Following the diplomatic recognition of Abkhazia by Syria in 2018, Abkhazia opened its embassy in Damascus in October 2020, testifying to the strengthening of relations between the two sides. For Abkhazia, an area partially recognized by the international community and diplomatically supported by Russia, this recognition opens up new perspectives for improving its military and economic ties with the Middle East. In addition, it is evidence of the ongoing opening up of the territory, as it is now recognized by a growing number of countries, unlike others fighting for the same results, such as Transnistria and Nagorno-Karabakh.
The future of Abkhazia remains in question, and Abkhazia-Syria relations are more of a diplomatic victory for Moscow than Sukhum (the de facto Capital of Abkhazia). Nonetheless, this diplomatic advance marks a turning point and poses new challenges, in particular the domino effect and the recognition of Abkhazia by other Kremlin allies, particularly Belarus and North Korea.
Abkhazia’s foreign policy
At the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic of Abkhazia, a part of Soviet Georgia, de facto independent and benefited from Moscow’s support to survive in a rapidly changing post-Soviet space. Although Moscow hesitated to recognize this new country from 1992 to 2008, Moscow announced the recognition of Abkhazia as a full country in 2008 in retaliation for the decision of the US and some EU member states to recognize Kosovo.
As a result, the recognition of Abkhazia is rooted in the interests of the Kremlin rather than in respect of the Montevideo Convention, and subsequent countries that recognize Abkhazia appear to be doing the same as they want to show their support for Moscow, rather than out of an interest in Abkhazia.
This was followed by recognition by Nauru, Nicaragua, Venezuela and unrecognized countries such as Transnistria, but all of these states are of minor interest to the authorities in Sukhum, which are still dependent on neighboring Russia due to the location of Abkhazia.
In this context, the recognition of Syria in 2018 marks a turning point as it ends the lack of recognition by new states since 2009 (Venezuela) and urges the Abkhaz authorities to consider reopening Sukhum International Airport.
The impact of Syria’s recognition in 2018 is significant, and two other countries have begun rapprochement with Abkhazia – North Korea and Belarus – in part because of the Syrian initiative.
Although Abkhazia does not necessarily want to be recognized by North Korea, which would affect its chances of being recognized by the Western world, relations between the two countries are growing in parallel with relations between Syria and North Korea.
In December 2017, the North Korean Chamber of Commerce contacted then Abkhazian Prime Minister Gennadi Gagulia to discuss the possible settlement of North Korean workers in Abkhazia. An Abkhazian delegation then visited Pyongyang (August 2018) and a North Korean delegation visited Sukhum (November 2018), strengthening relations between the two nations. According to the director of international affairs at the North Korean Chamber of Commerce, companies from the construction, food and textile industries and logistics companies are interested in working with Abkhazia. In 2019, around 400 North Korean workers settled in Abkhazia. This approximation suggests that recognition is becoming more and more likely.
Belarus consistently renounces recognition of the territory, claiming that it is of little economic interest. However, recent tensions between the West and Lukashenko suggest that Minsk might recognize Abkhazia in order to meet the Kremlin’s demands and allow Belarusian citizens to travel to Abkhazia more easily if they have limited travel options in the future. This enables a train connection between Minsk and Sukhum, which is an alternative to international flights.
Recognition of Belarus is an option to consider and would follow a similar pattern to Syria a few years after Damascus.
Sukhum Babushara Airport
The growing number of countries recognizing Abkhazia are pushing for the international airport to be reopened to welcome more tourists and strengthen trade ties. The airport has been dedicated to military activities since 1992, but most of them are now at Gudauta Military Airport, which has undergone significant changes since it was recognized by Russia in 2008 and therefore Sukhum Airport could be reopened for international flights. Such an initiative would allow tourists from countries with no direct border such as Venezuela, Nicaragua, Nauru and Syria to come to Abkhazia, as the area is a well-known tourist destination.
This could be a huge advantage for Abkhazia, as it would also mean that tourists from all over the world could make a stopover in a country that recognizes Abkhazia, like Russia. In fact, the Chinese, Americans and French could now travel to Abkhazia via the countries that recognize the territory.
In July 2019 the leadership of Abkhazia issued a decree to open the “Vladislav Ardzinba Sukhum International Airport” to international flights.
