On March 18, 2018, Russian President Vladimir Putin won re-election for his fourth non-consecutive term in office with 77% of the vote. Russia’s latest presidential elections took place all over the vast Eurasian state, giving Russian speaking people across 11 time zones the chance to participate in their country’s political process. Apart from Russian residents, hundreds of thousands of Russian citizens living outside of the country’s borders voted at Russia’s diplomatic missions abroad.
According to the Washington Post, votes for Putin by Russians in NATO countries increased in total by 47% from 2012 to 2018. In Germany, which is home to one of the largest Russian immigrant populations, the number of votes for Putin in the last elections nearly tripled, to 27,503 — or 82% of the number of valid ballots cast (from 10,883 votes in 2012).
Despite the staggering amount of votes for Putin in Germany, the European economic powerhouse is not home to the most pro-Putin Russian immigrant population. In Abkhazia, a disputed territory located on the eastern coast of the Black Sea, Putin received 39,427 votes – 94.1% of all ballots cast. The latest Russian presidential election results in Abkhazia serve as a mirror of Russian foreign policy in frozen conflict areas in its “near abroad”.
What is Abkhazia?
Abkhazia is a disputed territory located south of the Greater Caucasus mountains on the eastern coast of the Black Sea. The self-proclaimed Republic of Abkhazia is recognized as a sovereign state only by four member states of the United Nations: Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela and the bird-dung covered island of Nauru. Georgia, as well as the majority of other UN member states, consider Abkhazia a sovereign territory of the Georgian state and to be under Russian military occupation.
Historically, Russian military strategists considered Abkhazia a vital strategic territory in order to keep the Ottoman forces from encroaching on Russian-controlled parts of the Caucasus. After serving as a pro-Russian, politically autonomous “buffer zone” for decades, Abkhazia was fully incorporated into the Russian Empire in 1864.
After the revolution of 1917, the short-lived Socialist Soviet Republic of Abkhazia was created. However, just a few years later, in 1931, the territory of Abkhazia was subsumed in the existing Georgian Socialist Soviet Republic. After 1931, Abkhazia existed as an autonomous republic within the Georgian SSR. In practice, this meant that Abkhazia was under the control of Georgia, but, at the same time, enjoyed a relatively high degree of autonomy: it was allowed to use its national symbols, national army units and it had its own constitution.
Despite occasional skirmishes between the Abkhaz and the Georgians – the first large-scale protest against the Soviet central authorities took place there after a government reshuffle in 1931 – the Abkhaz economy prospered. Given its favourable climate, Abkhazia has always been abundant in natural resources and many agricultural products. By the 1930s, Abkhazia supplied up to 50% of all tobacco exports from the USSR. On top of that, products such as tea, wine and citrus fruits were produced on mass scale, which made Abkhazia one the richest regions in the entire Soviet Union.
Moreover, Abkhazia’s location in the subtropical climate zone encouraged Soviet leaders to turn it into a sort of “Soviet Riviera”, with many Soviet leaders, including Stalin, having their dachas (summer houses) built there. This further boosted Soviet tourism into the region and created closer ties between Moscow and Sukhumi, the capital of Abkhazia.
“We used to have so many tourists here. People were coming to spend their holidays here from all over the Soviet Union. It wasn’t just our people though. There were Americans, Australians, Czechs, Germans, everyone. Now the situation is different. We have much less Russians and hardly any foreigners here,” a small souvenir shop owner at the famous lake Ritsa, where Stalin had one of his summer-houses, told us.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the years of shifty Soviet polices of indigenization (Korenizatsiya), whereby certain ethnic groups were supported at the expense of others, resulted in a deep-seated animosity of Abkhazians towards Georgians and vice versa. The mutual suspicion and hatred eventually stoked the fires of a military conflict in 1992.
Easily defeated at first, the Abkhaz forces quickly mobilized enough support from other North Caucasus peoples, including Chechens and Ossetians, who also feared a potential incorporation into the new independent Georgian state, as well as hundreds of volunteer mercenaries from Russia, who gladly joined the fight against the western-leaning Georgian government. After a period of heavy fighting followed by protracted negotiations, in September 1993, Abkhaz separatist militias took the capital of Sukhumi. One year later, Abkhazia’s own constitution was adopted.
And even today, 25 years after the war ended, the animosity that the Abkhazians harbor towards Georgians does not seem to have subsided one bit. Upon our arrival in Sukhumi, the first interaction we had with a local was at a grocery store right by the dilapidated building of the old train station. We were immediately showered by the relentless hospitality so typical for the region. But then, after we asked a seemingly innocent question regarding the proximity of the Abkhaz language to the Georgian one, the smile on the shopkeeper’s face quickly vanished and never returned. “No, no, our language so not similar to Georgian. It is an Indo-European language! Georgia is our enemy,” she said in a cold-blooded manner. The last few minutes we spent at the shop waiting for a cab that she shopkeeper had ordered for us were filled with an awkward silence.
That said, the traces of informal economic activities that were so prevalent in post-war Abkhazia are still very tangible in the self-proclaimed republic. For example, drug trafficking seems to be quite widespread in the region. It is also something that the locals are highly sensitive of. When we decided to venture out of the capital and walk towards the nearest forest, we were quickly stopped by a “police” car that some suspicious local resident had clearly summoned. Before we gathered that the men weren’t just being curious, two other cars pulled over. Serious looking men wearing sun glasses and leather jackets had us empty our bags and pockets. There were looking for drugs. We were also forced to show them all pictures that we took that day. “Why do you take pictures of our houses? Our children live here. Go take pictures somewhere else,” we were told in a threatening voice.
