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Abkhazia's foreign relations, by Liana Kvarchelia

International Alert | Georgia-Abkhazia on the road to 2020

Liana Kvarchelia
Deputy Director of the Center for Humanitarian Programs in Abkhazia

Current state of Abkhazia’s external relations


The year 2013 marks 20 years of Abkhaz statehood. Without going into the details of the contradictions in international law, the constitutional framework, and the de facto consequences of the collapse of the USSR for its former constituent republics and autonomous entities (and the Realpolitik interests behind the process of recognition of the new post-Soviet republics), the key factor in the de facto independence of Abkhazia was the 1992–1993 Georgian-Abkhaz war. Up until 2008, the Abkhaz based their arguments for independence on conflicts of law related to different historical periods, including the creation and collapse of the USSR. Today, the international legitimacy of the Abkhaz state is being linked with the recognition of Abkhazia’s independence by the Russian Federation in 2008. Subsequent recognition over the next four years by a further five states – which, with the possible exception of Venezuela, are extreme lightweights in the global conjuncture – has not achieved widespread external legitimation of Abkhazia and the recognition process is currently stagnating.

This raises the question of what the components are of the current status quo and what the prospects are for changing it in favour of wider international recognition of Abkhazia.

Abkhazia currently exists, as it were, in two dimensions. In one respect, Abkhazia is a de jure recognised state and an actor in official interstate (bilateral) relations. This dimension is limited due to the partial nature of Abkhazia’s recognition: just six states have recognised Abkhazia’s independence. Moreover, only one of these six states – Russia, on whose southern borders Abkhazia is located – is an influential international player and a regional power. Russia provides Abkhazia with military security guarantees, significant economic assistance and has a real influence on the situation both in Abkhazia itself and in the region. The West maintains a policy of partial isolation towards Abkhazia.

In the other dimension, Abkhazia de jure is not considered a sovereign entity, since it is considered to be an integral part of Georgia and is not a subject of international relations. This dimension does not reflect the true state of affairs, given that Abkhazia is actually not dependent on Georgia: Georgia does not exercise control over its territory and does not participate in its administration, although it does influence the international conjuncture in relation to Abkhazia.

The status quo under which these two dimensions have co-existed since 2008 has remained more or less stable. Moreover, despite some negative trends, this status quo has not been seriously undermined by the propaganda war over the events of 2008. Nor has it been critically undermined by the format of the Geneva talks where the participants’ status has been reduced to that of “experts”, or by the string of international resolutions on the so-called “occupied territories”.

However, any developments in the region that affect the interests of the major players and are directly or indirectly related to Abkhazia will inevitably lead to a collision between these two realities and force the parties to find a compromise within the limits of what each finds acceptable. For example, the 2011 Russia-Georgia agreement – signed over Russia’s membership of the World Trade Organization (WTO) – required serious concessions from Georgia. However, it is unlikely that the Georgian administration would have made these concessions had it not been for pressure from Georgia’s main partner, the United States. Russia was also forced to resort to watered-down formulations which did not directly question the independence of Abkhazia (which Russia has recognised), but also allowed the Georgian side to sign the document which was of such importance for Moscow. The Abkhaz side has apparently not been involved in the consultations, which directly concerned its borders. It was only able to declare that it would not allow international observers onto its territory under this Russian-Georgian agreement.

Similar situations are bound to arise with other projects, particularly if they directly affect the territory of Abkhazia. These include, for example, the idea to reinstate the section of the South Caucasus railway that passes through Abkhaz territory. Even if Azerbaijan’s opposition to the reinstatement of a railway linking Russia and Armenia is overcome, the parties will have to find a formula that satisfies Abkhazia in particular, since it is the most vulnerable player due to the partial nature of its recognition and the consequences this entails.  

Are new relations with Georgia possible?

In the very first days after coming to power in Georgia, the new State Minister for Reintegration, Paata Zakareishvili, attempted to remove the taboo subjects that currently exist within Georgian politics: exploring bolder ideas such as a bilateral agreement with Abkhazia on the non-use of force; a review of the law on the “occupied territories” to facilitate direct contacts between Abkhazia and Europe; the reinstatement of the railway line through Abkhazia; the renaming of the Ministry of “Reintegration”, etc. These ideas are far from popular even with other departments of the new Georgian government, let alone with the opposition. Conflicts are a political resource, routinely used in domestic politics, driving entirely reasonable ideas into the Procrustean bed of populism. Given the current highly competitive political environment in Georgia, the Georgian authorities are likely to find it difficult to adopt a pragmatic position on Abkhazia without external support and clear messages from Western partners to the Georgian opposition. It is also clear that, in order to obtain that support, the new team must overcome the deficit of trust of the Western partners; this is likely to take some time.

