Abkhazia: Between Regional Geopolitical Dynamics and Domestic Politics. An Interview with Irakli Tuzhba

Irakli Tuzhba, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Abkhazia
Sukhum – Irakli Tuzhba, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Abkhazia (Credits: SpecialEurasia)

Geopolitical Report ISSN 2785-2598 Volume 33 Issue 3
Authors: Silvia Boltuc and Giuliano Bifolchi

Nestled in the picturesque Caucasus region along the shores of the Black Sea, Abkhazia is a small country that holds a remarkably strategic position. Its unique geographical location has placed it at the heart of a tense contraposition between the West and Russia, particularly in the aftermath of the Ukraine conflict.

The country gained official independence in August 2008 when Moscow recognised both Abkhazia and South Ossetia at the conclusion of the “Russo-Georgian Conflict.” Since then, Abkhazia has reemerged into the global spotlight when Ukrainian officials extended invitations and exhorted Georgia to open a second front against Russia, further fuelling the complexities of its geopolitical landscape.

SpecialEurasia met in Sukhum Irakli Tuzhba, Deputy Minister of the Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Abkhazia, to delve into Abkhaz domestic and foreign politics and investigate future developments of the country.

What is the geopolitical role of the Republic of Abkhazia in the regional and Eurasian chessboard?

This is an interesting question. Since we are not a big, we do not have the potentiality to influence the regional geopolitical process. By the way, looking at our historical process, we had a kingdom, a principate, and we were part of the Soviet Union. Despite this, we have a long history and tradition of Abkhazia’s statehood, although different foreign powers have always expressed their interest in our territory.

Therefore, when the interests of two big powers collided in this region, the result was a war which hugely impacted the local population. As you know, in the Middle Age, we also had the Genevese colonies in our territory.

If you consider the current history, we have strong relations with the Russian Federation. Unfortunately, we do not have the same relations with other Western countries, but we are working in this direction.

As you know, currently, interests of foreign powers collide in influencing and controlling the Caucasus. Of course, we would like that these states will find an agreement as soon as possible which might also produce benefits for Abkhazia, especially in the situation of our country, with the ultimate aim of developing our country. Unfortunately, because of the current situation, our country is drifting in this direction.

Today, we have a huge political and economic pressure from the United States and also the European Union. Discussing the Western aid to Abkhazia, it comes in the support’s form of ONU organisations which win EU and U.S. grants to cope with humanitarian problems. When we consider international issues as our recognition, Washington and Brussels are not interested, preferring to focus the attention only on the humanitarian sphere. We are in this situation that we can describe as ‘unfair’ and characterised by the ‘double standard policy’.

In light of my earlier remarks, I can affirm that Abkhazia possesses a limited capacity to influence international processes and geopolitical dynamics. By contrast, the international processes have a huge impact on the Abkhaz internal dynamics and status”.

Looking at the current international situation because of the Ukraine conflict, considering that Russia has significantly supported Abkhaz independence and security, how your country has organised its foreign policy to set or continue relations with Europe?

I mentioned this topic before, but I can analyse deeper to give more information. Currently, we do not have any official relations with the EU institutions because Brussels continues sustaining the territorial integrity of the Republic of Georgia.

As you are aware, within the realm of international law, there are two distinct rights that are mutually exclusive: the right of self-determination and the right of territorial integrity. Regrettably, the West has employed a double standard policy in various situations, whereby the right of self-determination is upheld in some scenarios, while in our circumstance, the West has chosen to prioritise the right of territorial integrity.

Obviously, we refer to Kosovo’s recognition in 2007 as the main precedent in the international law. In the past, during the years of Kosovo’s recognition, we had bilateral negotiations with Georgia and we hosted international representatives from different Western countries. When we asked the reason they recognised Kosovo, they could not give us concrete answers. They assumed that Kosovo was a unique case, although they could not give more information or justification about this ‘uniqueness’.

Talking about the situation Ukraine, we officially support our strategic partner, the Russian Federation. Therefore, because of this decision, the West and the European Union have closed any possibilities of dialogue about our situation and recognition. By the way, the absence of these relations or contacts is not the effect of the Ukraine situation, but the result of 30 years of isolation which Abkhazia has experienced.

