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Place, Position and Future of Abkhazia in the Second New World Order, by Nikolai Zlobin

Nikolai Zlobin

Paper read at the conference “Independence of Abkhazia and Prospects for the Caucasus” organized by the Friends of Abkhazia Civil Initiative. Istanbul, Bilgi University, 31 May 2009.

I will start by saying that Abkhazia became a big part of old history. By this I mean that Abkhazia is the ultimate example of the formation capacity of the international system that arose after the Second World War. From one aspect, it is the latest example and from another, it is the first example of how to cope with international problems apart from the old Yalta System. The Yalta system ended in Abkhazia and that is why I think Abkhazia would ever stay in world history as a turning point. Yalta’s end started in Kosovo and has drawn to a close in Abkhazia. I am saying this, because I believe we can talk about history; we can talk about what happened in the past, about problems and mistakes, but I think it would be a big mistake to look for solutions in a system which no longer exist in the world. We are in a new world order. I call it the “Second New World Order.” Yes, I believe that we are in a new world order and the international system has been renewed in the last sixty years since the Second World War. I think this is a point for rethinking very serious fundamental things, from international organizations to international law.

I would say I personally do not know what ‘independent country’ means anymore.What does it mean to be independent? From what? Independent from what? From the global economy? The current world crisis shows that nobody is independent from the global economy. Actually, I would argue that the Noble Prize for economics should be rescinded, because it is a disgrace to grant a Noble Prize for economics in this crisis. Independent from what? From international global companies? What does that mean that? I know one independent country in the world. The only really independent country in the world is North Korea. Should we want Abkhazia to become another North Korea? If we become independent to the extent that we are insulated and we are isolated, then we can say that the Chechens are more independent than Abkhazians. Chechens are much more independent than many other countries in the world. I think the first thing that Abkhazia should consider is why and what kind of independence it anticipates. What would this mean for Abkhazian national interests? It is necessary to answer this essential question, and then on the basis of the answer to consider what kind of instruments, mechanisms, legal regulations, etc., are to be developed.

I agree that recognition on the international legal stage is very important for Abkhazia, and that this is a wonderful thing, but Abkhazia must reckon that being engaged with this legal stage might also bring along disappointments. I mean, the international diplomatic failures that you would consecutively experience will bind you. Therefore, I do not consider that existing on the international legal stage as an “absolute must” condition.

Monopolies of Global Countries are over

It is assumed that the United Nations Security Council will strongly be on the side of Georgia. Why? Remember the 1991 Security Council did not do anything about the breakup of the Soviet Union. No one sought to maintain the territorial integrity of the Soviet Union. The Security Council remained indifferent while the biggest country of the world was collapsing. And now do you think it will take care of local problems. Why? As a matter of fact, I think that powerful countries do not or cannot play the roles they have traditionally played in the world. This is a new system, a new order. Regional countries, regional problems became much more important. There are North Korea, Iraq, the Caucasus, and Kosovo and so on. This is a global agenda. It is not American-Russian relations anymore. Global countries have lost their monopoly over the international global agenda. They do not know what to do. Russia and the United States show incredible levels of improvisation in international affairs. It is improvisation, bad improvisation, contentious causing worse improvisation. That is what we deal in international affairs now. This new order is much more complicated and challenging. When it is evaluated with old perceptions, maybe it should be called the ‘order of disorder.’ Or the ‘chaotic order.’ Thereupon, let me add that finding its own way in this order will not be very easy for Abkhazia.

You know I can tell you openly I think that we must use a double standard. If you want to be successful, you have to use standards as much as you like in foreign politics, but a single standard should only be found in criminal codes. If you steal something, you go to prison. That is it. International relations have to be much more flexible and that is what successful foreign policy should be; different standards based in national interest that can change and that is why Abkhazians must figure out what their national interest are now.

Let us talk about an overview of Caucasus. I agree with Sergei Markov and he gave a very good picture what the Caucasus should look like in ideal world. I would be supportive of that, but to speak from the outside of real politics, as he speaks from within, I would say that I do not view the Caucasus as a region. It is just geography. I see it as a combination of very different countries that have nothing to do with each other, with different economies, and different political directions. They are advancing with differing global perspectives. They are developing differently. I do not see what will shape the Caucasus as a region. Maybe I am missing something. I do not know, but I do not see how it can be shaped as a unified region. In my opinion, maybe it is just a hope such as Eurasia or it is whatever we have sought for centuries. This is a hopeless hope.

Does the Caucasus have common grounds?