In any case, the key point is that Georgia’s ruling elite itself needs to make a clear choice in relations with Abkhazia to reflect the new realities. The initial impression given was that despite political bickering within the ruling coalition, its most liberal wing was inclined to extend its understanding of the “de-isolation” of Abkhazia to include not only contacts with Georgia, but also direct contacts between Sukhum and the West. If so, the coercion and the post-August bogus “soft power” exercised by President Saakashvili may well have been replaced by a genuine “soft power” aimed at gradually winning over the Abkhaz to Georgia’s side by removing the barriers to Abkhazia’s contacts with the outside world. This would involve Georgia being as open as possible for the citizens of Abkhazia, whilst maintaining the political aim of reintegration.

However, these new and some revived old ideas were presented to the public by Zakareishvili packaged within the notion of the “occupied territories”. The constant use by the new authorities of the term “occupied territories” was initially interpreted as paying lip service to “political correctness” in relation to the Georgian political community. Nevertheless, it quickly became clear that the Georgian “red lines” do not include full, independent contacts between Abkhazia and the outside world. The arguments of the Georgian authorities that real security and development can only be ensured for Abkhazia through rapprochement with Georgia are unrealistic, since they do not take into consideration the perception of threat as understood by the Abkhaz side. If Tbilisi again views the de-isolation of Abkhazia solely in terms of an inevitable and undeviating reintegration with Georgia (even a renewed Georgia), then there is no realistic prospect of Abkhazia ever seriously opening up to the outside world (except to Russia).

The change in regimes in Tbilisi does not alter the desire of the Abkhaz to build their own independent state. If the new Georgian authorities resort to the old approaches, the current status quo is likely to remain. If the Tbilisi authorities realise that counting on de-isolation to win over the Abkhaz to Georgia’s side has failed, they may be content to relinquish responsibility for taking decisions on this complex conflict and concentrate instead on domestic issues within Georgia. “Turning a blind eye” to contacts, particularly between Europe and Abkhazia, might involve Georgia partially acting against its self-serving policy. However, one desirable outcome for Georgia might well be that the diversification of Abkhazia’s economic and political contacts could serve, to some extent, to balance the presence of external players in the region.

A more realistic, status-neutral position towards Abkhazia – at least as a party to the conflict and in relation to an agreement on the non-use of force – would increase the likelihood of cooperation on areas of mutual interest. Such areas include the involvement of Abkhazia in regional or even bilateral, mutually beneficial economic initiatives. While there may be some limited opportunities for interaction over transport, trade or energy, it must be borne in mind that any decisions by the Abkhaz side will be carefully weighed up against the potential risks. The approach adopted by Georgia – whether the current one based on the idea of “occupation”, or possible neutrality over the status of Abkhazia, or even recognition of the republic’s independence (which naturally Abkhazia would prefer) – will determine the degree of  Abkhazia’s openness to interaction of this type. In other words, from the Abkhaz perspective interaction could only take place where the format, scale and conditions exclude any threat to Abkhazia’s military and political security. In this sense, economic incentives are of limited value in persuading Abkhazia to make compromises over its political status.

This also applies to the European idea of giving Abkhazia the opportunity to enjoy the fruits of the EU-Georgia Free Trade Agreement and Visa Waiver Scheme currently under negotiation. There is a widespread view among the international community that economic and trade cooperation between Georgia and Abkhazia, as well as contacts in other areas, could be an effective instrument for reconciling the two peoples and ultimately restoring Georgia’s “territorial integrity”. However, it is the idea of “reintegration” that repulses the Abkhaz side and forces it to go down the more obvious and in some ways easier route of blocking any initiatives launched by Georgia or indeed its allies. One example of this are the recent tendencies that might potentially lead to further reducing the international presence in Abkhazia; these tendencies are likely to damage not so much Abkhazia’s economic interests, but its political objectives of overcoming international inertia in relation to itself.

