Olympic Gold in Abkhazia

To Our Readers

The Moscow Times welcomes letters to the editor. Letters for publication should be signed and bear the signatory's address and telephone number.
Letters to the editor should be sent by fax to (7-495) 232-6529, by e-mail to oped@imedia.ru, or by post. The Moscow Times reserves the right to edit letters.

Email the Opinion Page Editor



The day before Victory Day, Zvezda television, run by the Defense Ministry, reported that Georgia was planning an invasion of the breakaway republic of Abkhazia on May 9.

This situation is painfully reminiscent of when Russian intelligence services announced that the United States would attack Iran on April 6 at exactly 4 a.m. in an operation code-named "Bite." Both stories contained remarkably specific details, but in both cases, no war ever started.

There is no doubt that Georgia would like to regain Abkhazia. If Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili were Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, he would probably send troops into Abkhazia as Putin did with Chechnya, and he would either capture Abkhazia or at least gun down a lot of Abkhaz citizens. As badly as Saakashvili wants to restore Georgia's territorial integrity, Georgia's desire to join NATO and to achieve high economic growth, however, take precedent.

The type of scare tactic used by Zvezda has been used before in totalitarian states. Nazi Germany, for example, announced the "attack of the Poles" just before seizing Poland. The Soviet Union raised the alarm about the "aggression of the White Finns" after it staged the shelling of the Russian village Mainila. This incident served as the casus belli for initiating the 1939-40 Winter War.

But the propaganda campaign against the "aggression of the Georgians" is different in one important way -- construction companies for the 2014 Sochi Olympics have more to gain by annexing Abkhazia than the Kremlin does.

The commercial aspect of the Abkhazia conflict is clear. After all, why is Moscow's interest concentrated in Abkhazia instead of the other Georgian breakaway republic, South Ossetia? Because South Ossetia is poor, sparsely populated, and it has little more than flooded mines and a president who occasionally exposes assassination attempts on his life.

Abkhazia is a different matter entirely. It is a subtropical region with pristine natural beauty. More important, Abkhazia, which is located just 30 kilometers from Sochi, is a key source of construction materials that are badly needed to build all of the infrastructure for the Sochi Olympics.

Foreign analysts link Russia's rankling over Abkhazia with two external events -- the West's recognition of Kosovo's independence and Georgia's desire to join NATO. But there was one other event -- purely domestic -- that preceded the country's heightened interest in Abkhazia. This was the management shakeup within Olimpstroi, the company that will be allocated billions of dollars to prepare Sochi for the Winter Olympics. For construction companies that have contracts for Olympic projects, Abkhazia has "strategic corruption value." First, it will be a major source of crushed stone and other building materials. Second, thanks to the enormous development planned for Sochi, real estate prices and hotels in neighboring Abkhazia will most likely shoot through the roof.

As soon as Olimpstroi head Semyon Veinshtock was given his pink slip, the idea of "Project Abkhazia" came to the fore. It started as an "offshore company" of sorts, established to make a load of money quickly and without a lot of transparency. (Perhaps this is what Putin had in mind when he spoke last month of the need to give economic and legal recognition to the unrecognized republics.) Then, it was presented as the need to "defend Abkhazia from the Georgians!"

The moment Russian businessmen start buying up Abkhaz hotels and shipping its construction materials into Sochi, it will be clear to everyone why it is so essential to have 3,000 Russian peacekeepers stationed there. And if, for some strange reason, the local Abkhaz leaders are upset that they are left with only crumbs from this deal, the peacekeepers can simply explain to them that this is the price they have to pay for being protected against Georgia's aggression.

Yulia Latynina hosts a political talk show on Ekho Moskvy radio.