I do not know what the future of Caucasus will be. I do not know how the countries there will adjust their positions, nor describe themselves, nor where they want to go. Will they become countries that look up to the West, the U.S.A. or the European Union such as Georgia and will they develop their affairs in this direction? Or will they be in new pursuits such as Azerbaijan, which is trying to improve its affairs with the Arab community and be one of the leading countries in the oil market? Or will they act to preserve their relationships with Russia while relating to Europe as Armenia does? So, is it possible for the countries in the Caucasus to advance in the same direction? I do not know.

There are good ideas and good wishes for the Caucasus. There are various anticipations in the matters of economic development, security, and consistency, but there is not any acceptable, concrete attitude regarding how to implement such wishes. For example, the territorial security system has been mentioned. It is theoretically a reassuring and convincing project, but when we ask how we can build this, we cannot reassuring and convincing project, but when we ask how we can build this, we cannot concretize it. You have so many troubles now and you are looking outside of this region for help and you want to be global you do not want to be regional. Of course you do not want to be regional. You do not want to be second rate cultures. So I think this is another problem for Abkhazia as well: to choose its policies that will lead it away out from the region. You do not want to spend all your life fighting Georgia and hoping Russia will help. So achieving recognition will not be enough. I support independence and recognition, but you cannot be contented with those alone. By the way, I do not agree with Sergei Markov in one matter: in my opinion, Abkhazia did not become independent last year. Abkhazia became independent 15 years ago after the war, and only last year Russia found a way to recognize it. That raises another question: why did it take them fifteen years to recognize an independent Abkhazia?

What does the independence of Abkhazia mean?

So my point is, what do Abkhazia’s independence and recognition mean? What will they bring to Abkhazia in real terms? Years ago, we had a similar conversation with Lech Walesa, who was the president of Poland at the time. He caused many debates in the world by coming into power and with his tendency to make Poland an individual country independent from the Warsaw Treaty Organization. In particular the Soviet Bloc and many other countries said that they would not recognize Poland in its new form. He said to me, “we do not need official recognition. We need generals.’’ I said, “What generals are you talking about?” and he said, “We need General Electric, we need General Motors. We need all these big companies to come here and to bring projects with money, people, and employment and so on. We are interested in factories which will be established in our country instead of recognition and opening our embassies in other countries.”

I mean, how you describe independence and recognition is important. So when we talk about recognition do not repeat the mistakes Saakashvili made when he was so blind that he did not see anything beyond his goal of planting the Georgian flag in Sukhum(i). That was it. That was what he cared about, nothing else. There were so many ways of achieving a number of goals, I believe. But no, he was so blind that he just wanted one thing: getting Abkhazia back.

So I think international recognition is a good thing, but on the other hand I would argue that you may well count as successful without recognition, and as a matter of fact, if independence and recognition do not come integrated with a design for the future, if you cannot convince yourselves and the world of this, then you will never attain global recognition.

Anyway, there are also other matters I want to talk about among these serious issues that Abkhazians and Caucasians face. Sergey Markov is a philosopher; I am a historian. We attended Moscow State University at the same time, but studied on different floors. As a historian I would say that our mistakes began in 1991 when the nation was still the Soviet Union. I think our policies have been mistaken. I think the Soviet Union is still in the process of falling apart. The disintegration of empires is a long and painful historical process. The disintegration of the Soviet Union has not ended yet. In my opinion we will see more changes in political geography. We will see more borders shifting. We will see more countries created from the Soviet space. I am not sure that Russia will stay intact. This is a huge problem and Russian officials recognize it as one of the big problems facing Russian politics, how now to maintain territorial integrity and so on. I do not even consider a named  situation, as permanent. I think we are in a global process of reshaping global political geography. It has not only happen in the old Soviet territory; it also happened in Europe, Yugoslavia, Germany, and Kosovo. The same things happened in Africa, and who knows what has happened and will happen in China, etc.

The international system based on outcome of World War II is over. That is it. We live in a different world, and Abkhazia is the first country which is free to say different things. So, Abkhazians should think very carefully about what and how they will connect to the international community. That is why I would say that I would be very careful as a friend of Abkhazia regarding long term commitments to anything now, because I do not know what will happen tomorrow. We have had so many examples recently, such as when you sign a treaty and the next day you know that this treaty is basically against your national interests because these have suddenly changed. I would be very careful about any long term promises, because the world is changing very fast, and with this economic crisis no one knows how it will affect the world. Who can say how political agendas will form in Russia for instance, or in the European Union, or in the Caucasus?