Western approaches to Abkhazia

While we acknowledge that there are subtle differences between the European and American approaches to the conflict, these two major international actors nevertheless operate on the same basis. Abkhazia and its claims for widespread international recognition are viewed by the international community through the prism of the West’s relations with Russia. The coalition government headed by Bidzina Ivanishvili came to power on a platform of restoring Georgia’s relations not only with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but also with Russia. This has generated, on the one hand, inflated expectations within the international community regarding the prospects of achieving a settlement of the conflict. On the other hand, it has raised some concerns that Georgia might deviate from its Euro-Atlanticist direction. These concerns might, in certain situations, force the West to try to de-link the settlement of territorial disputes from Georgia’s membership of NATO. Depending on Georgia’s position, this might result in the continuation of the policy of isolation and Abkhazia’s steady drift towards a de facto Russian protectorate (which is more likely) or a gradual, lengthy process of conditional recognition of Abkhazia. In the latter case, these conditions could include a significant international presence in Abkhazia, a resolution of the refugee issue (partial return, compensation for losses of property, including in exchange for return), democratisation in all areas in accordance with international standards, etc. The recent vote to give Palestine observer status at the UN has shown that a line has not yet been drawn under the process of recognition of new states. Moreover, whatever Georgia’s motives for voting in favour of Palestine’s membership, it does to some extent reflect the understanding within the international community of the inevitability of certain processes. In this context, it is impossible to sustain the argument that the “dismemberment” of Georgia is unlawful given Georgia’s genesis in the collapse of the USSR, the recognition of Kosovo and a set of other states, as well as the recent events around Palestine.

In the case of Abkhazia, however, both the US and the EU, given the peripheral nature of the Georgian-Abkhaz issue on the international agenda, are likely in the foreseeable future to prefer to maintain the existing status quo. It is conceivable that they will use this status quo in the coming years as a “stick” in their relations with Russia and leave it to Turkey to play the part of a more flexible player in relations with Abkhazia. The latest evidence of such flexibility is the partnership agreement concluded in November 2012 between the Abkhaz capital and the Turkish city of Side. This was followed by a visit to the Abkhaz capital by a group of Turkish entrepreneurs and representatives of the local administration from a Turkish city.

Another possibility is that Europe itself will finally draw lessons from its failed attempt at “engagement without recognition” and will not merely formulate but actually implement initiatives on the de-isolation of Abkhazia for its own sake and not solely in terms of its impact on conflict. The formula “interaction/engagement without recognition”, although originally well-intentioned, has been compromised by its capture and mothballing by the former Georgian administration. If lessons are learnt and Europe has sufficient interest in the region, new initiatives could emerge by which Abkhazia can communicate directly with European countries. However, if Europe’s principal aim as a near neighbour is not stability and democracy in the region, but to force out Russia through a reconciliation between the Abkhaz and Georgians and the return of Abkhazia to Georgia, there will inevitably be even more radical reductions in what is already merely a symbolic international presence in Abkhazia.

The new Abkhaz approach to international institutions


The aforementioned trend within Abkhazia towards a tougher stance over contacts with the West has a number of facets. On the one hand, it is reactive, intended to persuade the international community to change its current approach to Abkhazia – whereby Abkhazia is considered a part of Georgia – particularly as this approach has hardened since 2008, as manifested, for example, in Abkhazia being stripped of its status as a party in the talks. The Medvedev-Sarkozy plan is now spent and the time has come for a discussion of a new format for the Geneva talks.

The assistance provided by Europe in particular is limited in scale and sometimes symbolic. There are no significant development programmes; the emphasis is more on humanitarian programmes. The EU links the idea of de-isolation exclusively with the resolution of the conflict. All this is seen in Abkhazia as a discriminatory approach and increases distrust of Western institutions.

Abkhazia’s introduction of more formal procedures for communicating with the outside world – which replaced the previously more flexible interaction that reflected the political aspect of the international presence in Abkhazia – may also mean that the current administration no longer sees cooperation with international organisations as a way to create a more favourable international climate for state-building in Abkhazia. Unfortunately, attempts by individual Western institutions and organisations to engage coincided with a peak in general fatigue and frustration over the EU’s inaction over Abkhazia. Nevertheless, the fact that government bodies are currently discussing the introduction of a visa waiver for foreign citizens (although for the time being only in relation to the Russia-Abkhaz border) and that Abkhazia’s president has repeatedly suggested that the international representatives consider large-scale investments in Abkhazia may be evidence that Abkhazia is still trying to find rules of the game that are acceptable.

