A year and a half after recognition of Abkhazia by Moscow, the region “is undoubtedly more dependent than ever on Moscow,” a Brussels-based think tank, International Crisis Group (ICG), said in its report released on February 26.
The report reviews key developments in Abkhazia after its recognition by Russia and analyses the economic, political situation in the region, as well as its external relations, issues related to media, population and Russia’s military build up following the August war.
Officials in Sokhumi do not see their increasing dependence on Russia as a threat, according to the report titled “Abkhazia: Deepening Dependence”.
Citing unnamed high-ranking Abkhaz official, the report says that Sokhumi considers security and economy as two major concerns. “Our relationship with Russia meets our needs in both areas. We have the amount of independence that we require,” the official was quoted.
Although Russian officials have given various figures, from 1,700 to 3,700, for their troop numbers in Abkhazia, the report says that according to western military analysts with access to satellite imagery, estimated number of Russian troops is from 4,000 to 5,000, including coast guard units, border guard forces of Federal Security Service (FSB) and regular troops. ICG said it had obtained these figures from western military officials and western European intelligence sources in September, 2009 and in January, 2010, respectively.
The Bombora airbase near the town of Gudauta, which is the largest military airfield in South Caucasus, is central to Moscow’s plans for its long-term military presence, according to the report. The airbase is important because of its location along the Black Sea and lengthy runway that can handle heavy payload military cargo craft.
The breakaway region’s budget was 60% directly supported by Russia in 2009 and in 2010, although the monetary figure of Russia’s support to Abkhazia’s budget will remain the same, there will be fall in percentage terms to 49% - 1.9 billion rubles (USD 63 million) out of a total budget of 3.875 billion rubles (USD 128.5 million).
“It remains uncertain, given their military and economic dependence on Moscow, how much room for independent manoeuvre the de facto authorities in Sukhumi have to deal with Georgia,” the report says.
ICG recommends the Georgian authorities to show constructiveness and not to try to isolate Abkhazia, “even though Moscow’s flouting of the ceasefire agreements makes this a bitter pill to swallow.” The report notes that the Georgian government’s new strategy towards its breakaway regions “partly reflects new thinking.” Sokhumi has strongly rejected the strategy.
ICG called on Sokhumi to reconsider its outright rejection of the document as “Abkhazians could clearly benefit from some of the economic and trade proposals [of the document], which could lead in turn to further development and an end to isolation.”
“But at the same time, Tbilisi should focus on taking practical steps to make these projects possible without linking them to status,” the report reads.
The report also warns that with the conflict remaining unresolved it may “again destabilise the southern Caucasus.”