National interests of Russia – National interests of Abkhazia

I would argue that Russia’s recognition of Abkhazia was great. I am supportive of it, but I would say that Russia recognized Abkhazia not because of Abkhazia, but because doing so served Russian national interests. Recognition has nothing to do with Abkhazia. Abkhazia is a place where Russia wants to be. Russia wants to be in the Caucasus. Abkhazia went for 15 years without recognition and I do not honestly know why if you asked me, but I suspect anyway that the war in South Ossetia and Abkhazia last year made Russia feel that she might lose influence in the region. Russia said, “Let’s interfere. If we do not, then Western countries might come; the European Union might come; NATO might come...” In the end, Russia’s selfish desire to be there has created a good result for Abkhazia, but it should be understood that this selfishness is not temporary and it did not end with the step in August. Russia will behave selfishly, of course. It is Russia. It is in Russia’s national interests to be selfish, as every normal country would be. Well then, what should Abkhazia do? From my point of view, in order not to be dependent on the national interests of Russia, Abkhazia should base its policy stance on the national interests of Abkhazia, not on those of Russia.

The major features leading to the recognition of Abkhazia are the mistakes of Georgia and the interests of Russia. The Russian-Georgian crisis that has continued for years is the biggest factor contributing to instability in the Caucasus. Unless Russian-Georgian relations improve, the Caucasus never will be calm, I believe. If these improve, however, then what the role of the Abkhazia will be? This is another problem for the Abkhazians to think about. On the other hand I would also say that the United States and Russia have so far failed to manage to engage in a debate regarding American and Russian policy in the post-Soviet  space. It is very difficult, and will remain very difficult.

In many ways I feel as though Russia enjoys a monopoly over Abkhazia now. Yes, Russia is completely in control of Abkhazia and I do not think it is healthy. In my opinion, Russia should loosen control, provide protection, and support Abkhazia as long as these actions do not conflict with the interests of Russia or put Russia in a difficult position regarding the security of Russia, but sooner or later everybody will question Russia’s monopoly in the Caucasus. You know president Medvedev said that Russia has a so-called privileged interests in the post-Soviet space. The United States immediately said nobody recognizes your privileged interests in the post-Soviet space. There is no such thing anymore as privileged interests. It is not the Cold War anymore. We have independent countries of our own. They have a choice of what to do. I think it would be great, very healthy if other embassies were to open in Sukhum(i). I would like that very much. I am pushing for this goal in Washington as much as I can. I am probably the only person in Washington who advocates the official recognition of Abkhazia. You would be correct, however, to think: if America recognizes Abkhazia, would it seriously diminish Russian influence there? Do you think Moscow wants this? Why would Moscow advocate the international recognition of Abkhazia? They are not stupid. They want to keep a monopoly. Everybody would like to keep a monopoly. I urged Moscow to recognize Kosovo in order to break the Western monopoly in Kosovo. The West can do the same with Abkhazia.

I think that Russia will indirectly resist the recognition of Abkhazia on the international stage, because this does not suit the national interests of Russia. Russia wants to be in the Black Sea. Abkhazia is a great piece of land, strategically still important, trade-wise still important. You know better than I do. So that is another problem for Abkhazia and another problem for the West, because Abkhazia signed with Russia not just a treaty but a military treaty. These two countries became military allies, not just friends. That is a status. That is what NATO tried to do with Georgia and you know everybody was opposed to that. So Georgia did not become a military ally of NATO, but Abkhazia became a military ally of Russia. Thus Georgia’s reasons for accession to NATO have become stronger. I hope that the United States does not endorse Georgia’s accession to NATO by saying “an eye for an eye”.

Goings-on behind the curtain

The events of last August also have backstage stories. Maybe you know, at first president Medvedev suggested that Abkhazia and South Ossetia should establish a confederation that Russia would recognize, because it would be better for Russia. I suppose Sergey Markov knows the details better than me. If Abkhazian hands were linked with those of South Ossetia all would have been a very different story, of course. South Ossetia is a failed state. Abkhazia is a successful state. I believe that Abkhazia proved itself to be a successful independent state for fifteen years, not because Russia finally recognized it, but because Abkhazia built an independent state. Abkhazia declined this suggestion of unifying with South Ossetia. Sergei Bagapsh [the Abkhazian President] did not want it. He scrutinized this proposal. Only Russia wanted it. Yes, this plan would have hindered the goal of South Ossetia to join Russia through union with North Ossetia, but Russia preferred it, because it eliminated the possibility of Abkhazia being truly independent and drifting away from Russia, which was more important for Russia.

As is apparent, political-strategic plans are multipronged. In order to understand the steps that Russia has taken, a multipronged examination is needed. Russia is not only a big country with its geography, armament, and economical potential but it is also a big country with its different political-strategic plans.

