“Georgia’s aggression was inevitable” – Abkhazian President

Had Georgia achieved its plans to subdue South Ossetia, Abkhazia could have been the next target, Abkhazian President Sergey Bagapsh told RT in an exclusive interview.

RT: The Caucasian Republic of Abkhazia is preparing to celebrate what the locals call their first real independence anniversary. Mr. President, it’s been a year since the South Ossetian conflict. The Abkhazian army also fought against Georgian forces in the Kodori Gorge in August 2008. Just how important was that operation?

Sergey Bagapsh: You know that under an agreement with South Ossetia and the Republic of Transdniester, which was reached long before those events, we had our own commitments on how to act in case Georgia attacked Abkhazia or South Ossetia.

We knew only too well that Georgia’s aggression was inevitable because its leaders could no longer pursue their external and internal policies without that aggression. That is why after the fighting against South Ossetia, Abkhazia acted according to its plans. We besieged the Kodori Gorge and advanced our troops to the border with Georgia near the town of Gali.

RT: On August 26 last year, Russia recognized Abkhazia’s independence. Did you feel the support from Moscow? And what has changed the lives of ordinary people since then?

S.B.: You know, we had felt Russia’s support even prior to last August’s conflict. Russia is the closest country to us. It’s no secret that 85 % of Abkhazians are citizens of Russia. On the eve of such an anniversary – a year since the recognition of Abkhazia’s independence, and a year after the events in South Ossetia – I would once again like to thank the Russian Federation and its leaders, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in the first place, for courage, bravery and adherence to principles. I would also like to thank Vladimir Putin and other leaders who were not indifferent to the fate of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

A year has passed and what have we achieved?

Our main achievement is that today we are protected. We have political stability; and a step-by-step transition of our people from a pre-war period – or a period prior to the Georgian intrusion into Abkhazia – to a period of creative activities, the construction of statehood and an economic recovery that’s taking place. These are the most important things today. And we don’t always find ourselves in an easier position than we used to be because we are facing many problems. But as I’ve already mentioned, we are signing a lot of contracts with the Russian Federation. The first treaty that we signed was on military assistance. Then, there were agreements with Russian ministries and agencies which are aimed at development, economic revival and improving people’s living standards.

RT: How possible is it that other countries will follow Russia’s footsteps and recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia? And what countries are they likely to be?

S.B.: I think that the process of recognition is never easy. Let’s take the former Soviet Union, for example. Most countries began recognizing it as a state by 1931. History knows many such precedents. So, we are not trying to accelerate the recognition process. The most important thing for us is that we’ve been recognized by Russia because it’s the world’s largest country, a Security Council member and a mighty and powerful state. Nicaragua has also recognized us. We are very grateful to its president. The most important thing today is how we are going to develop our democratic values and build a rule-of-law state. That will largely determine recognition from Western countries. As for the CIS states and people who are our close friends, I think that this period of calm and grinding-in, when countries are waiting to see what’s going to happen to Abkhazia and South Ossetia, will pass. This process is closer but so far we shouldn’t hope for any recognition from all countries, including those in Europe.

RT: You signed treaties on diplomatic and military cooperation with Russia. How will they affect Abkhazians?

S.B.: The direct result of these treaties is that a Russian military grouping – of the Defence Ministry and the military – has been deployed in Abkhazia. We also keep our own forces on high alert. We’ve made some cuts in the armed forces but on the whole we have enough troops to protect our security. These are the most important treaties and we reached them for one single purpose – so as to avoid a repeat of last August’s events, and so that no one has a temptation to solve any problems by force. I think that our main goal has been achieved: we have stability and we have peace, which should be maintained and guarded.

RT: You say you’ll take part in the next presidential election in December this year. What are the key points of your program?

S.B.: We’ve achieved our main goal. We’ve managed to attain it. We’ve gained independence; we’ve liberated the Kodori Gorge. We are facing the next five-year period, and our tasks will be to step up our economic development, attract new investment to Abkhazia and establish order in all bodies of state power – starting from the Interior Ministry to the tax authorities. In other words, we used to justify ourselves by saying that the Abkhazian economy couldn’t grow because of the difficult internal situation, because we had to spend a lot on weapons and the army, and we didn’t know whether a war was going to break out tomorrow (on which our fears had some grounds).

All through the post-war period since 1993, our people had been sleeping on submachine guns without knowing when Georgian aggression was going to start. Of course, it was difficult to think about any creative development under those circumstances. But today we have a different program. It’s a program of how to quickly get out of the situation in which we are now and start rapid economic growth. We have all the conditions ready for it. There are good macroeconomic projects: it’s the development of railroads, the energy sector and the airport; it’s our shipping and ports, the transit of cargo via Abkhazia and their re-export. These are big projects that will bring huge revenues to the state budget which, in turn, will be channeled into the social and economic development of our republic.

