- By Reid StandishReid Standish is associate editor, digital, at Foreign Policy. Reid writes on Russia, Ukraine, and Central Asia and is the newsroom’s digital point person. He has lived in and reported from Finland, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Ukraine, where he covered everything from Santa Claus to drug trafficking. A native of British Columbia, he holds a B.A. in international studies from Simon Fraser University and an M.A. from the University of Glasgow.
Russia has many ways to influence events in countries on its periphery, both subtle and not. In Ukraine, that influence-peddling has taken the form of outright warfare. In Georgia, that effort is far less conspicuous, and this week Russia took yet another step to more closely bind that country’s breakaway republics to Moscow.
On Friday, the Russian Duma ratified by a 441-1 vote an “Alliance and Integration Treaty” with Abkhazia — one of two Moscow-backed separatist enclaves in Georgia. The treaty will deepen ties between the Kremlin and the breakaway region by integrating Abkhazian troops into the Russian armed forces.
Giorgi Volsky, the parliamentary leader of the ruling Georgian Dream alliance, said the alliance had “no legal force.” Meanwhile, Deputy Russian Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin said it was time Georgia “get used to the new political reality” in the Caucasus, according to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
Earlier in the week, South Ossetia, Georgia’s other pro-Russian breakaway region, adopted a similar, more far-reaching “Alliance and Integration Treaty” with Russia that will see the republic surrender control of its foreign-policy and security apparatus to Moscow. According to the South Ossetian news agency Res, the breakaway republic will essentially hand over its armed forces and security services to Russia, while granting trade and border authority to Moscow.
If ratified by the Russian Duma, the treaty would create two outposts of Russian power in Georgia, as Tbilisi seeks to bind itself more closely to the West. Analysts see it as part of a campaign to dissuade Tbilisi’s turn toward the European Union. Indeed, Moscow began talks for a so-called “Treaty of Alliance and Integration” with both South Ossetia and Abkhazia after Georgia signed an association agreement with the European Union in June 2014.
“These treaties are Russia’s response to Georgia moving towards the EU,” Thomas de Waal, a Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told Foreign Policy. “They’re meant to be symbols to other former Soviet states of the price of integrating with the West.”
Moscow has been in de-facto control of South Ossetia since it recognized the region as independent in 2008, following a five-day war with Georgia. The proposed treaty with South Ossetia moves one step closer toward incorporating it outright as Russian territory. “South Ossetia will keep some symbolic political structures, but anything important, such as trade, borders, or armies, will be controlled by Moscow,” de Waal said.
After the 2008 Russo-Georgian war, both South Ossetia and Abkhazia declared their independence from Tbilisi with Moscow’s backing. Georgia considers both South Ossetia and Abkhazia as Russian-occupied territories. Tensions over the territories have resulted in a near-breakdown in diplomatic relations between Tbilisi and Moscow. However, following 2012 parliamentary elections in Georgia, which saw the more pro-Russian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili come to power, relations between Moscow and Tbilisi began to thaw.
Moscow’s expansionist foreign policy is likely to result in yet another significant drain on its treasury, which is currently hemorrhaging funds as a result of falling oil prices. The economies of South Ossetia and Abkhazia remain subsidized by Moscow, and the main selling point to the Abkhazian and South Ossetian public has been promises that government salaries and pensions will be raised to the level of those received in the Russian North Caucasus.
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