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Don't call us 'occupied', by Arda Inal-Ipa

One thing that cannot go without recognition is the view from Abkhazia and South Ossetia

Arda Inal-Ipa
Deputy Director at the Centre for Humanitarian Programmes, Sukhum, Abkhazia.

IISS - The International Institute for Strategic Studies | Caucasus Security Insight

In December 2009, the European Union's Political and Security Committee (PSC) agreed a 'non-paper on the parameters for [the] EU's non-recognition and engagement policy for Abkhazia and South Ossetia'. This reflected the EU's intention to carve out a political and legal space within which the EU could interact with them, thus emphasising its strategic interest in facilitating a resolution of the conflict with Georgia.

The initiative amounted to an acknowledgement that, after the war in the South Caucasus in 2008 and Russia's recognition of the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the West needed to review its policies towards the breakaway territories. Previously, in the wake of the Georgian–Abkhaz war of 1992-93, the international community had expressed an almost unanimous show of support for the policy of isolatingAbkhazia. On behalf of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), Russia had implemented this by imposing a tough border-control regime. But years of sanctions had brought resolution of the conflict no closer.

The engagement strategy that Europe has now proposed does not constitute a new approach. Such policies have been implemented before, usually in relation to weak countries, in order to prevent emergencies that threaten security and stability. Back in 2004, European observers, in analysing possible approaches to unrecognised states, made the case for more effective policies of engagement and cooperation – as opposed to isolation – in order toincrease leverage in moving conflict resolution forward.

Although the policy of engagement is not tantamount to recognition, the Abkhaz side has welcomed Europe's intention to find areas of potential engagement with Abkhazia. If, for Europe, such cooperation means disseminating European norms and practices, as well as having an impact on the long-term conflict-transformation process, for Abkhazia, 'engagement without recognition' means overcoming its isolation, a diversification of contacts and an end to its uneven development. 

From the Abkhazian viewpoint, such an approach would compensate, at least in part, for the many years of Abkhaz isolation from European programmes of consultation, education and other types of aid designed to help post-socialist states through the transition from authoritarian rule to democracy. Against the background of Abkhazia's unambiguous choice of Russia as its strategic partner and its total dependence on Russian economic and security aid, there are areas in which Europe could play a significant role. These include development of the judicial system, promoting good governance and strengthening democratic institutions. Cooperation with Europe along these lines would be of significant importance to Abkhazia. 

In reality, however, cooperation with Europe is still a very long way off. For one thing, Abkhazia finds Brussels' reported plan to abolish the Office of the EU Special Representative for the South Caucasus, which serves as an acceptable channel of communication with the European institutions, a cause for concern. Contacts, instead of becoming easier, are growing more problematic every day because of tighter visa restrictions for South Ossetian and Abkhazian citizens who hold Russian passports. 

Back-pedalling of this nature is no coincidence –it is the result of initiatives by Tbilisi. 

Europe's call for 'engagement without recognition' with Abkhazia and South Ossetia alarmed the Georgian authorities, which have tended to react with hostility to quite harmless initiatives aimed at Abkhazia, even when these involved businesses or civil society. Georgia fears that the implementation of the declared European approach would strengthen Abkhazia's independent position. This is why, shortly after Europe had made public its modest intentions in relation to Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the Georgian government adopted its 'State Strategy on Occupied Territories: Engagement through Cooperation' in 2010. The document contains a clearly stated political goal: to resolve the territorial issue.

The Abkhaz have no doubts that this initiative is aimed at Western audiences, rather than at an Abkhazian or South Ossetian one. The very language of the document is a case in point, for it is totally unacceptable to Abkhazians and South Ossetians, with its inclusion of terms such as 'occupied territories', and 'puppet regimes' set up and maintained by the 'occupying force in the occupied territories of Georgia'. 

The Georgian strategy is in fact an attempt to seize the European initiative and place it under Georgian control. It is no accident that the Georgian strategy reiterates the European formula of engagement but imbues it with a totally different meaning: the policy of de-isolation is seen in the context of reintegrating Abkhazia and South Ossetia into Georgia. The Abkhaz perception of this document is reinforced by the fact that, in order to implement its strategy, Georgia plans to introduce strict rules regulating the work of international organisations, which would spell the end of their operations in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In proposing to control every link Abkhazia has with the outside world, Georgia hopes that Abkhazia will abandon all such contacts because the requirements would only reaffirm its subordinate status.

The European strategy of engagement is motivated by focusing on conflict transformation, improving security conditions on both sides of the conflict divide, and overcoming Abkhazia and South Ossetia's dependence upon Russia. The Georgian strategy, on the other hand, is aimed at regaining control over the 'occupied' republics. It was surprising, therefore, that European politicians were quick to welcome the unveiling of the Georgian strategy and the Action Plan that followed it.

This begs the question, why is Abkhazia's and South Ossetia's reaction to the strategy ignored? Why does Europe support proposals that do not take into account the acuteness of the ethno-political conflict and the real state of relations between the conflicting sides, which does not even allow for signing an agreement on the non-use of force?

Russia, for its part, has given a lukewarm response to the Western strategy of 'engagement without recognition',despite the fact that one of its recently proclaimed foreign-policy goals is to strengthen relations with leading world powers, primarily the EU and the US, as well as to develop joint global projects. It is arguable whether this stance is reasonable, especially in the light of the West's willingness to cooperate with the republics recognised by Russia – which, if not a sign of real support, is at least an indication that the new situation created by Russia's decisive steps in 2008 has been accepted. 

Russian politicians' wariness, more openly expressed by some experts, presents a problem for Abkhazia. Nevertheless, in terms of economic cooperation, a solution could emerge that would see working relations established between Abkhaz businesses and official bodies and Western companies that have offices in Russia. If the doors remain open for Russia to participate in implementing the European approach to engagement with Abkhazia, favourable conditions could be created for putting the policy of cooperation into practice. 

If, however, the elaboration and implementation of the European strategy continues to be closely intertwined with the Georgian state strategy, there can be no progress towards a real de-isolation of Abkhazia. Such an approach would only preserve Abkhazia's isolation and its uneven development.


A collision of these two strategies could be avoided if Abkhazia were no longer treated as a passive object of influence, and instead included in the process of developing mechanisms of engaging with Europe that are mutually acceptable.

Arda Inal-Ipa is Deputy Director at the Centre for Humanitarian Programmes, Sukhum, Abkhazia

Source: The International Institute for Strategic Studies

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