Russian President Vladimir Putin riled Georgia on August 8 by travelling to the breakaway region of Abkhazia where he reassured Abkhaz counterpart Raul Khajimba of continued Kremlin military and economic support.
Putin’s visit to the contested region – de facto independent but still an internationally recognised part of Georgia – coincided with the nine-year anniversary of the 2008 Russo-Georgian war over the separatist region of South Ossetia. It was condemned by the Georgian government as a “cynical action”.
“The most important thing is that we have entirely special relations with Abkhazia,” news agencies reported Putin as saying as he met with Khajimba in the Black Sea resort of Pitsunda. He reportedly added: “We reliably guarantee the security, self-sufficiency, and independence of Abkhazia. I am sure that will continue to be the case.”
While visiting Tbilisi last week, US Vice President Mike Pence reaffirmed Washington’s support for Georgia’s territorial integrity and condemned Russia’s “aggression” and “occupation” of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Responding to Putin’s arrival in Abkhazia, Nato put out a statement saying the Russian leader’s trip was “detrimental to international efforts to find a peaceful and negotiated settlement.” The statement added: “Nato is united in full support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia within its internationally recognised borders. We will not recognise any attempts to change the status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as regions of Georgia.”
Both Abkhazia and South Ossetia self-proclaimed their independence from Georgia, but both are highly reliant on the Kremlin for military defence and financial backing.
During the visit, Putin and Khajimba discussed the formation of a joint Abkhaz-Russian military contingent in Abkhazia; Russia operates a total of nine military bases in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. At a press conference, Putin also said that Russia and Abkhazia needed to find ways to grow the region’s economy and create jobs, and that these matters would be a topic of discussions during his visit.
In the outskirts of Georgian capital Tbilisi, a wreath laying ceremony at a military cemetery marked the commemoration of the war. After paying tribute to soldiers who fell in the conflict, Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili told journalists that the Georgian government is “building a united, strong, prosperous, democratic, truly European Georgia in order to make it a common home for Georgians, Abkhaz, and [South] Ossetians,” RFE/RL reported.
Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili, who also attended the cemetery commemoration, added: “No Georgian will ever tolerate the [Russian] occupation.”
The Georgian foreign ministry said in a statement that Putin’s visit to Abkhazia “serves for legitimisation of the forceful change of borders of the sovereign state through military aggression, ethnic cleansing, and occupation.”
Putin and Khajimba’s talks also came shortly after two separate incidents that resulted in the death of three Russian tourists in Abkhazia in July-August and damaged tourism prospects. Russians often take cheap breaks in Abkhazia as they require no visa to go there and the Russian ruble is used as the region’s currency.
Khajimba is facing a storm of criticism at home for the poor performance of the economy and a reported breakdown in law and order, which has resulted in an increase in crime, including a substantial amount targeted at tourists. Demands for his resignation have multiplied in recent months, after a referendum last year calling for early presidential elections was so poorly organised that it was declared invalid.
According to RFE/RL, after the talks Putin said that he was considering easing controls and customs procedures at the Abkhaz border to encourage more tourism and bilateral trade.