The negative attitude of the United States toward Abkhazia is due to a lack of understanding of Abkhazia, not being adequately aware of Abkhazia. The Americans are not completely unaware of Abkhazia, but they do not know what Abkhazia means for the national interests of the United States. The Americans do make many mistakes but in many ways they are also quite practical. Their policy toward Georgia was certainly a bad one. I agree that Saakashvili was a big mistake; American investment in Saakashvili was a mistake, a strategic mistake, but it will not be changed. With Saakashvili or without Saakashvili, unfortunately, Georgia will be a point of interest for Washington, because Washington as well wants to be in the Caucasus. There is no other nation other than Georgia that can  fulfill American ambitions there. If you are a great country, if you are a big country, a superpower in the old terms, you want to be in the Caucasus because it occupies a strategic position. This is assuredly a basis for potential of conflict with Russia. If the United States and Russia do not negotiate their interests in the region, then Abkhazia will completely be on the side of Russia and Georgia will be on the side of the America. For the United States it is important to stay in Georgia through Saakashvili or someone else. Where else can America turn to?

Russia and the United States do seek to improve relations. President Obama dedicated this entire year to improving relations with Russia quickly. He will go to Russia for that purpose in the upcoming days. The two nations are working on a strategic treaty or on strategic nuclear missile reduction. So far it has not the steps taken in the Soviet period. Russia and the United States have a lot of these opportunities. Who is to know how and when their relationship will move beyond counting nuclear weapons only? Who can guarantee whether Abkhazia will become captive to the negotiations between these big men? Let us keep this question in a corner of our minds. Besides, I think we have to understand that the pursuit of American national interests do not abide by international laws. I think America is a promising partner for Abkhazia, but do not expect official recognition. That would not help anyway.

The view of the United States is changing

I think that Americans entertain some questions about Abkhazia. These are not about its affairs with Russia, its military agreements, or how Abkhazia positions itself and how it became independent. The United States has problem with Abkhazian demography and of course with refugees. Nonetheless, Washington is not insistent on seeing Georgia as a whole in which Abkhazia and South Ossetia must be included. I clearly observed this. They must have understood by now that Abkhazia and South Ossetia will never return or be forced to return to Georgia. Nobody has mentioned it yet, but they have understood this and they will understand it further. I am trying to say that there will not be any political power which tries to push you back anymore. This is the reality. I am going to say that you should not expect much from the U.S.A. It is a big entity. It is like a big elephant, and it turns very slow. But know that it changes. I have been able to see these changes for the last twelve months. As a significant major change, there is an appreciation of Abkhazia and of the Abkhazian people for having become an independent state. This view will open contacts even if there is no official recognition. We have to consider this. We have to evaluate this and if we cannot have a relation on an official level, we should make use of unofficial ways. Civil society for instance, the business world, the media... These could be pursued without any recognition.

In my opinion, Washington recently tried to tell Tbilisi that it has to rearrange its foreign policy, because Abkhazia and South Ossetia are not its regions anymore. The question of course is will Tbilisi hear this message? That is another question. Several times, particularly in November of last year, they failed to hear what Washington was recommending to them. I am not saying that they must listen, but even though they are not completely in the hands of Washington, they are also not in a position to oppose its will.

By looking at all of these dimensions, you must think about what Abkhazia’s national interests really are and focus on being a “de facto” state, while not being limited to “de jure” recognition. Despite the difficulties that Abkhazia still faces, there is a great variety of options and opportunities. It can be a free trade area, buffer zone, demilitarized weapon-free zone, etc. It is necessary to determine the most realistic and the most effective options. Above all, Abkhazia exists as an independent country with or without Russia, and will keep on living as an independent country. Abkhazia proved that it has built an independent state. Now I think we face a new stage in the fight for independence, much more complex, much more delicate. You do not need fighters anymore. You need smart, wise politicians to deal with the current problems.


Nikolai Zlobin
is director of the Russia and Eurasia Project at the World Security Institute.  A former professor at Moscow State University, Zlobin joined the Institute in Washington, D.C., in 2001 as a senior fellow and director of Russian and Eurasian programs. He is a leading expert on international security; terrorism; relations between the United States and Russia, as well as the United States and the nations of the former Soviet Union; and the politics and history of Russia, Asia and Eurasia.

Nikolai Zlobin is the author of 11 books and more than 200 academic articles published in more than 15 languages, Zlobin’s latest book, International Communications, was published in 2004 by M.E. Sharpe. His editorial opinions have appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, International Herald Tribune, and the Chicago Tribune, among other publications. Read more...

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