state-sponsored incentives also has attracted a large pool of future students.
This article was also published at Caucasus Watch