Thursday, May 29, 2014

Window on Eurasia: Moscow Must Force Abkhaz Leader to Talk with the Opposition, Moscow Commentator Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, May 29 – As unwelcome as the crisis in Abkhazia is for the Russian government given its focus on Ukraine, a Moscow commentator says, the Kremlin has no choice but to intervene and force Aleksandr Ankvab to enter into dialogue with the opposition. If it doesn’t, the problems in Abkhazia will spread to South Osetia and other places as well.

                But while Yevgeny Krutikov does not say so, the risks of doing so are also high: if Moscow does act to force Abkhazian President Aleksandr Ankvab to begin talks with the opposition, it is likely to spark other opposition groups in other places, including within Russia, to try to exploit Moscow as an ally against incumbents (

            And that in turn opens the door to what could prove to be a highly destabilizing trend both directly where Moscow might take such steps and elsewhere where incumbent regimes have assumed that they can count on the unqualified support of the Russian government for their national or regional parties of power.

            Moscow commentators are still struggling to find a word for what is occurring in Abkhazia, Krutikov says, with some suggesting it is a revolution; others, a revolt; and still a third group seeing the hand of the Russian government behind it.  But it is critically important not to become fixated on the term but rather focus on what is actually occurring.

            Were anyone to begin to talk about the Abkhazian events as “’a color revolution,’” that in and of itself would determine how Moscow would react and almost certainly guarantee mistakes. The reality on the ground in Abkhazia is both sufficiently complicated and sufficiently well-known to avoid that.

            Unlike in South Osetia, he continues, there exist in Abkhazia at the present time various “mechanisms of public discussion” beyond the formal parliamentary system, including “archaic-democratic public assemblies, an opposition press, and various movements, associations and interest clubs.

            In Abkhazia, “no one prepared anything in secret, no one planned overthrows or actions involving force.” Everything was discussed quite openly, something that the Moscow “’curators’” of that republic should have noticed, prepared for, and even countered when necessary.

            But unfortunately, they didn’t. Instead, these people have become accustomed to deal with Abkhazia (and South Osetia too) as if they were the same as the Moscow oblast.  And that attitude has intensified in recent months because Moscow has been focused almost exclusively on Ukraine and not looking after its interests elsewhere as closely.

            Not surprisingly, Krutikov continues, “the Abkhaz and South Osetian ruling elites have effectively exploited this” for their own purposes.  In this regard, he says, Aleksandr Ankvab and Leonid Tibilov [of South Osetia] and their entourages are little different from Viktor Yanukovich,” the ousted president of Ukraine. They even use the same PR firms.

            The current explosions in Abkhazia reflect that and the authoritarian and high-handed style of the Abkhaz president. He hasn’t talked seriously with other Abkhazians and that has led to the emergence of what Krutikov calls “a critical mass” of anger among the population. The explosion was sparked by fears that the approaching tourist season will be a bad one.

                “Everyone saw this, including Akvab and Moscow, but no one did anything,” the Russian commentator says. “Both the one and the other did nothong because they did not want to and they couldn’t.”

            If one can understand why Ankvab thought he could get away with that, Moscow’s failure is hard to justify.  There is a mass of Russian officials overseeing Abkhazia and South Osetia, but none of them sounded any alarm or even reflected an understanding that the Abkhaz opposition has some reasonable demands or that Ankvab has been playing Moscow.

            The reason is that these officials assumed that everything was all right because they had done everything right and that their superiors are entirely focused on Ukraine. Now that a crisis has broken out, these officials have to do something.  Desiring stability, their natural reaction is to dig in and “tighten the screws” but that could make the situation worse.

            Such a conclusion is all the more justified because of rapidly approaching elections in South Osetia. There, the problems are not as acute as in Abkhazia because the opposition is not as well organized. But elections, which promise a redistribution of government portfolios, could lead to its formation if Abkhazia is mishandled.

            “It is difficult to imagine,” Krutikov concludes, “a situation emerging in which Moscow will lose control” over these two republics.  They are simply too important geopolitically for that to be allowed, but the Russian government’s approach to the current troubles is at the very least worrisome and “unprofessional.”  It must be changed.

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