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Analysis, book reviews and photography from Abkhazia and the wider Caucasus — updates some Wednesdays

Cartography: the Russo-Abkhazian border dispute

When it was first reported that during the Russo-Abkhazian meetings on border demarcation, Russia had proposed that Abkhazia should cede some 160 sq km of land of its Gagra District, it was unclear exactly what part was meant. Was Gagra itself to be included? Now thanks to an article by Vladimir Vorobin in the Komsomolskaya Pravda we have a map:

Initial stretch of Abkhazian territory supposedly to be ceded to Russia

Official statements first denied that the disagreement was over such a large amount of territory, but the head of the Abkhazian delegation, MP Valeri Kvarchia, then confirmed that the Russian side had indeed at first made this ‘proposal’. From the second meeting onwards, the dispute instead narrowed on the small village of Aibga, as displayed on this Soviet map (one segment of the grid corresponds to 2 km):

The village of Aibga, which straddles the river Psou and hence the Russo-Abkhazian border

Aibga straddles the river Psou (the thick blue line on the map) which marked the border in Soviet times, dividing Aibga into a northern, Russian and a southern, Abkhazian half. Abkhazia wants to perpetuate this state of affairs, whereas Russia apparently claims the entire village. As can be seen from the map, the amount of land and people involved is very small. Most of Aibga lies north of the Psou. In addition, even the southern half of Aibga is de facto part of Russia, in the sense that by car it can only be reached from Russia, it probably gets all its services from Russia, it is principally inhabited by Russians and there are no border controls on Aibga’s two bridges. It would even be a surprise if Aibga was included in the Abkhazian census of last February. Thus if Abkhazia were to give in, it wouldn’t lose much in practical terms. But of course, the symbolic impact would be much larger, hence the outrage in Abkhazian society.

The Russian stance in this dispute is puzzling. Russia appears to have no legal arguments for its claims. The 160 sq km of the first proposal would certainly have been a lucrative acquisition. But while the territory is sparsely populated, it does include Lake Ritsa, and it is unthinkable that Abkhazia would give up its principal touristic asset next to its Black Sea coastline. The more recent proposal over Aibga is much more modest, but the lack of practical benefits raises the question, why bother? Why risk permanently alienating your friendly and grateful neighbour, which offers you many lucrative business opportunities, over a tiny, insignificant jot of land? The only plausible explanation that comes to mind is that Russia is using this issue to force concessions in other areas, such as the ownership of Abkhazian land by non-Abkhazian (i.e. Russian) nationals, or Russian influence over Abkhazia’s army. (In this context, see Abkhazian Army Purge? – part 3.)

Filed under: Abkhazia, Cartography, Negotiations, Russia, , , ,

Abkhazian Army Purge? – part 3

In April 2010, the ‘retirement’ of no less than 5 Abkhazian Deputy Ministers of Defence, including Chief of the General Staff Anatoli Zaitsev, sparked speculation that this was in fact a purge-in-process. The question was, if so, then what kind of purge? If Zaitsev (despatched from the Russian Army) had been dismissed to reduce Russian influence, then why had the other – Abkhaz – officers been forced out as well? At the time, it appeared that to figure out what was going on one could best wait and see who would be the replacements.

Then, Beslan Tsvizhba was appointed First Deputy Minister and Aslan Ankvab acting Chief of the General Staff and First Deputy Minister, so it appeared that the scenario which predicted a Russian take-over in revenge for the dismissal of Zaitsev had been falsified.

Well, Aslan Ankvab has remained acting Chief of the General Staff for almost a year, but now on the 29th of March a new, permanent replacement was announced: Vladimir Vasilchenko, courtesy of the Siberian Military District.

Perhaps Aslan Ankvab simply turned out to be too light for the job. Still, if that should be so it is surprising that no suitable replacement could be found from within Abkhazian Army ranks. Another possibility is that the timing of this announcement is not coincidental, and that it is related to the ongoing border demarcation negotiations which may present the most serious dispute between Abkhazia and Russia since recognition. Perhaps the Abkhazian government is trying to please Russia into accepting its Soviet-era borders. It could even be the case that Russia is precisely giving Abkhazia a hard time over its borders to get concessions like these.

Filed under: Abkhazia, Negotiations, Russia, , , , , , , ,

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