#34 - JRL 2009-149 - JRL Home
Moscow Times
August 13, 2009
Putin Promises More Aid to Abkhazia
By Nikolaus von Twickel / The Moscow Times

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin promised military protection and additional financial aid to the separatist leadership of Abkhazia on Wednesday during a one-day visit to the breakaway republic that infuriated Tbilisi.

Putin is the highest-ranking Russian official to visit Abkhazia since the Black Sea region broke away from Georgia in the early 1990s. His trip came on the anniversary of the end of the five-day Russia-Georgia war last year that resulted in Moscow’s decision to recognize the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, another breakaway Georgian region.

“Russia provides and will provide systemic economic, political and, if needed, military support” to Abkhazia, Putin told reporters Wednesday at a news conference with Abkhaz leader Sergei Bagapsh in the Abkhaz capital, Sukhumi.

Putin promised that his government would spend nearly $350 million to assist in the social and economic development of Abkhazia in 2010 and 2011.

Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov, who accompanied Putin to Sukhumi, said Russia would increase the number of troops deployed in the region from the current 1,700 to over 3,600 by the end of the year.

Georgian officials reacted to Putin’s visit with a fury similar to when President Dmitry Medvedev visited South Ossetia last month.

“He has illegally crossed the Georgian border, and this is by all means a criminal act,” Giorgy Kandelaki, the deputy head of the Georgian parliament’s International Affairs Committee, told The Moscow Times.

After its recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent, Moscow has signed numerous military and economic agreements with their leaders. The only other country that has recognized the two maverick regions is Nicaragua.

“To tell you the truth, Abkhazia doesn’t need any recognition other than by Russia,” Putin said Wednesday.

He added that Moscow had not expected any other country to follow its lead and recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

In an interview with Abkhaz media published on the government’s web site Wednesday, Putin said “15 to 16 billion rubles” (almost $500 million) would be spent on boosting Abkhazia’s border defenses and military bases on its territory.

In a treaty signed with Abkhazia and South Ossetia in March, Moscow acquired the right to protect both regions’ borders with Georgia.

The Defense Ministry has said it will open a base in Gudauta, in western Abkhazia, by late 2010.

Putin suggested in the interview that the Abkhaz people should be able to move freely across the border to Georgia, saying that Russia was not creating fortresses.

“This won’t be a Maginot Line,” Putin said, referring to the fortification system built by France along its border with Germany after World War I. “It is the creation of a modern border so that [the Abkhaz people] can move freely both to Georgia and to Russia.”

Few Abkhaz have traveled to Georgia since the republic severed all ties with Tbilisi after a vicious war in 1993, when almost the entire ethnic Georgian population of 250,000 fled from the region.

Tensions have been rising over the past weeks along the de facto borders between the regions and Georgia proper, raising concerns that another conflict could be sparked easily.

In the interview, Putin accused Tbilisi of continued brinkmanship. “With today’s Georgian leadership, you cannot rule anything out,” he said when asked if there would be a repeat of last year’s war.

Bagapsh said Wednesday that Abkhazia was a firm ally of Russia in the Caucasus, and Putin promised not to interfere in Abkhazia’s domestic politics. Most Abkhaz residents carry Russian passports.

Speaking to Bagapsh in Sukhumi, Putin promised that Russia would fulfill its financial obligations for the next three years despite the crisis.

“I want to stress that all plans made during our last meeting in Sochi will be met regardless of the [economic] difficulties,” he said.

European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana offered some support to Tbilisi on Wednesday, stressing that the 27-member bloc does not recognize the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

“We encourage all sides to continue being engaged in a constructive manner in the Geneva [peace talks],” his spokeswoman Cristina Gallach told The Moscow Times in a text message.

Russia, Georgia and the two separatist republics have been holding the talks in Geneva since the August war.

Gallach also pointed to a statement from Solana on the anniversary of the start of the war last week, which said an EU monitoring mission has “contributed to the maintenance of peace, security and stability in the region.”

Last year’s cease-fire, brokered by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose country held the rotating EU presidency, includes a 250-member civilian monitoring mission to borders of the breakaway republics.

Yet Russia and the two republics have refused to let the EU monitors into the territories. And Moscow this year vetoed two other monitoring missions in the region, staffed by the United Nations in Abkhazia and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in South Ossetia.

Meanwhile, Kandelaki, the Georgian lawmaker, expressed hope that the Abkhaz people were growing wary about Moscow’s increased clout in their territory.

“We can see from reactions inside that they are not entirely happy about becoming a Russian province,” he said.

Recent Georgian and Russian media reports have identified tensions about Russian companies buying Abkhaz property and local border guards resisting plans to be replaced by Russians.

Putin on Wednesday encouraged Russian businessmen to invest in Abkhazia.

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