Syria’s relations with Abkhazia
Although Syria did not recognize Abkhazia until 2018, relations between the two entities stretch back centuries, but intensified in 2008 when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said Damascus was “with the essence of the Russian position” on the Abkhazians. Agree to conflict. In 2013, Abkhazia appointed a representative of the Abkhaz Foreign Ministry to Syria, then in 2015 the Abkhaz Foreign Minister met Syria’s Ambassador to Russia, Riyadh Haddad, in Moscow to say that his government believes Syria will recognize Abkhazia as a sovereign country in the future.
The entente between the two sides was strengthened during the refugee crisis when some Syrians of Abkhaz origin were allowed to enter Abkhazia (500 Syrians remigrated to Abkhazia). This decision was in the interests of both Damascus and Sukhum, as Damascus failed to ensure the safety of some Syrian citizens and Abkhazia is welcome as newcomers to compensate for the demographic decline in Abkhazia, which has had a weak birthrate for several decades.
As a symbol of this rapprochement, the first freestyle wrestling fight between Abkhazia and Syria took place in Sukhum in December 2016, and in August 2017 Abkhazia provided humanitarian aid to Syria.
This rapprochement culminated in a free trade agreement between Damascus and Sukhum in November 2017, which led to the possibility of recognition the following year. Unlike other countries, relations between Syria and Abkhazia are deeper, with a physical closeness. For example, although Venezuela has been recognized, almost no one from that part of the world has visited Abkhazia while there are more than 500 people of Syrian origin on the territory. There are also numerous exchange opportunities and bilateral meetings. In May 2021, the Abkhazian President Aslan Bzhania paid a state visit to Syria and met with Bashar al-Assad.
In addition to Moscow’s wish, this friendly atmosphere can be explained by several factors, in particular the fact that Abkhazia is a country at the interface between the Muslim and Christian world. As such, the Abkhaz flag symbolizes this union with white for Christianity and green for Islam, and the Abkhaz society integrates Muslims and their practices, making it a bridge between the Orthodox and Muslim worlds and enabling rapid integration of Syrians.
Russia’s involvement in Syria-Abkhazia relations
The Kremlin was the main actor in helping Syria’s recognition of Abkhazia as it served its diplomatic interests and in many ways continues to do so. In this regard, the Russian military presence in Abkhazia remains strong, especially with the two bases in Ochamchire responsible for the activities of the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB) and the Gudauta base for operations at the 7th military base.
While the facility in Ochamchire is of no interest in the context of Abkhazia-Syria relations, the facility in Gudauta differs in that, due to the non-recognition of Abkhazia by western countries, limited international surveillance of equipment originating in or outside of the country is possible leave the Gudauta airport. If Moscow so wishes, from this strategic point it can receive and send as much as it wants, without having to justify itself, but to the Abkhaz authorities.
The secrecy of the station’s activities in Gudauta and its connection with Syria is reinforced by the fact that a billboard will be set up near the military compound showing the good relations between Abkhazia and Syria. Significant work has also been done at the base, including upgrading a football stadium, new fences, a well-mowed lawn around the base, and careful management of the site, similar to that of the French naval base at the Seine port in France. It is impossible to visit the base, nor to get there by the country lanes or the beach, the only vantage point is the tall abandoned Soviet buildings in the nearby town. Unlike Ochamchire, where a conversation with the soldiers is possible near the barracks, the Gudauta site offers a higher level of security as the nearby restaurant is the only place to meet the soldiers who prefer not to talk about their duties .
While it is unclear to what extent the Kremlin is interacting with Syria through the Gudauta facility, the presence of posters about Abkhazia-Syria relations suggests a connection.
In summary, the relationship between Syria and Abkhazia arose from Moscow’s determination, but it is deeper than, for example, that between Venezuela and Abkhazia. In addition, the 2018 recognition opens the door to possible recognition by North Korea and Belarus, but more importantly, resumption of international flights to Sukhum Airport. Should such a reopening take place, it will mean access to Abkhazia not only for the countries that recognize it, but also for all travelers willing to travel via Moscow, Caracas, Damascus or Managua. The opening of Abkhazia seems to be a reality and is leading to new questions, especially about the position of the Western countries if they want to continue to support Georgia and defend their approach in the South Caucasus.
From our partner RIAC