The Olympics for Abkhazia: Dreams and Reality

Despite expectations for major gains, Abkhazia, squeezed between the Russian Federation and Georgia, has undergone no substantive changes in the run-up to the Olympics in nearby Sochi. Back in 2008, then-Abkhaz President Sergey Bagapsh dreamed about the opening of rail and air communications and the export of enormous amounts (40m cubic metres) of inert materials for Olympic construction projects. But already in 2011 President-elect Aleksandr Ankvab said that "appetites and desires were leonine but actual prospects turned out to be more modest" and in late 2013 the work of the company whose extraction and export volumes were far less than had been predicted stopped altogether. In addition, relations between Abkhazia and the Russian Federation remain in the framework established in 2008 - Abkhazia, as before, receives financial assistance and Russian troops are as before stationed in Abkhaz territory.

Internal factor

The Olympic factor has had its biggest impact on the Abkhaz domestic political agenda. President Ankvab tried to delay taking the hardest decisions until closer to the Olympics probably in order to avoid possible outbursts from opposition forces insisting on the president's impeachment and seeking to overturn the decision allowing ethnic Georgians leaving in the area adjacent to Georgia to obtain Abkhaz passports. Alongside these decisions, the court trial over a recent assassination attempt against Ankvab started only in autumn 2013. Pavel Ardzinba (a relative of the first president Vladislav Ardzinba and influential businessman) figures in that case and supporters of Ankvab have alleged that he has ties to opposition leaders (specifically Raul Khadzhimba, who ran in presidential elections against Bagapsh (2004 and 2009) and Ankvab (2011)).

That same autumn opposition agitation reached its peak, and the president sacked from the post of secretary of the Security Council Stanislav Lakoba, an independent and influential politician who earlier publicly declared support for opposition forces. He later said that the president had refused to speak to him for over half a year before officially dismissing him. After that, however, the political situation in Abkhazia settled down - it is clear that all players on the Abkhaz political field have chosen not to take dramatic actions during the Olympics. Furthermore, when Russia introduced a special regime for crossing the Russian-Abkhaz border during the Olympics and Abkhazia created an 11-kilometre-wide border security zone, both the authorities and opposition forces urged people to show understanding in regard to these measures. All signs point to more exciting developments in Abkhaz domestic politics once the Olympic "pause" is over.

External Factor

No changes are to be observed in Georgian-Abkhaz and Georgian-Ossetian relations. The Geneva negotiations process - the only forum where all sides of the conflict (Georgia, Russia, Abkhazia, South Ossetia) can interact with each other - started in 2008 and has continued without undergoing any notable changes or reaching any palpable achievements. Despite the change of power in Georgia and renaming of the Reintegration Ministry as the Ministry of Reconciliation and Civil Equality, the main paradigm of Tbilisi's relations with Abkhazia and South Ossetia has remained as before: Georgia continues to consider them territories occupied and controlled by Russia, as opposed to independent sides. There is no reason to expect a change in this paradigm in the future - this will not happen until Georgia sees itself in a situation where changing it could bring evident benefits. Without resolving its problems with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Georgia will not be able to fully integrate into Euro-Atlantic structures.

One possible reason for Georgia to revise this paradigm would be the de-isolation of Abkhazia through opening transport communications through it, thus connecting Russia and the South Caucasus. But Georgia, unlike Armenia, which is joining the Russian-led Customs Union, has chosen European markets over the Russian one and in November 2013 initialed an agreement on associative relations with the European Union.

The initialing of the agreement between the EU and Georgia is viewed by the latter as an important foreign policy achievement and Georgia is looking for ways to expand the planned free trade zone to Abkhazia and South Ossetia, territories beyond its control. The head of the Georgian mission in the EU, Natalia Sabanadze, described the search for such forms with the words "We will think about how to do this." The search continues to this day.

Most interested in opening up the (rail) transit link via Abkhazia is Russia, which has already taken concrete steps in this direction (purchasing the Armenian railway system, helping Abkhazia repair its railways, and so on) and seeks to establish a rail link with Armenia (which is in the process of joining the Customs Union) through Abkhazia and Georgia.

Conclusion: Outlook

In sum, the Olympics have not emerged as a decisive factor in interstate relations. The Olympics put the brakes on internal processes in Abkhazia and inspired heated debates in Georgia about whether or not its athletes should participate and thus have neither brought the actors (Georgia, Russia, Abkhazia, South Ossetia) closer together nor pulled them further apart. None have changed their baseline positions since 2008.

This will change only if actions of the terrorists of the Caucasus Emirate create an emergency situation during the Games - a contingency for which the Russian federation has been preparing with intense security measures. In such case, we may see co-operation among all sides - as was the case with the arrest in Georgia of Yusup Lakayev, who is accused of murdering a Russian diplomat in Abkhazia - but this is just a hypothetical.

In reality the Olympics have led to the emergence of Sochi as a major tourism magnet and competitor for Abkhazia and Georgia, which had both been counting on money from the development of tourism. This is what Abkhazia will have to deal with in the future. Abkhazia will have to figure out how to compete with a year-round (summer and winter, sea and mountain) resort at the gateway for tourists otherwise planning to visit Abkhazia.