May 30, 2014 | 18:09 GMT

4 mins read

Russia Turns Its Attention to Abkhazia and Georgia

Russia Turns Its Attention to Abkhazia and Georgia

Russia is facing two delicate situations in Georgia: a political crisis in the breakaway republic of Abkhazia and the Georgian national government's plans to integrate with the West. At a time when the United States and the European Union are seriously challenging Moscow in its former Soviet periphery, particularly in the Black Sea region, passivity in Russia's near abroad is too risky for Russian President Vladimir Putin. Georgia is likely to be a primary arena for Moscow to push back against the West. 

Abkhazia has been in political crisis since May 27, when several thousand demonstrators gathered near the presidential office in the capital of Sukhumi protesting alleged corruption by the Abkhazian government. Protesters then broke into the presidential office and demanded the resignation of President Alexander Ankvab and the entire Abkhazian government. These demonstrations were led by the Coordinating Council, an umbrella group of opposition political parties. Opposition leader and head of the Forum of People's Unity Raul Khadjimba took the lead in calling for Ankvab's resignation. Ankvab called the demonstrations and storming a "coup attempt" and has refused to resign.

These developments have caused significant concerns for Russia, which maintains a military presence in Abkhazia and is Sukhumi's dominant political and financial backer. In response to the events, Moscow dispatched Russian presidential aide Vladislav Surkov and Russian Security Council Deputy Secretary Rashid Nurgaliyev to hold talks with both the Abkhazian government and the opposition. These talks are ongoing but have so far not produced an agreement. Meanwhile, the opposition continues to occupy the presidential office and has announced the formation of an alternative government that will not dissolve until Ankvab steps down.

Georgia and Russia

Georgia and Russia

In the meantime, there are also growing signs of instability in Georgia proper. Clashes occurred May 28 between supporters of the ruling Georgian Dream party and the opposition United National Movement in the town of Gardabani, located around 40 kilometers (25 miles) south of Tbilisi. The clashes reportedly involved hundreds of people, with young ethnic Azeris primarily making up the United National Movement side. They spurred an intervention by Georgian police forces, though no one was hurt or seriously injured. Authorities are investigating the incident.

Such contention has been on the rise between the Georgian Dream and the United National Movement over the past year, ever since the Georgian Dream ended former Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili and his party's decadelong monopoly on power in parliamentary and subsequent presidential elections. These tensions have peaked ahead of local elections, scheduled for June 15, with the opposition accusing Georgian Dream of undermining its campaign efforts and Georgian Dream officials cautioning the opposition against planning a "Euromaidan scenario" to unseat the government.

This all comes as Georgia has been making serious efforts to integrate further with the West, including plans to sign key EU association and free trade agreements June 27. Georgia's Western orientation has long put it at odds with Russia, as demonstrated most keenly in the 2008 Russo-Georgian War. However, relations saw a temporary warming during the beginning of the Georgian Dream administration, with the reopening of economic ties and talks of further cooperation in key areas like energy and transport.

However, the crisis in Ukraine has dramatically shifted Russia's position toward its former Soviet periphery and any efforts these states make to get closer to the West. Georgia is no exception. Tbilisi's continued efforts to integrate with the European Union and NATO are a key source of concern for Russia. There have been some pro-Russian and anti-Western protests in Georgia, but these have so far been very small, as Russia does not have the same kind of cultural influence and political support in Georgia as it does in Ukraine. However, the increasingly contentious splits between the United National Movement and Georgian Dream have given Russia an opportunity to exacerbate these divisions to spur instability in Georgia and possibly throw the country's EU integration off track.

It is notable that the opposition movement that has emerged in neighboring Abkhazia has called for the breakaway territory to strengthen its relationship with Russia and join the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union just as Georgia is trying to get closer to the European Union. The contention in Abkhazia does not pose a threat to Russia in a foreign policy sense — both the government and the opposition have reaffirmed their strong orientation toward Moscow. While presenting a concern for Russia in terms of short-term instability, the crisis in Abkhazia offers Moscow an opportunity to get more involved in Abkhazian affairs, and potentially to increase its security and military presence there and send a warning for Georgia not to get too close to the West. Russia has beefed up its Black Sea Fleet recently, and Georgia is deeply concerned about such developments, as demonstrated by Georgian Foreign Minister Maia Panjikidze's May 30 meeting with U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns.

Ultimately, it is imperative for Russia to keep its former Soviet periphery firmly within its orbit, or at the very least neutralized and out of the Western camp. Therefore, Russia can be expected to increase its attention and activity in Georgia — not only to undermine Tbilisi's drive for Western integration, but also to send a message to surrounding countries such as Azerbaijan and Turkey that despite setbacks in Ukraine, Russia is still a regional force to be reckoned with.

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