In some situations, Brussels enjoys a stronger position than Washington, which can be paradoxical. As an example, when discussing the freedom of movement, Abkhaz individuals are not ensured this right, subsequently limiting the travel opportunities of our youth.

We have a double citizenship, the Abkhaz and the Russian: the Russian passport allows our people to travel the world. Therefore, considering the situation because of Ukraine, currently is more difficult for Abkhaz citizens get the visa to travel in Europe and the West.

By the way, the situation is worsening now and I often underline this problem to the co-chairs of the roundtables of the Geneva international discussion. Indeed, approximately 25%-30% of our people have only one citizenship, the Abkhaz, and they cannot travel the world or apply abroad for a working or studying opportunity.

The issue at hand is cantered on the capacity of these youths to freely travel the world and carry out their daily lives. We ask the international community to recognise our passport as a travel document: there is this possibility and we know that it is easier to obtain this condition than be officially recognised.

Regrettably, we have not yet received a response to our request for the travel document. In the world, there are some concrete examples about this opportunity: for instance, both the United States and the United Kingdom give visas to the citizens who hold only the passport of North Cyprus. Although the U.S. officials have different times denied this, we showed them the evidence we collected Washington has recognised or accepted North Cyprus passport as a travel document useful to obtain the visa.

There are also the cases of Taiwan – Republic of China and, of course, the situation of Kosovo, whose sovereignty is not recognised by five EU members (Spain, Greece, North Cyprus, Slovakia, Romania) even though these countries permit Kosovo citizens to use their passport as a travel document.

On the basis of these experiences, we ask the international community to adopt this practice without asking to create a new condition. Unfortunately, EU countries had adopted a strict stance on this matter, worse that the United States. For instance, today, it is easier to get the U.S. visa than Schengen visa.

In the past, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, we faced the problem that our citizens had only the Soviet passport, which was not accepted anymore. Therefore, when some Abkhaz students had to visit the United States for education purposes, Washington accepted to recognise the Soviet passport to give them the visa. It was something unprecedented, because the U.S. authorities granted Abkhaz citizens of a visa although they had a passport of a country which did not exist anymore. The episode serves as proof that the will to succeed can overcome any problem or obstacle. Today, regrettably, it seems there is no this will.

Recently, Abkhazia agreed on the restoration and modernisation of the Sukhum Airport. How could this infrastructure help the national trade and tourism? Which benefit and challenges are related to this project?

Some few days ago our Parliament ratified the possibility of restoration and modernisation of the Sukhum Airport. For us, noticeably, this infrastructure might open new opportunities and open the country to new tourists. The Sukhum Airport might increase the tourist flow and open a new logistic chain.

The major investors are the Russians because our airport needs a complete modernisation whose costs might be sustained only by the Russian part.

We cannot talk about international flights but only domestic one because of the ICAO’s stance: indeed, the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) does not want to recognise Sukhum Airport as an international infrastructure because for this organisation we are a Georgian airport.

Therefore, the first step was an agreement with our Russian friends and colleagues to establish bilateral flights. Considering that the Russians represent the major tourist flow in Abkhazia, establishing these bilateral flights will produce a significant benefit for our country.

As you experienced when you came to Sukhum, currently it is possible to enter in Abkhazia from Russia only at the Psou border crossing where often there are long queues of people. According to recent statistics, the Abkhaz-Russian border is the most trafficked in the summer. Therefore, opening the airport will decrease the long queue at Psou.

In the future, we hope also to have direct flight to EU member countries. If we want to dream, it will be amazing if you European citizens might reach Abkhazia thanks to a direct flight from their capital, for instance Rome in Italy.”

Map of Abkhazia
The map of the Republic of Abkhazia (Credits: BudelbergerBudelberger, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Could you tell us more about Abkhaz relations with Russia and Turkey, two key actors in the Caucasus?

As I have previously mentioned before, Russia is our strategic partner. Moscow is the major country with whom Abkhazia has socio-economics, politics, commercial and financial relations. We have signed over 200 interstate and intergovernmental agreement with the Russian Federation in different spheres at different levels.

