09TBILISI112, GEORGIA: ABKHAZIA-RUSSIA — THE HONEYMOON IS

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Reference ID Created Released Classification Origin
09TBILISI112 2009-01-21 13:46 2011-08-30 01:44 CONFIDENTIAL Embassy Tbilisi

VZCZCXRO1465
OO RUEHFL RUEHKW RUEHLA RUEHNP RUEHROV RUEHSR
DE RUEHSI #0112/01 0211346
ZNY CCCCC ZZH
O 211346Z JAN 09
FM AMEMBASSY TBILISI
TO RUCNDT/USMISSION USUN NEW YORK IMMEDIATE 4763
RUEHVEN/USMISSION USOSCE IMMEDIATE 2242
RUEHBS/USEU BRUSSELS IMMEDIATE
RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC IMMEDIATE 0811
INFO RUEHZL/EUROPEAN POLITICAL COLLECTIVE PRIORITY
RUEHBJ/AMEMBASSY BEIJING PRIORITY 0170

C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 03 TBILISI 000112 
 
SIPDIS 
 
DEPT FOR EUR/CARC 
 
E.O. 12958: DECL: 01/21/2019 
TAGS: PGOV PREL MOPS KBTS RU GG
SUBJECT: GEORGIA: ABKHAZIA-RUSSIA -- THE HONEYMOON IS 
DEFINITELY OVER 
 
REF: A. 08 TBILISI 1861 
     B. 09 TBILISI 97 
     C. 08 TBILISI 2071 
     D. 08 TBILISI 2458 
 
Classified By: Ambassador John F. Tefft for Reasons 1.4 (b) and (d). 
 
1. (C) Summary and comment.  Recent stories from inside 
Abkhazia suggest that the initial euphoria following Russia's 
recognition of Abkhazia's independence has faded, with the 
reality of Russia's all encompassing influence sinking in. 
Russia already wields tremendous influence on the political, 
economic, and military situation in Abkhazia -- and the de 
facto authorities are finding that Russia's goals in those 
areas do not always coincide with their own.  Abkhazia seems 
to want engagement with additional partners, although it is 
so far unwilling to sacrifice either its own perceived 
"sovereignty" or the security it believes it receives from 
Russia.  Nevertheless, the cracks in the Abkhazia-Russia 
partnership are real and are likely to widen into the future. 
 End summary and comment. 
 
WASN'T INDEPENDENCE GRAND? 
 
2. (C) According to the outgoing Deputy Special 
Representative of the UN Secretary General to Georgia, Ivo 
Petrov, the standard joke in Abkhazia these days runs along 
the lines of "Wasn't independence grand?" -- i.e., back 
before Russia recognized independence.  Of course there is 
still a strong sense of pride in having their long years of 
self-proclaimed sovereignty acknowledged, if only by two 
countries.  A recent Muskie Fellowship candidate from 
Abkhazia, who is ethnically Armenian, ultimately refused to 
accept the condition of traveling on a Georgian passport, 
citing her pride in her "country" of Abkhazia.  Nevertheless, 
there lurks an undercurrent of wariness that the current 
arrangement is far from ideal.  A British diplomat who 
recently traveled to Abkhazia with British Ambassador Denis 
Keefe described how everyone they met with, from "president" 
Bagapsh on down, took pains to make clear that Abkhaz and 
Russian interests are not identical; Keefe himself noted that 
"foreign minister" Shamba indicated Abkhaz interest in 
pursuing a "multi-vector" foreign policy. 
 
