Author: Mamuka Komakhia, Analyst
Lately, a more active engagement in a variety of fields in Abkhazia and “South Ossetia” from the Russian side can easily be observed. More specifically, the Kremlin has ensured the victory of a desirable candidate in the non-legitimate elections held in de-facto “South Ossetia”. The development of military cooperation is ongoing with considerable pace, if with certain problems. The most noteworthy, however, is Kremlin’s policy regarding its staff, touching upon the civil servants and diplomats in connection with the occupied regions of Georgia. During the past two months, Marat Kulakhmetov was appointed on the position of the “Ambassador” of the Russian Federation in the de-facto republic of “South Ossetia,” whilst the Russian President’s Administration has welcomed Inal Ardzinba, who is regarded as one of the most promising young politicians in Russia. According to Kremlin’s assumption, the new appointees will ensure a high level of integration of the Georgian occupied territories into Russia.
Kremlin’s role became apparent in the 9 April 2017 Presidential Elections held in de-facto “South Ossetia.” The main producer of local politics in the pre-election, as well as in the post-election period was Vladislav Surkov, who has served as the Russian President’s Assistant in Social-Economic Interactions with Abkhazia and “South Ossetia” since 20 September 2013. Mr. Surkov’s role became clear already during the pre-election period when the selection of the Presidential candidates was underway.
The former de-facto President, Eduard Kokoiti was also planning to participate in the elections; however, he was unable to register as a candidate due to the fact that he had not been living in Tskhinvali regularly for the past five years. On 4 March 2017 Kokoiti accused Surkov of inspiring the decision made by the election administration about the refusal of his registration. Mr. Kokoiti called Surkov a swindler, who, according to his assessment, acted “like South Ossetia belonged to him.” Kokoiti accused Surkov, President’s Advisor Aleksei Pilatov and the Head of the Division for Social-Economic Cooperation with CIS Countries and the Republics of Abkhazia and “South Ossetia”, Oleg Govorun, of conspiring against him. Despite the fact that all three Presidential candidates were distinguished by their loyalty to Russia, Surkov’s sympathies towards the Chairman of the de-facto Parliament, Anatoly Bibilov, were clear. After the finalization of the elections and before the inauguration, Surkov personally met with the victorious Anatoly Bibilov and called his victory “predictable” and “convincing.”
Shortly after Anatoly Bibilov’s election for the positon of the President, on 8-9 June 2017, Surkov visited Tskhinvali once again. During his meeting with the de facto leaders of “South Ossetia” Surkov underscored that “the integration must be deep and comprehensive.” During the meeting, Surkov also expressed his disappointment with the current level of integration.
Increasing Military Influence
For the past three months, Russia has been active in the occupied regions of Georgia in the military field as well. On 26 June 2017, during his meeting with the de-facto President of “South Ossetia,” the Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs of Russia, Igor Zubov, stated, that “the creation of the information-coordination center in Tskhinvali is already a determined issue.” The agreement on the creation of this center was signed on 4 July 2016. According to the Deputy Minister, funds have already been allocated for the establishment of the center and only technical issues need to be settled. Russia also signed a similar agreement with Sokhumi on 18 May 2017, causing a serious discontent among the political groups and the general population of Abkhazia. Due to the resistance from Sokhumi, the center established there will have lesser authority as compared to the one soon to be established in Tskhinvali.
New Appointment (“Doberman”) in President’s Administration
In terms of the control of domestic political processes and the implementation of the military agreements, Kremlin has been meeting with some resistance from Abkhazia, which is in contrast with the situation in Tskhinvali. An important appointment decision made in the President’s Administration can be considered to be a step aimed at resolving the existing problems. More specifically, on 26 June 2017, according to the directive of the Head of the President’s Administration, Inal Ardzinba, who is an ethnic Abkhaz and a close acquaintance of Surkov’s, was appointed as head of department in the Division for Social-Economic Cooperation with CIS Countries and the Republics of Abkhazia and “South Ossetia.” The Division ensures the implementation of Kremlin’s policies in the occupied regions of Georgia.
Inal Ardzinba was born in Sokhumi in 1990. His father, Batu Ardzinba took part in the war in Abkhazia in 1992-1993 and received Leon Order for it. Currently, Batu Ardzinba is a famous Abkhazian businessperson and a Director of Moda-Tex company. Inal Ardzinba is a relative of the first de-facto President of Abkhazia, Vladislav Ardzinba. After completing school in Sokhumi, he studied at the Faculty of International Economics and World Politics at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow from 2007 to 2012. During his study period, he published a book, titled National Economy of Abkhazia, discussing innovative approaches to the economic development of Abkhazia up to 2020. De-facto President of Abkhazia in 2011-2014, Aleksander Ankvab, is one of reviewers of the book. After graduating from the university in 2012, Ardzinba occupied the position of President’s Assistant in Relations with Government Structures at the largest Russian insurance company, Rosgosstrakh.
