Abkhazia: Protests flare in post-Soviet ‘gray area’ near Ukraine


Opposition protesters rally in front of the presidential office in Sukhumi, the capital of the Georgia's breakaway republic of Abkhazia, on Wednesday. . IBRAGIM CHKADUAIBRAGIM CHKADUA/AFP/Getty Images

It's beginning to look a little like the Maidan in the breakaway Georgian republic of Abkhazia, where thousands of protesters forced the president to flee.

According to the BBC, President Alexander Ankvab escaped the capital city Sukhumi on Tuesday and returned to his home town of Gudauta after his offices were stormed. The angry protests are reportedly being led by Raul Khadzhimba, a former prime minister and vice-president, who accuses Ankvab of corruption and economic mismanagement.

The move appears to have spooked Russia, which quickly responded: The Moscow Times reports that the Kremlin sent Vladislav Surkov, also known as the Putin's "gray cardinal," to talk to both sides in the conflict on Wednesday. “Russia is attentively and with great concern following the developments in the friendly republic and believes it is highly important that all public and political processes [in Abkhazia] progress exclusively within the legal frame,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin told ITAR-TASS

Perhaps here's good reason for Moscow to be concerned. Abkhazia is one of many disputed areas that have sprung up after the fall of the Soviet Union, and like most of those areas it is heavily dependent on Moscow. It's also one of the oldest, having broken away from Georgia in a 1992-1993 war. It formally declared independence after 2008's Russo-Georgian war, though it is only recognized as an independent state by Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Nauru (its fellow unrecognized states of Nagorno-Karabakh, South Ossetia, and Transnistria also recognize it, however).


A map showing the disputed areas near Russia in red (Laris Karklis / The Washington Post)

The events of the past few days seem to set a worrying precedent for the post-Soviet territorial "gray areas," a club which Crimea recently joined. If two decades down the line the country is still ravaged by internal divisions and instability, membership of the club suddenly looks a lot less appealing, as Sweden's Foreign Minister Carl Bildt was quick to point out on Twitter:

Abkhazia doesn't fit into the post-Maidan narrative quite so neatly, however. Michael Cecire, an expert at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, explained to the BBC that Ankvab's apparent ouster was caused specifically by economic concerns and a growing Abkhazian nationalist sentiment, and that while Khadzhimba may be against Ankvab's reliance on Moscow, his nationalism isn't specifically anti-Russian ("There is little room in the political landscape for anti-Moscow sentiments," Cecire notes). In fact, there appears to be something of a split in the opposition, with other analysts arguing that a more pro-Moscow sentiment can be found among other protesters.

Despite the obvious differences between Crimea and Abkhazia, you have to wonder what effect the crisis in Ukraine has had on Abkhazia. Could the protesters in Sukhumi have been watching the protests all over Ukraine recently and thinking: "We could do that too"?

Adam Taylor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. Originally from London, he studied at the University of Manchester and Columbia University.
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