POLITICAL IMPACT 
 
3. (C) Despite its small size, Abkhaz politics is 
surprisingly complex, and different players have reacted to 
Russia's recognition in different ways.  These differences 
will only amplify as we approach Abkhazia's "presidential" 
elections toward the end of 2009.  According to Petrov and 
Keefe, Shamba -- whom some consider a rival to Bagapsh for 
"president" -- has advocated for a continued UN presence, 
seeing it as an important counterbalance to Russia's 
influence.  Bagapsh seems close to Shamba on the UN question, 
but perhaps not quite as enthusiastic.  Both seemed to Keefe 
to be sincerely interested in engagement with the west -- as 
another counterbalance.  During his meeting with Keefe, 
Bagapsh asked, "Where's (Ambassador) Tefft?"  Secretary of 
the Abkhaz "National Security Council" Lakoba, however, 
described by Petrov as the quintessential Abkhaz hardline 
nationalist, is opposed to becoming too close to Russia or 
the west.  Acording to Petrov, he and other hardliners 
opposed meeting Ambassador Keefe, on the grounds that the UK 
Ambassador to Georgia has no business visiting Abkhazia. 
Both Bagapsh and Shamba made a show of explaining that they 
agreed to meet Keefe only because the UNOMIG mandate is still 
in force, and the Group of Friends of the Secretary General 
Qin force, and the Group of Friends of the Secretary General 
were therefore still welcome.  Bagapsh told Keefe, however, 
that no ambassador accredited only to Georgia would be able 
to visit after the February 15 expiry of the mandate.  Petrov 
thought that Bagapsh was being overly optimistic; he 
described the internal debate over the Keefe meeting as quite 
intense, and suggested permission to enter Abkhazia might not 
be forthcoming for any more Tbilisi-based ambassadors. 
German Ambassador Flor is currently seeking permission to 
make the trip; her attempt will be an interesting test case 
of the struggle between the westernizers and the hardliners. 
 
4. (C) As Petrov has observed before (ref A), Shamba 
continues to insist that a small ethnic group like the Abkhaz 
has a better chance to survive in the context of a large 
country like Russia, where numerous ethnic groups have the 
space to coexist, than in a small country like Georgia. 
Whatever the truth of this logic, it suggests that Shamba, 
for one, implicitly recognizes that Abkhazia's "independence" 
 
TBILISI 00000112  002 OF 003 
 
 
is only a relative concept -- that it really reflects a move 
toward the Russian orbit. 
 
5. (C) Petrov said that, until the war, Bagapsh was weak

politically and destined to lose the next election -- but 
that now he has become stronger, and at this point there is 
no one in a position to challenge him.  Petrov discounted 
assertions that businessman Beslan Butba was a viable 
candidate, saying he did have control over newspapers and 
television, but was an inexperienced politician unused to 
being in the limelight.  He thought Khajimba, whose name has 
also been heard as a possible candidate, did not have the 
necessary charisma.  Although Russia did not back Bagapsh in 
the last election, Petrov thought that to some extent Russian 
President Putin may simply have received bad advice.  By the 
same token, he noted that Russia wants to assert increased 
control over the finances of Abkhazia, and that it may yet 
seek an alternate Abkhaz whom it can control more easily. 
One scenario Petrov raised as a possibility was that Russia 
would offer Bagapsh some alternate position in order to 
remove him from the scene.  Bagapsh's recent criticism of the 
proposed Enguri Hydropower Plant management deal between 
RAO-UES and the Georgian government (ref B) might reflect 
growing cracks between the "president" and his northern 
neighbor. 
 
6. (C) Other issues could become points of political 
contention between Abkhazia and Russia.  On the external 
side, Petrov said that Abkhazia and South Ossetia could be 
encouraged to enter a union treaty with Russia and Belarus -- 
whether they perceive it to be in their self-interest or not. 
 Internally, he said that demographic trends indicate that 
the Armenians will likely assume a greater role within Abkhaz 
society.  Considering their business acumen and existing 
wealth, Petrov thought the Armenians -- who might perceive 
their own interests as closer to those of Russia than the 
Abkhaz -- represented a potential threat to the Abkhaz.  More 
generally, identity issues loom large in Abkhazia, especially 
when it comes to passports.  The de facto authorities 
apparently encourage ethnic Georgians to accept Abkhaz 
"passports," but Abkhazia and Russia have taken initial steps 
toward providing for dual citizenship -- and Petrov suggested 
Russia does not necessarily want to enable ethnic Georgians 
to move to Russia.  Furthermore, the acceptance by Georgians 
of the Abkhaz documents enables them to participate in 
elections -- which in the past election helped Bagapsh win. 
 
