Russia’s Restoration of Sukhumi Airport May Lead to Full Annexation of Abkhazia
Abkhazia’s separatist government has recently signed public-private agreements with Russian companies for the restoration of Babushera airport, sparking fears in Georgia that Russia may be considering the annexation of Abkhazia.
Image: Митя Алешковский/Wikimedia Commons
On October 27, the Moscow-backed separatist government in Abkhazia signed a public-private partnership agreement with the recently established Russian company Infrastructure Development to restore operations at the Babushera airport near the Abkhazian capital of Sukhumi. Rashid Nurgaliyev Jr., the son of the current deputy secretary of the Russian Security Council and former deputy minister of the interior, Rashid Nurgaliyev, owns Infrastructure Development. The elder Nurgaliev is considered one of the most influential figures within Russian President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle. The deal has heightened fears in Georgia that the Kremlin may be considering the full annexation of Abkhazia in the near future.
The Sukhumi airport has been officially closed since the early 1990s. During the War in Abkhazia (August 1992–September 1993), Georgia used the airport to evacuate the Georgian civilian population from Sukhumi, who were surrounded by Abkhazian, North Caucasian, and Russian military units. Tbilisi also deployed Georgian army personnel at the airport. In September 1993, separatists shot down two civilian aircraft over the airport, killing hundreds of people. After these incidents, the International Civil Aviation Organization banned flights to Sukhumi.
Russia has taken a new interest in restoring the Sukhumi airport over the past few months. On June 16, Moscow and Sukhumi signed an investment agreement for several projects at the airport. The contract calls for an unspecified “Russian legal entity” to oversee reconstruction of the airport and resumption of air traffic. In addition, the separatist government in Abkhazia agreed to provide the Russian investor with favorable investment terms, including guarantees of ownership and preservation of the agreement’s conditions throughout implementation of the projects.
The agreement gives Infrastructure Development insider access to Abkhazia’s economy. The Russian company will be granted these unprecedented privileges:
- All construction materials and equipment, including air fuel and supplies for aircraft maintenance, will be exempt from customs duties.
- Infrastructure Development will be exempt from property and profit taxes during the payback period of up to 25 years.
- For electricity consumed during the project, the Russian company will pay a tariff rate similar to that of Abkhazia’s “most privileged” entities, such as schools and hospitals.
Infrastructure Development, in turn, will undertake various intensive projects. These include the reconstruction of the airport’s runways, construction of a new passenger terminal, and the refurbishment of the airport to better accommodate government officials and foreign delegations. The last project has raised suspicions that Russian officials may be planning more trips to Abkhazia in the near future. The new airport terminal will have a capacity of 1,300 passengers per hour and an estimated cost of reconstruction of 8 billion rubles (approximately $84 million). The airport is scheduled to be operational by December 31, 2024.
The sudden appearance of Infrastructure Development has raised questions regarding the company’s true intentions. The younger Nurgaliyev’s company was not formally registered in Moscow until July 2023, a few weeks after the initial investment agreement was signed with Sukhumi. Separatist officials in Abkhazia view the restoration of Sukhumi airport as a vital infrastructure project that could significantly boost the republic’s economy, which underlines their openness to Russian involvement. Georgian experts familiar with the realities in Abkhazia have warned that restoration of the airport is Moscow’s first step to fully annexing the republic after 30 years of occupation.
Over the past few months, Russia has been steadily increasing its presence in Abkhazia. Vakhtang Kolbaia, former deputy speaker of the Georgian parliament, said in a November 10 interview with this author that Russian companies have been actively buying land in Abkhazia and pushing the separatist government to pass the so-called “apartment bill.” The bill would allow Russian citizens to buy real estate in Abkhazia. Kolbaia pointed out, “Putin will likely not try to formally incorporate Abkhazia into the Russian Federation, but de facto incorporate it into the ‘Russian world’” (Author’s interview, November 10). He emphasized that almost 100 percent of Abkhazians are Russian citizens. In addition, Abkhazia’s borders and airspace are controlled by the Russian army. Moscow has built 17 military bases in Abkhazia, including the new naval base at the Port of Ochamchire. Kolbaia concluded, “If Sukhumi airport is added to this, then de facto annexation will become complete.”
Other experts in Tbilisi have argued that international law will not become an obstacle for Russia’s use of the Sukhumi airport, potentially for military means. In an interview with this author, Giorgi Gvazava, former chair of the pro-Georgian parliament in Abkhazia, lamented that the “International Civil Aviation Organization will never officially allow Russia to use Sukhumi airport, but Moscow plans to operate internal flights anyways” (Author’s interview, November 9). Russia, despite the international ban, actively uses the airport in illegally annexed Crimea for flights to the peninsula, some delivering military supplies to Russian forces stationed there.
Moscow has presumably employed Nurgaliyev Jr. and his company for an added layer of plausible deniability. David Avalishvili, an analyst at Nation.ge, mentioned that possibility in an interview with this author: “Putin, as always, uses his corrupt officials and oligarchs to carry out his imperialist plans. … In preparing for the occupation of eastern Ukraine and Crimea, Putin actively exploited the interests of Russian oligarchs and his ministers … like Rashid Nurgaliev, who works in a high position in the office of the Russian Security Council” (Author’s interview November 10)
Russia’s restoration of the Sukhumi airport will give Moscow another option for sending its citizens and possibly military equipment to the separatist republic. The Bombora airport in the city of Gudauta has been used by the Russian army in Abkhazia for 30 years, and a Russian military bases is located there. Operations at Sukhumi airport may take on a similar nature, transforming it into a driver for Russia’s full annexation of Abkhazia by economic and financial means. These efforts are expected to be carried out by Putin and his team of chekists, oligarchs, and corrupt officials that includes Rashid Nurgaliyev and his son.