In addition, we also have different agreements with Moscow related to our national security which guarantee peace and stability. As you know, Ukrainian officials as the head of SBU (Security Service of Ukraine) invited Georgia to open a ‘second front’. Georgian opposition, especially the United National Movement, supported the Ukrainian request pressing the Tbilisi government led by Georgian Dream to start a conflict against Abkhazia.

Without our relations and partnership with Russia in security and military sectors, Kyiv’s request to open a second front would have become a reality. Thus, it is evident that Moscow serves as a guarantor of our stability and facilitates our peaceful development.

Turkey has always played a significant role in the Caucasus. In the past, for those who know our regional history, there was a struggle between the Tsarist and Ottoman empires for the control of the Caucasus. Indeed, there were around twelve Russian-Turkish wars to get regional influence.

At present, when discussing political connections, the limitations arise from Ankara’s non-recognition of our republic in contrast to other nations. By contrast, at the unofficial level, we had different contacts with Turkish politicians although they have not led to an important development for Abkhazia.

As I explained before, recognising Abkhazia is a matter which requires great responsibility by the head of a nation because it comprises also the geopolitical dimension. Alas, the Turkish leadership is not mature to recognise Abkhazia at the international level.

I should also underline that we have different contacts and relations with Turkey at the unofficial level. In Turkey live our biggest diaspora, around 500 thousand Abkhaz people who are extremely active in the Turkish domestic politics. As an example, within the Turkish Parliament, there is presently an Abkhaz politician who is capable of representing the needs and aspirations of our diaspora.

In the 90’s, although Abkhazia won the war against Georgia, we experienced a total blockade from neighbouring countries, which made impossible for our people to travel and trade abroad. During this hard period, we survived thanks to Turkey: indeed, we imported from the Turkish market all the products necessary to survive for our population.

In light of the current situation, we do not expect any political progress from Ankara at the international level in the near future.

How would you evaluate the recent 58° round of Geneva international discussions?

We did not achieve a concrete or unique goal in the recent 58° round of Geneva international discussion. Apart from this, I want to highlight that it is the only international format we have today. The principal goal of the Geneva international discussion is the non-aggression agreement that until now has not been signed.

The presence of the United Nations, the European Union, Russia, and the United States at these round tables highlights the importance of this format. This platform also guarantees that the dialogue reduces the eventuality of a new war with Georgia.

The Geneva international discussions give also the opportunity to have a confrontation and dialogue with the main international players about our necessity and requests. This is the only format which allows us to have an official negotiation with the European Union.

By the way, since the beginning, although this format has some goals and concepts which we are not interested in, we evaluate as important because it is the only international platform we have.

Before 2008, we had a format supported by the United Nations. This format was better than what we have now because at the time Georgia and Abkhazia were considered as parties involved in the conflict. In the wake of 2008, the Medvedev-Sarkozy agreement established this structure that excludes Abkhazia as one of the entities implicated in the conflict. Thus, we are formally participating in the Geneva international dialogue as ‘experts’ without any representation of our respective countries.

The primary issue at hand is that we entered into this setup to engage in talks with the Georgians regarding a non-aggression treaty, however, the Georgians have repurposed this format to cultivate relations with the Russian Federation and pressure Moscow into signing a non-aggression accord with Tbilisi.

Georgian diplomats were able to inform the public opinion that in 2008 there was also a conflict in Abkhazia. Indeed, in August 2008, Georgian troops attacked only South Ossetia. Meanwhile, our military forces conducted a special military operation to free the Valley of Kodor which since 1993 was under the Georgian occupation. Without any military clashes, we took again the control of this region which belonged to our sovereign territory.

We did not have a conflict with Georgian in 2008, as Tbilisi propaganda stated. The Georgians accomplished the goal to inform the public opinion about a ‘conflict with Abkhazia in 2008’ and hide their aggression against Abkhazia in 1992-1993.

In this way, the Georgian leadership, instead of confirming the war 1992-1993 started by their aggression, shifted the blame to the Russian Federation. Therefore, Tbilisi created this fake news that during the ‘90s there was no conflict with Abkhazia. Unfortunately, EU officials rely only on the Georgian narrative and they believe that the Abkhaz-Georgian conflict started only in 2008. Thanks to this strategy, Georgia has isolated our country also at the international media level.”

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