Separatist Caucasus regions go separate ways | World| Breakings news and perspectives from around the globe | DW | 26.08.2009
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Separatist Caucasus regions go separate ways

One year has passed since Russia officially recognised the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. But as the rest of the world stands by its refusal to follow suit, genuine sovereignty is still out of reach.

South Ossetian separatist fighters fire Kalashnikovs and wave their white-yellow-red flag while riding in a car

How jubliant are the separatists a year into their proclaimed independence?

If a day is a long time in politics, then a year is an eternity and ample opportunity for new beginnings. And although both South Ossetia and Abkhazia have experienced some fundamental changes since the Russia-Georgia war last August, neither region holds the key to its own fate.

Those are now firmly in the hands of Moscow, something which for its part, South Ossetia has welcomed whole-heartedly. With its predominantly uncultivated mountain terrain, the region has nothing like the kind of infrastructure it would need to sustain itself.

"More than 90 percent of South Ossetia's budget comes directly from Moscow," Lawrence Sheet, Caucasus Project Director of the International Crisis Group, told Deutsche Welle. But he said the issue of Russian dominance does not seem to trouble the area's some 40,000 inhabitants.

"There is no home-grown movement for full independence," Sheet said. "The remaining population seem to be happy to be a part of Russia."

Russian brothers

South Ossetia de facto leader, Eduard Kokoity

South Ossetia de facto leader, Eduard Kokoity

Indeed, South Ossetia's de facto ruler, Eduard Kokoity, recently told the Reuters newsagency that he would work with Russia to build a statehood. "We don't rule out that there will come a time when we will become part of Russia," he said.

Alexander Rahr, Director of the Russian Program at the German Council on Foreign Relations said the South Ossetians feel safer, both in economic and military terms, now that they are clearly in Russian hands.

"People are getting help from Moscow," Rahr told Deutsche Welle. "The money is real, so economically they are winning."

And with any threat of a Georgian military strike removed by the presence of Russian troops in the area, Rahr says there is also a feeling of greater security among South Ossetians.

That same sense of military protection goes for the people of Abkhazia, but that is where the similarities between the two separatist regions end.

Abkhaz independence

A beach on the Black Sea

The Black Sea coast is popular with Russian tourists

When Moscow officially recognised the breakaway entity as an independent state, the sense of elation fuelled Abkhaz dreams of carving a sovereign future from its fertile land and pretty Black Sea coastline.

Only that is not what has happened. The world has honoured its recognition of Georgian territorial integrity, thereby leaving Abkhazia with but one notable ally.

And although Abkhazia is not wrapped quite so tightly in Russia's arms as South Ossetia, it still relies on Moscow for 50 percent of its budget and 99 percent of its trade.

Consequently, the elation felt this time last year has morphed into an increasing sense of discontent among the Abkhaz people, and the political elite is now in the difficult position of trying to achieve sovereignty without biting the hand which feeds it.

International distance

Successfully pulling off that tightrope walk would require some help from outside, and as Alexander Rahr points out, Europe and the rest of the world are not willing to get involved.

Moscow Red Square

Moscow is where the money is

"The EU has understood that it cannot fight Russia in this region," he said, adding that without saying so, Europe has accepted that Moscow is now responsible for Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

So Abkhazia is in a classic catch-22. Without any western presence in the region, the situation is unlikely to change, and until there is a change, there will be no western presence.

"It is a bit of a dead end," said Lawrence Sheet. "The only way Abkhazia can realistcally grow at this juncture is as an appendage of the Russian federation."

He says becoming truly independent will require a whole lot of Abkhaz patience because it will likely take "a generational change" to break the status quo.

Author: Tamsin Walker
Editor: Robert Mudge

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