The new Abkhaz approach also appears, to some extent, to take into account trends in Russia as well as Russian concerns about previously declared ideas of an Abkhaz “multi-vector” policy. Such a policy was misinterpreted by many and portrayed as a withdrawal from its alliance with Russia. In fact, since it is in Abkhazia’s long-term interests to strengthen its sovereignty by increasing its international legitimacy, the Abkhaz side under the previous administration had made some efforts to expand its international contacts while maintaining and deepening its partnership with Russia. In terms of the international presence in Abkhazia, there appears to be a clash between, firstly, the joint interest of Abkhazia and Russia in dispelling the myth of the “occupation” of Abkhazia, which cannot be achieved if Abkhazia remains cut off from the West; secondly, there are Russia’s concerns that Abkhazia’s loyalty might waver; and thirdly, Abkhazia has concerns that relations might be put at risk with its sole ally, guarantor of security and principal donor. Moreover, Abkhazia is attempting to balance promoting its interests over contentious Russian-Abkhaz issues (the issue of the church, the demarcation of the border around the village of Aigba, the unification of the North Caucasus with the South through the Kodor Gorge, property issues, etc.) with a rather rhetorical toughness towards Western organisations. However, the Abkhaz legitimate demand that the Western institutions respect their right to self-determination is not matched by a corresponding openness or effort to overcome inertia in relation to Abkhazia. If requirements for relations with international organisations are made too tough, it might lead to the marginalisation of Abkhazia by international institutions rather than a change in Western approaches. Figures in the Abkhaz establishment, who have so far enjoyed a reputation as sophisticated politicians, need to strike a balance to prevent Abkhazia being seen as a closed society and being ignored on the international stage.

Relations with Russia

Relations between Abkhazia and Russia are based on formal legal equivalence but are in practice asymmetrical. This asymmetry results not just from the disparities in the economic and political weight of the two parties, but also from the fact that Abkhazia has no viable alternative to these relations given the lack of widespread international recognition. While the Abkhaz are sensitive to any signs that Abkhazia’s sovereignty might be infringed, Russia is still closer to the Abkhaz in terms of language and culture than the West. Moreover, communication with the West has been restricted since the collapse of the USSR to discussions around the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict, on which the West’s position was prejudiced from the start. In Abkhazia (and indeed in Georgia itself outside Tbilisi), perceptions of Russia are not negative as in most of the West.

The prospect of an easing in Russian-Georgian relations following the change in government in Georgia in the run-up to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi is no longer the cause of concern in Abkhazia as it was before 2008. This is because the Russian administration, with its aspirations for the return of Russia’s superpower status, could not withdraw its recognition of Abkhazia without a substantial loss of face regarding, in the first place, its own electorate. Given Russia’s interest in reinstating railway communications with Armenia and other potential projects in the region, it could well be that one of Russia’s partners in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) might grant Abkhazia recognition as an incentive.

There is a growing realisation within Abkhaz society itself that if Abkhazia’s sovereignty is to be maintained, it needs to become a viable state. Similarly, unless its economy develops, the country risks becoming a region reliant on subsidies. This can only be achieved by Russian assistance being transformed from contributions to the infrastructure into investment in the economy.

Topics for discussion

The following questions represent key topics for discussion regarding Abkhazia’s future relations and status.

  • What are the advantages and disadvantages of Abkhazia’s current international position?
  • Under what circumstances could Abkhazia gain broader recognition by CIS countries?
  • Is the new Georgian approach fully formed? Will it contain a “window of opportunity” for Abkhazia?
  • What would Georgia and Abkhazia gain from mutual recognition and what are the risks?
  • Is the new Abkhaz approach to international bodies likely to be self-imposed isolation or the reconfiguration of external contacts?
  • Is the future of the Geneva process likely to entail two processes (Georgian-Abkhaz and Georgian-Ossetian) instead of one?
  • Can recognition by European states be achieved without any link to conflict resolution?
  • Which is more important in terms of recognition: quality or quantity?

Source: International Alert

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