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For twenty years now the West has shirked its responsibility in Abkhazia, by Oliver Urs Lenz

Oliver Urs Lenz | Special to Abkhaz World

I would like to mention two somewhat similar cases. These are Chechnya and, at the risk of losing readers tired of superficial comparisons, Kosovo. I believe that together, they can tell us what consequences the West should draw from the Georgian-Abkhazian war that ended twenty years ago today, as they constitute positive and negative alternatives.

There are obviously many differences between Chechnya, Abkhazia and Kosovo, but one thing they have in common is that all three fought wars with larger countries that claimed ownership over them --- Russia, Georgia and Serbia. These were horrible wars. (Most wars are, but I feel that the impact on local people is often underestimated by outsiders proposing resolutions to these types of conflicts.) A second important commonality is that all three emerged victorious from these wars. They received differing degrees of outside support, but that does not affect this practical outcome.

Why did the West recognise Kosovo's independence in 2008? Certainly the feeling that through its conduct during the war, Serbia had lost its moral right to sovereignty over Kosovo, played a role. But I believe the decisive argument was practical. It was clear that Kosovo would not voluntarily become part of Serbia again, and the status quo of unresolved status was deemed unacceptable.

In fact, there was a third hypothetical possibility that was easiest to reject: reintegration of Kosovo into Serbia by force. And yet that is what eventually happened in Chechnya with the second war that broke out in 1999. To be sure, Chechnya must share part of the blame for failing to build a stable state after the first war and also for the outbreak of the second. But this instability was also due to the fact that Chechnya received too little Western support beyond guiding the 1997 presidential election, and a failure of the West to treat the Chechen government as a responsible party. Most of all, Russia was more or less free to steam-roll over Chechnya because from the Western perspective, this was still an internal conflict.

As with Chechnya, the West has always appeared to accept the status quo in Abkhazia. To its credit, Abkhazian society has managed to avoid Chechnya's descent into chaos, and to build a state that is remarkably democratic, given the circumstances. Nevertheless, as in Chechnya, the risk of renewed violence has never been far away, with Georgian military 'initiatives' in Abkhazia in 1998 and 2001 and in South Ossetia in 2004 and 2008. Until the Russian response in 2008, these attacks went largely unnoticed in the West precisely because these were seen as internal conflicts. Luckily, one positive effect of the 2008 War has been increased stability, and in the short term renewed violence is now much less likely. However, as long as the West sees Abkhazia as part of Georgia, the Chechen scenario is always a possibility.

Official Western rhetoric suggests Abkhazia can be made to give up independence, or at least that Russia can be convinced to make Abkhazia give up independence. This is illusionary, and this is precisely the lesson of the 1992--1993 war that the West has not learned. There is no example in modern history of a war so traumatic whereafter the party aspiring towards independence voluntarily relinquished this goal. Strangely, the fact that the war ended twenty years ago seems to be interpreted as decreasing its relevance. Yes, the war is less traumatic now than it was twenty years ago, but Georgia and Abkhazia have only grown further apart. This point is worth repeating: ever since the break-up of the Soviet union (which is when the war happened), Georgia and Abkhazia have gone their own separate ways. Asking Abkhazia to let bygones be bygones is akin to suggesting that the time is ripe for Texas to join Mexico, now that its independence war is ancient history.

In truth, the more informed analysts realise this. They now advise that the issue of status cannot be resolved in the next ten years. In other words, in Abkhazia the status quo will remain. But there is no reason why this is any more acceptable than it was for Kosovo in 2008. The West took its responsibility then, but it is shirking its responsibility now. The 1992--1993 war and the unacceptability of renewed conflict have blocked the way back, so the only way is forward. The West could achieve much more if it accepted this and worked with Abkhazia. This does not necessarily have to take the form of immediate recognition of Abkhazia's independence, but it does mean that the West should take a truly status-neutral approach (as it did with Kosovo), lift travel and trade restrictions, contribute towards state building and stop bullying other countries who are ready to recognise Abkhazia.

One final word about the moral trump card played by Georgia and its supporters in the West whenever the possibility of recognising Abkhazia is raised, that to do so would be to accept the result of ethnic cleansing. As mentioned above, the 1992--1993 War saw great horrors. The 1995 Human Rights Watch investigation established that war crimes were perpetrated by both sides. The argument that new states should not be created through violence would carry some force if it weren't for the fact that the war was started by a Georgian invasion. Moreover, there are clearly two things that must happen: the victims of crimes must receive care and compensation, and the perpetrators must face justice. As long as the status quo is maintained, not only are these two processes delayed, their fulfilment actually becomes ever more difficult and incomplete. If human rights violations really are the West's top priority, it has to work with the Abkhazian government and accept it as legitimate.

Oliver Urs Lenz
Author of TAKLAMA Blog.

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