ECONOMIC IMPACT 
 
7. (C) Issues of ethnic influence could also become 
contentious in the economic sphere.  Petrov noted that 
workers from Central Asia currently provide a considerable 
portion of the workforce in Abkhazia, but that they generally 
come on a temporary basis.  He said, however, that the Abkhaz 
are concerned that a dual citizenship arrangement with Russia 
would encourage people from the North Caucasus to come and 
settle more permanently, further marginalizing the eponymous 
Abkhaz.  In general, Petrov indicated there is great concern 
that Russia will overwhelm Abkhazia with its economic 
influence.  Right now Abkhaz law forbids land ownership, but 
there is concern that Russian investors will buy up property, 
driving up prices and keeping locals out of the market.  He 
noted that stories continue to circulate about Russian plans 
Qnoted that stories continue to circulate about Russian plans 
to build a city in the north of Abkhazia to support 
preparations for the 2014 Sochi Olympics. 
 
8. (C) Russian economic involvement could of course benefit 
Abkhazia in some ways.  Petrov noted that Russian candy 
companies are looking at Abkhazia as a source for hazel nuts, 
and their demand would far exceed what Abkhazia currently 
produces.  This connection would potentially benefit the 
ethnic Georgian population in Gali, where most Abkhaz hazel 
nuts are produced.  Such investments will likely raise the 
ire of the Georgian government, however, which has passed a 
law theoretically governing economic activities in the 
regions (ref C).  The Russians have already shown themselves 
willing to put practical considerations above political 
principles, much to the ire of the Abkhaz; Georgian Ministery 
of Energy Khetaguri commented that the Enguri Hydropower 
Plant deal will very possibly cause difficulties between the 
Russians and the Abkhaz (ref B). 
 
MILITARY OPERATIONS 
 
9. (C) Information is difficult to come by on the day-to-day 
situation in Abkhazia, especially in those areas occupied by 
 
TBILISI 00000112  003 OF 003 
 
 
Russian and Abkhaz forces.  UNOMIG is constrained in the 
areas it is able to patrol (ref D), and even Petrov was 
hesitant to weigh in.  Our British colleagues heard clearly 
that the Abkhaz very much appreciate the security it 
perceives Russia as providing, and even Georgian government 
officials acknowledge that it will be difficult for any 
potential partner of Abkhazia's to convince the de facto 
authorities to turn their back on this support.  Anecdotal 
reports suggest, however, that Russia is finding that 
maintaining a major military presence in Abkhazia (as well as 
South Ossetia) to be more difficult than it perhaps expected. 
 Recent press reports suggest friction between Russian and 
Abkhaz forces to be on the rise, with some reports suggesting 
the friction rising even to the level of violence and 
shooting.  More consistent are reports that Russian troops in 
Abkhazia are poorly supplied, leading to incidents of looting 
and robbery.  These attacks have apparently been directed at 
both ethnic Georgians and ethnic Abkhaz; MP Paata Davitaia, 
an ethnic Abkhaz from Abkhazia, has noted publicly increasing 
tension in Ochamchire between Russian forces and ethnic 
Abkhaz. 
 
COMMENT: UNEQUAL PARTNERS 
 
10. (C) One of the most interesting tidbits the British 
diplomats heard from the Abkhaz is that Russia's recognition 
of Abkhazia on August 26 came as a complete surprise to the 
Abkhaz themselves.  Bagapsh was on his way to a meeting with 
Russian counterparts when he heard the news, about 20 minutes 
before Russian President Medvedev made his public statement; 
other high-level de facto officials first heard of the 
decision on TV.  Of course the Abkhaz were overjoyed when 
they finally did hear the news, but this rather cavalier 
communication of a major, even existential policy decision to 
a partner suggests to us that Russia sees Abkhazia not as an 
equal member of the international community, but a useful 
tool.  We have been consistently hearing from many 
interlocutors that Abkhazia wants to engage with the outside 
world, and there seem to be good reasons why.  Although 
Abkhazia is unlikely to give up the security and legitimacy 
it believes it receives from Russia in the short term, that 
calculation of Abkhaz interests -- especially among the 
various Abkhaz political groupings -- could change in the 
future. 
TEFFT

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