In 2012, Inal Ardzinba headed the Russian delegation at the G8 Youth Summit held in Washington DC, held parallel to the actual G8 Summit. During the Summit Ardzinba also lobbied in favor of the issues of recognition of the de-facto republics of Abkhazia and “South Ossetia.” He also headed the Russian delegation on G20 Youth Summit in Saint Petersburg in 2013 and the G8 Youth Summit in London. At the Summit in Saint Petersburg, he presented the final declaration to the Russian President, Vladimir Putin himself. In 2014, he topped the ratings of Young Leaders of Eurasian Economic Union Member States, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
In 2014, Inal Ardzinba’s career at the Russian President’s Administration begins. For a certain period, he served as a consultant at the Division for Social-Economic Cooperation with CIS Countries and the Republics of Abkhazia and “South Ossetia,” moving up to become First Deputy to Vladislav Surkov. He was in charge of Kremlin’s relations with the self-declared republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. Ardzinba also personally headed the public support committee for the citizens living in South-Eastern Ukraine.
During his work with Surkov, Ardzinba was tasked with overseeing the projects aiming to destabilize the regions of Ukraine. In Ukraine, he is accused of especially severe crimes, namely, the attempt of reviewing the state borders of Ukraine and disrupting the constitutional order of the country. Ukraine has announced international search for Ardzinba. In 2015, he even ended up in the list of enemies of Ukraine, together with Surkov. In December 2015, Ardzinba was accused of destabilizing the situation in Southern Ukraine whilst in March 2016, the former President of Georgia and then Governor of Odessa Oblast in Ukraine, Mikheil Saakashvili, accused Ardzinba of implementing the so-called Bessarabia Project (the project envisages the creation of the Bessarabian People’s Republic in Odessa Oblast).
Inal Ardzinba is one of the most promising young politicians in Russian politics, who, despite his young age, is already involved in implementing Russia’s policies towards Ukraine and Georgia. Ardzinba’s ethnic origins and his personal acquaintance with powerful Russian politicians, Vladimir Putin and Vladislav Surkov, ensure considerable support towards his actions, especially with regard to Abkhazia. It is interesting to notice that due to a strict style of work he is nicknamed Doberman.
New Russian “Ambassadors”
The activeness of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation towards the occupied regions of Georgia manifested itself through the new appointments and infrastructural strengthening of Russian diplomacy.
On 18-19 April 2017, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, Sergey Lavrov, paid an official visit to Sokhumi where he opened the new Russian Embassy building. According to the existing information, the Minister was also supposed to present the new “Ambassador” to the local political elite; however, as of today, Semyon Grigoriev remains on the position of the “Ambassador” and has been occupying the position of the first “Ambassador” of Russia to Abkhazia since 25 October 2008. Grigoriev is a diplomat who knows quite a lot about Georgia. In 2003-2006, he was Deputy Director of the Fourth CIS Member States Department and was in charge of Russia-Georgia relations. Since 2008, after the war between Georgia and Russia, he came back to the position of Deputy Director of the Fourth CIS Member States Department and was now in charge of the issues concerning Abkhazia and “South Ossetia.” According to current information, he is set to be appointed as the “Ambassador” of Russia to Azerbaijan.
There was an important appointment in South Ossetia as well – on 23 May 2017, the first “Ambassador” of Russia to the occupied region of “South Ossetia” (in 2008-2017), Elbrus Kargiev was, after his retirement, replaced by a very well-known person in Georgia, Marat Kulakhmetov. Kulakhmetov started his work as the “Ambassador” on 3 July 2017, after handing in his credentials to the de-facto President of “South Ossetia.” General-Major of the Russian Armed Forces, Marat Kulakhmetov, was the Commander of the joint peacekeeping forces in Tskhinvali from October 2004. Since August 2009 until his appointment as “Ambassador”, Kulakhmetov served as an adviser to the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation in the military-political issues in South Caucasus and Transnistria and Russian military affairs in Central Asia. Kulakhmetov’s appointment, since he is very familiar with the domestic politics of Tskhinvali, will undoubtedly facilitate the integration process of “South Ossetia” with the Russian Federation.
The steps taken by the Russian Federation in the occupied regions of Georgia for the past three months indicate that the Kremlin intends to expand its influence on the domestic politics of the de-facto republics and hasten their integration into Russian political, military and economic space. In terms of the integration of the occupied regions, the appointments of Marat Kulakhmetov and Inal Ardzinba are undoubtedly important. Appointing two distinguished personalities in the region who are very familiar with the intricacies of local politics, indicates to the beginning of a new stage in Kremlin’s policy, which is designed to ensure the desirable pace of integration of the occupied regions of Georgia into the Russian Federation.