Nika Tughushi, Tbilisi State University
The military intervention of the Russian Federation in Ukraine has completely changed the international order and created significant problems for the national security of Georgia, among which the tense situation in the occupied regions should be noted. One of the main objectives of Georgia’s foreign policy is to prevent the international recognition of territories occupied by Russia. The visit of the President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko to Sukhumi was significantly detrimental to this objective. Lukashenko’s arrival in occupied Abkhazia had the effect of stimulating the warming of relations between the de facto regime of Abkhazia and Belarusian politicians, economists and tourists. Prior to Lukashenko’s visit, close associate of the president, Victor Sheiman, visited the occupied region, which international relations researchers read as an attempt by Minsk to evaluate the current situation in occupied Abkhazia. During his visit to Abkhazia, the Belarusian President made an encouraging statement to the de facto government there: “We not only want friendly relations with you, but we aim to establish serious relations”.
Against the background of the above, the following question must be asked: Is Belarus and Russia’s deepening of trade and economic relations with occupied Abkhazia a prerequisite for the recognition of the independence of that Georgian region?
Recent trends in trade, economic and political relations between Belarus and occupied Abkhazia
It is hard to overlook how the political vision of the President of Belarus has changed over the years. Alexander Lukashenko’s bold political choice in 2009 saw Belarus rejecting the Russian Federation’s position of recognizing the occupied territories of Georgia. It is worth noting that during this period, the relations between Russia and Belarus were significantly strained, and Russia even offered Belarus a loan of 500 million US Dollars in exchange for supporting the policy of recognition, but Lukashenko said that “the diplomatic position of Belarus is not for sale” and added that the citizens of Belarus should follow Georgian legislation in visits to occupied Abkhazia and “South Ossetia”. A further change in this position was caused by the deteriorating relations between the West and Belarus. Belarus began to change its foreign policy after it started to become disinclined to appease Brussels and Strasbourg. Since the bulk of Belarusian businesses are currently under US and EU sanctions, Belarus’ only option to save its economy is to actively pursue the Russian market. That is why Belarus sought to win over the Russian Federation, and a component of this foreign-political interest is the potential recognition of occupied Abkhazia.
The fact that relations between Belarus and the occupied territory of Abkhazia have entered a new trade-economic arena is noteworthy. Only time will tell how much this will serve as the foundation for future political collaboration.
Aslan Bzhania, the de facto president of Abkhazia, stated the following in an interview with Russian journalist Vladimir Solovyov (on August 25, 2022): “Belarusian business has recently shown an interest in Abkhazia. Today, a group of Belarusian businessmen are on the territory of Abkhazia, and we are launching a joint Belarusian-Abkhazian economic project, which, in the future, I hope, will lead us to the point where our relations will become closer and our voice will be heard: They will see that it is possible to do business with us!” he said. It is not yet known what specific project was discussed.
One aspect of trade and economic ties between Belarus and occupied Abkhazia is tourism. Companies from Belarus and Russia work actively in this area; for example, “Eladatour”, which includes occupied Abkhazia on its list of independent countries, offers tours to occupied Abkhazia for Belarusian citizens, and invites residents of Abkhazia on travel tours to Belarus.
The “Sukhumi-Minsk” video-bridge, held on October 18, which discussed the “prospects of bilateral cooperation between Belarus and Abkhazia”, is a demonstration of the development of this relationship. The meeting of the presidents of the “two countries” and new perspectives of cooperation in the context of economic and regional security were discussed within the framework of this video bridge. A deputy of the Parliament of Belarus was supposed to attend the conference, but for an unknown reason, only Oleg Chesalov, a deputy of the City Council of Minsk, and Andrei Ivanov, a member of the “Belarusian Party for the Motherland,” attended. Representatives of public groups inspired by ideas of the restoration of the Soviet Union and creation of a single state “from Brest to Vladivostok” also participated in the video bridge from Belarus. After the meeting, the parties decided to further deepen their relations, and the delegation of the de facto government of Abkhazia was invited to a Trade and Economic Forum, called “Livadia”, scheduled for December 16-20 in Minsk.
In order to accurately comprehend the importance of the above-mentioned conferences and video bridges, it is necessary to mention that the residents of occupied Abkhazia protested when the de facto president Aslan Bzhania leased the territories of Bichvinta to Russia. This resulted in a schism appearing between the Abkhazian population and the de facto government as well as with the breakaway region’s northern protector. When Abkhazia’s de facto finance minister, Vladimir Delba, announced the draft budget, it was revealed that the Russian Federation is reducing economic aid to Abkhazia by about half a billion Rubles. This came as a result of both the collapse of the Russian military operation in Ukraine, and the position of the people of Abkhazia, when they actually stood up to the process of returning the debt to the Russian Treasury. Parallel to these developments, the de facto government of Abkhazia is working to strengthen commercial and economic ties with Belarus because Belarusian tourists, businesses, and businesspeople have the potential to boost the economy of occupied Abkhazia and help it emerge from its challenging situation. Abkhazia’s de facto deputy minister of foreign affairs, Irakli Tuzhba, made an interesting statement at the above-mentioned meeting: “We proceed from the fact that there is currently talk of settling trade-economic relations and cultural-humanitarian cooperation. We hope that friendly relations will develop into diplomatic and political contact, … we also hope that the situation will develop in such a way that “Abkhazia” can take part in the important regional mechanism meetings, the “Union State””.
From this viewpoint, it is significant that the legislative delegation of the Russia-Belarus “Union State,” headed by Artem Turov, a member of the Russian State Duma and the ruling party “United Russia” visited Sokhumi on November 1 of this year. By encouraging the “independence” of occupied Abkhazia, the Russian Federation is trying on the one hand to reduce the protest pressure among its population and, on the other, to maintain leverage against the Georgian government. It is clear from the delegation’s visit that there is interest in Belarus’ relations with occupied Abkhazia. Nevertheless, it should be noted that the President of Belarus is attempting to maintain the possibility of diplomatic maneuvering with both the de facto government of Abkhazia and the authorities of Georgia. This is evidenced by the official press release issued following his visit to Sokhumi, which states that Lukashenko visited “the historical territories of the northeastern coast of the Black Sea“ (not Abkhazia) and neglects to mention Aslan Bzhania’s “official” position.
The above-mentioned events and statements once again demonstrate the problems facing the national security of Georgia. We can conclude that the more the relations between Belarus and occupied Abkhazia deepen, the more unclear the implementation of Georgia’s non-recognition policy towards Belarus becomes. One thing is clear: the de facto government of Abkhazia views an upsurge in Belarusian travel as a necessary precondition for the recognition process. Accordingly, we can assume that if individual representatives of the Belarusian government and businesses are working to build economic ties with occupied Abkhazia now, those ties may one day result in irreversible processes and increase Belarussian interest in Abkhazia in general. This is a significant threat to the territorial integrity of Georgia, as well as the policy of non-recognition of occupied territories. The deepened relations between Minsk and Sokhumi may result in an observer status or full membership of the “Union State” for occupied Abkhazia, which will be a prerequisite for the recognition of the “independence” of Abkhazia by Belarus.
In conclusion, we can say that the course of the Russia-Ukraine war will have a significant impact on Belarus’ decision. At the same time, the authorities of Belarus will have to think about what they will lose by terminating diplomatic relations with Georgia, because, to date, Georgia and Belarus have been cooperating closely in the trade and economic sphere.