Abkhazia’s Raul Khajimba is the man of the hour. The victor of Abkhazia’s snap presidential election on Sunday, Khajimba has appealed to many Abkhaz as both a man of action and as a patriot. A nationalist with a history of refusing compromise with Georgia, let alone granting ethnic Georgians Abkhaz citizenship, Khajimba may be a cause of concern for some in the region. However, behind his nationalist posturing, he may also be the man to bring about a compromise, the kind that could help unite a region that is increasingly fragmented by ongoing geopolitical rivalry between Russia and the West.
Georgia has signed on to a European economic and political Association Agreement, and more hawkish members of Tbilisi’s political elite insist that it join NATO. Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Tbilisi’s two breakaways, remain in a sort of geopolitical limbo, recognized by Russia, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Nauru but not by the rest of the world. Further south, Armenia has signed on to join the Moscow-backed Eurasian Union. To the east, oil-rich Azerbaijan, under the autocratic regime of Ilham Aliyev, remains free of any geopolitical union. Yet, Baku’s penchant for human rights abuses and bellicose statements regarding Armenia and the disputed region of Nagorny Karabakh continue to be a cause for concern. Meanwhile, the crisis and conflict in Ukraine continues.
It is far from certain what path Khajimba will take Abkhazia. If he pursues a narrow ethno-nationalist policy, then it is doubtful that it will be beneficial for the Caucasus region as a whole, let alone Abkhazia. However, he could instead opt for a more pragmatic policy and use his position to pursue a path of engagement.
A good starting point would be the Abkhaz-Georgian railway, which directly linked Armenia with Russia in Soviet times and which was closed during the war in Abkhazia of the 1990s. Armenia and the Armenian community of Abkhazia have signaled their support for such an initiative. In Georgia too, Bidzina Ivanishvili, during his tenure as Prime Minister, sought to put this issue on the table. Though vocally opposed by Mikheil Saakashvili and his United National Movement (UNM) party, the opening of the railway with Abkhazia has widespread popular support in Georgia. Meanwhile, Abkhazia’s political elite has been uncertain about opening the railway. No serious action toward a resolution of this issue alone has appeared in either Tbilisi or Sukhumi beyond mere rhetoric.
Khajimba could make this happen to the benefit of Abkhazia, Georgia, Russia, and Armenia. Such a move would also set in motion the right process to engage in broader dialogue between the Abkhaz, Georgians, and Russians on issues such as a compromise resolution on the Abkhaz conflict. This would bode well for the stability of the Caucasus region as a whole.
Khajimba does indeed have connections in Moscow and received his first congratulations from Russian President Putin, even before the official announcement of his victory in Sukhumi’s Apsny Press agency. Notably, in 2004, Putin favored Khajimba for President of Abkhazia.
The newly-elected Abkhaz leader’s Kremlin connections may make him more amiable to a pragmatic political solution. However, this requires political will and, even more importantly, courage. Whether or not Khajimba opts for a path of informed pragmatism vs. one of narrow nationalism remains to be seen. Though one thing is for certain, Abkhazia, Georgia, and the Caucasus can only benefit from peace.
UPDATE (28 August 2014): On August 27, Khajimba met Putin personally at Novo-Ogaryovo near Moscow. The talks were focused on enhanced cooperation between Abkhazia and Russia. In an exclusive interview with ITAR-TASS, the Abkhaz leader noted that he was considering reducing Abkhazia’s border checkpoints with Georgia. He also indicated that he was open to dialogue with Georgia but stressed that this can only be possible if Georgia signs a non-use-of-force agreement. “We understand we won’t get away from Georgia as a neighbor anywhere, we’re destined to live side by side and to build up a relationship that will make it possible for us to minimize external risks and threats,” he said.