RT: In times of financial crisis, your opponents often criticize you for pro-Russian economic policies which, in their opinion, may harm the locals. How do you think Abkhazia benefits from cooperating with its bigger neighbor?

S.B.: I don’t think that any politician has reached a state of mind to say that Russia’s attitude to Abkhazia goes beyond any limits and that there’s a kind of danger for Abkhazia. There’s no danger. It’s human nature to forget about past dangers and fears and to start getting used to a better life. Somehow, and I don’t know why, my opponents have forgotten what kind of threat was posed by Georgia and what consequences that could that have for us. I don’t know why, but we are starting to forget that peacekeeping forces were stationed in Abkhazia for many years, and they lost 109 peacekeepers in clashes on the Georgian-Abkhazian border. We’ve lost about 2,800 of our own people over the peacekeeping period that lasted since the end of the war: some tripped on mines; others died in terrorist acts, were murdered or killed in robberies. And I think it’s a bit outrageous to say now that Russia has embraced Abkhazia, it’s going to buy up and grab everything in its territory. I think it’s wrong.

RT: In 2014, the Russian city of Sochi – which is right on the border with Abkhazia – will host the Winter Olympics. You’ve said many times that the games will be very important for your republic. Why is that?

S.B.: It’s very important because we are ready to supply to the Sochi Olympic facilities whatever we can produce. This includes sand-gravel aggregate, the production and delivery of road-building materials. This is also a chance to ensure annual revenues worth 300 or 700 million for the state budget. It’s good money for us. That is why today we are trying to repair and renovate our railroad connecting Russia with Sukhum, some 130 kilometers away from Sochi, and start transporting gravel, sand and other materials necessary for the Olympic facilities in Sochi.

RT: The United Nations mission has now officially stopped its operations in your republic. Is it possible that security in the bordering Gali district will deteriorate as a result?

S.B.: I don’t think that it’s going to have any kind of impact. The U.N. peacekeepers were just unarmed monitors. They watched the situation and reported on what they saw. Russia was the one which carried the entire burden of the peacekeeping mission in Abkhazia all those years. It was Russian soldiers. That is why today the border there is reinforced by Russian and Abkhazian border guards. Therefore, the withdrawal of the U.N. mission will have a minimal effect on the possibility of any new aggression by Georgia. Another thing is that we were ready to work with the United Nations mission in the format in which it used to operate in Abkhazia. It’s the provision of humanitarian aid and the monitoring of the situation on the border. We wanted them to stay but only on condition that this mission would be in Abkhazia and not in Georgia. They didn’t understand us and turned down our proposal. Well, “no” means “no.” We made our excuses, and the mission stopped its operations.

RT: The Gali district has a predominantly Georgian population and thousands of refugees were allowed to return from Georgia. Can we expect more displaced people returning to their homes in other regions of Abkhazia?

S.B.: We must be one of the very few countries in the world that has allowed so many refugees to return to their homes in the Gali region after such a conflict. No other country has ever done that. Perhaps experts from the European Union and PACE could tell me how many displaced Serbs have returned to Kosovo in Serbia. They could also draw some comparisons. We’ve liberated the Kodori Gorge and we are returning the ‘Svan’ people who used to live there. We didn’t touch a single home and we didn’t burn anything because we consider ourselves to be a civilized nation. We want to build a civilized society.

But returning refugees to the entire territory of Abkhazia is practically impossible today. That would have meant another war because the memories of the past are still fresh and strong. I think that it would be better to measure this issue differently – instead of rearming Georgia and pouring huge sums of money into its rearmament (and these are really considerable sums) European and non-European countries should accumulate this huge money and spend it on helping refugees who should become adapted to the social environment in Georgia. They need help. They’ve suffered from the war. But any talk about their return today is simply unrealistic.

RT: There are thousands of Russian tourists who visit Abkhazia’s Black Sea resorts. Has there been any increase in numbers this year and how important is tourism for the republic’s economy?

S.B.: The biggest number of tourists visited Abkhazia in 2007 – almost one million people. Today we’ve almost reached 2007 levels. The number of cars entering Abkhazia has also increased, because families prefer traveling by car. Fewer people go by train or fly. It’s economically sound to go by car. About 14,000 cars entered Abkhazia this year, which is even more than in 2007. We can see that by the consumption of bread and petrol, and our sanitary services feel it just as well. It’s good because tourism is a driving force that pulls the rest of Abkhazia’s economy with it, stimulating the development of the agriculture sector, other producers, the service sector and additional services. Besides, all this creates opportunities for local people to earn more money which they need. And we support that.

RT: Mr. Bagapsh, thank you for your time with us today.