The first post-war presidential elections in Abkhazia were held in October 2004. After the Moscow-supported candidate Raul Khadjimba lost in the elections to Sergei Bahapsh, the results of voting were quickly cancelled by the Supreme Court. In the “second round”, the candidates decided to run jointly, and together they received more than 90% of the votes, according to an article published by the local daily Caucasian Knot at the time.
Russia’s business and security interests
After the war ended, Abkhazia found itself almost completely isolated. Not only did it have to face an economic blockade by Georgia, but whole the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) imposed an embargo in 1996. This made Abkhazia dependent on remittances from Abkhaz workers living in Russia, along with informal economic activities with Russia and Turkey. It was only in the early 2000s, as relations with Georgia began to deteriorate, that Moscow gradually eased its stance towards Abkhazia.
The first Russian statesman to recognize the independence of Abkhazia was Moscow’s former mayor Yuri Luzhkov, who began expanding his business activities in there long before Russia lifted its economic embargo in early 2008. He used to be a frequent guest in Sukhumi, where he would always bring along groups of Russian investors and refer to Georgia as “the aggressor.” Luzhkov’s open support for Abkhazia, motivated by his business interests in the region, eventually led to him being black-listed by the Georgian government.
Despite Luzhkov’s individual initiatives, it was only after the Russo-Georgian war in 2008 that crystallised the animosity between Moscow and Tbilisi, Russia recognized Abkhazia, as well as South Ossetia, as independent states. In the following years, Russia granted generous budget assistance to both entities. Today, pensions and other social benefits are funded largely from the Russian state budget. Similarly, almost 100% of “foreign investments” come from Russia.
According to the BBC Russian Service, since 2009, more than 50% of Abkhaz budget has been financed by Moscow. In the 2009-2016 period, Abkhazia received Rub36,85bn from Russia. These funds go primarily into the construction of apartment houses, building new infrastructure and maintaining the armed forces. In the next two years, Russia will transfer another RUB11.5bn ($183mn) to Abkhazia, according to the finance ministry.
Probably the most important aspect of Abkhaz-Russian economic relations is Abkhazia’s use of the Russian ruble as its currency. This means that the National Bank of the Republic of Abkhazia, the country’s central bank, has almost no influence over the money supply in Abkhazia’s economy. The whole purpose of this banks’ existence is to register commercial banks and provide them with credit.
Militarization and “passportization”
Apart from economic relations with Abkhazia, there are two other elements of Russia’s policy towards the breakaway republic that are widely used in by Moscow in the near abroad: maintaining a military presence in the region and handing out Russian passports to its residents. The two are linked: under the Russian constitution the state is obliged to protect its citizens wherever they are. Giving the locals Russian passports means any move to take back the region by Georgia amounts to an act of war against Russia.
Not long after the non-Russian international military presence disappeared from Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Moscow established military bases in both regions. In doing so, Russia simply applied its traditional model. By establishing a military presence in a region, Russia assumes a key role in the respective “peace process”. It then helps to strengthen the separatist army, which serves as a guarantor of whatever political power structure springs into existence with Moscow’s backing. Russia’s military involvement thus creates the external conditions for state structures in a contested region to develop. This, in turn, creates a dependency of the newly established local power structure on its parent state. The same model has been applied in the other disputed territories of Transnistria and South Ossetia.
There are several ways into the country, which the power asymmetry in the Russian-Abkhaz relations manifests itself. Arguably, one of the key functions of any independent state is the control of its own borders. When crossing the Russian-Abkhaz border, it becomes obvious that Abkhazia does very little controlling there. Citizens of countries that do not recognize Abkhazia, which is the majority of them, usually get thoroughly interrogated at the Russian side of the border. Once this process is over, the Abkhaz side merely stamps your invitation letter, no questions asked.
On top of Russia’s military presence in Abkhazia, Moscow has been distributing Russian passports to its mostly Russian-speaking residents. First tested in Transnitria in 2002, the so called “passportization” has been applied in both South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Although there is an aspect of political control contained in this policy, it is also the only way for people from those regions to travel abroad, as most of the international community doesn’t recognize the regime’s Abzhazian passports.
“When we were part of the Soviet Union, I was travelling all the time. Not just in Russia but even in Europe. Now it’s impossible to leave the country. Fortunately, I was given a Russian passport which allows me to travel. Or at least in theory. The only problem now is the lack of money,” a former employee of the Soviet Ministry of Education, now selling coconuts and avocados at the outside market in Sukhumi told us.
There are around 240,000 people living in Abkhazia today, and 135,000 of them have dual Abkhaz-Russian citizenship. Apart from being able to freely travel to places that other Russian passport holders can go to, those Abkhaz residents can also vote in all Russian elections.
According to the Russian information agency Tass, 42 000 Abkhaz-Russian citizens voted in the last presidential elections. And an overwhelming majority, namely 94.1%, voted for Putin.
Situation on the ground
Considering the level of political, military and economic dependence of Abkhazia on Russia, it is hardly a surprise that most Russian passport holders living in the breakaway republic support the current Russian regime. By many ethnic Abkhazians, Russia is seen as the ultimate guarantor of their independence, even if it means giving up most of that very same independence to Moscow.
But, for many Abkhazians, the admiration for Putin can’t be explained simply by Russia’s security guarantees. It goes far deeper than that. When Putin describes the collapse of the Soviet Union as a great disaster, the Abkhazians tend to ascribe it to his desire to recreate it. Whatever Putin actually means by such announcements, upon hearing these words, many older Abkhazians automatically look to the past.
Today’s Abkhazia is only an impoverished remnant of the once booming “Soviet Riviera”. People that used to hold middle-class occupations in Soviet institutions now sell fruits and vegetables at outdoor markets. Sanatoriums and other health facilities once packed with Soviet and international visitors are now largely abandoned. The Abkhaz-Russians want the good old times back, and they believe that Putin is the right man for the job.