Planes, Trains and Political Wheels
The Kremlin opened a Russian Embassy in Sokhumi, the occupied territory of Abkhazia. The airplane carrying the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, landed in Babushera’s closed airport (for a long time it has had an internal Russian aviation code, just like Rostov, Krasnodar and Taganrog airports in Russia). In a speech made beside the airplane, Lavrov stressed the statehood of the so-called Abkhazian Republic, saying that it was further highlighted by the fact that a Russian Embassy had opened on the territory.
Apart from this political/aviational casus, which clearly illustrates the reality of the so-called independence of the Abkhazian Republic, Lavrov’s visit was accompanied by others, too. When he and other members of the delegation visited the famous Brekhalovka on the Sokhumi coast and sat down to drink coffee, Lavrov invited a female journalist to take the free chair and join him. She refused, to which the Minister jokingly remarked, “Do you refuse to drink coffee? Is it forbidden for women?” By doing so, he once again reminded the hosts of their “wild” Caucasian origins.
At a first glance, Lavrov’s two day visit to occupied Sokhumi was nothing special, but if we examine it more closely, we will see that it was more than accidental that Lavrov’s governmental plane landed directly at the non-functioning airport of the occupied territory rather than at Sochi International, which is just half an hour’s drive from Sokhumi.
Lavrov is the first person to have landed in a passenger plane at Babushera Airport in 15 years. In September last year, he came in via Sokhumi. “This is the first time I’ve landed in Sokhumi since my adolescence, I just don’t remember former landings because I was so young,” he said at the time, emphasizing the quality of the airport and smiling for the journalists. “After today’s landing, as a passenger, I can state that in my opinion this airport is ready to receive any type of aircraft. I hope that the number of those will only increase.” This statement was instantly mocked in aviation circles, and though no official statements were made, Russian aviators ridiculed his incompetency widely on internet forums: “Lavrov is happy that his plane did not crash”, “Lavrov had to survive an air crash in order to smile”, “Gloomy Sokhumi and smiling Lavrov,” - these were some of the headlines of articles appearing on various blogs and forums.
The minister took a risk when he made the decision to land at Babushera Airport because the runway is nowhere near any standards. However, Lavrov claims it can take any passenger or military-transportation liner. The Kremlin has been working hard to grant international status to this airport in occupied Sokhumi, though in vain: the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) still believes that Abkhazia's airspace is part of Georgia.
Parallel to the opening of the Embassy, issues about transport were the main priority of Lavrov’s visit. Apart from Babusheri Airport, the matter of opening the railway connecting Abkhazia with Tbilisi was one of the themes discussed with the de-facto President. Notably, the official initiator of the project is Yerevan and de-facto Sokhumi’s management is against it. “We are interested in supporting our cause, which is directed towards providing equal rights to Abkhazia’s citizens, so that everyone feels themselves peaceful and in national agreement,” the Russian Foreign Affairs Minister stated. With this, he once again implied to the de-facto leaders that unlike their official position, Yerevan’s initiative has many local Armenian supporters. All this should also be notable for the Georgian Dream in Tbilisi.
Russia does not think there is anything wrong in resuming transit shipments to Armenia across Abkhazia. At the press conference in Sokhumi, Lavrov said that there is legal basis for the activation of this transit route, based on the 2011 agreement signed between Russia and the World Trade Organization. “We know that our Armenian colleagues are interested in renewing the transit route. The President of Abkhazia also said that he is not against it,” said Lavrov. “If the Georgian side is ready to solve this issue, I’m convinced that the process will begin and bring benefits to Abkhazia,” said Raul Khajimba, the so-called President of Abkhazia.
Op-ed by Zaza Jgarkava