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Thinking the Unthinkable: What if Georgia and the West Were to Recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia? by Paul Goble

Paul Goble | Special to Abkhaz World

What if Georgia and the West were to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states, something they have sworn never to do?  Would that be as some of their leaders have argued the recognition of the fruits of Russian aggression as legitimate and thus open the way to the ultimate destruction of the Republic of Georgia and further Russian military actions against other former Soviet republics? Or would that step in fact work against the Russian Federation itself, leading to more claims of the right of self-determination by the peoples of the North Caucasus and perhaps further afield, and thus produce after a period of instability a new balance in the region, one that might resolve some of the problems arising from the survivals of Soviet-era ethnic engineering?

Those are questions worth asking if one is prepared to think the unthinkable, to imagine for at least a moment that Tbilisi and Western countries would reverse course and recognize the two breakaway republics.  And asking them inevitably opens the way to some even larger questions: What kind of a world will emerge if there are an increasing number of partially recognized states, ones where some powers have extended diplomatic recognition but others have not, a pattern that the current international system is now well prepared to deal with? Is such a world more stable or less?  And can that system be gamed by one or another power to promote its goals through the generation of instability?

Obviously, answering all of those questions is beyond the scope of any single essay or even set of essays: there are simply too many unknowns.  But if one conducts a thought experiment based on this act of thinking the unthinkable, there are some consequences for Georgia, for the West, for Abkhazia, for South Ossetia, and for the Russian Federation that almost certainly are very different than politicians and analysts in any of these places now assume.

For Georgia, such extension of recognition would be both a major political defeat and the creation of new possibilities at home and abroad.  Having sworn that he would never take this step and having used the conflict with the Russian Federation as the basis of silencing his opponents if not necessarily winning their support, President Mikhail Saakashvili would find himself in difficulty.  He is therefore unlikely to take this step even though if Tbilisi did, it would have at least three consequences for that country.

First and foremost, it could allow Georgia to restore its ties with the Russian Federation, something Moscow has said it does not want as long as Saakashvili is president – although in fact a change of heart by the incumbent Georgian president could change Moscow’s position as well.  Second, it would open up Georgian politics by eliminating the one issue that Saakashvili has used to geld the opposition, thus possibly allowing Georgian democracy to become far more vibrant.  And third, it would make Georgia more Georgian because a Georgia which viewed itself not as “a mini-empire,” to use the slighting term some Russian commentators have employed, but as a nation state would be far less divided than it is now.

For Abkhazia, such a reversal of fortune would have enormous and almost exclusively positive consequences.  Georgian and Western recognition would mean that Abkhazia’s national goal would be achieved and that it would have numerous Western embassies in its capital to balance Russia’s and the few others it has collected so far.  That would give Abkhazia greater freedom of action domestically and internationally, allowing it to plot its own course rather than accept the diktat of Moscow which has been its primary sponsor up to now.  And thus such recognition by those who have said they will not take this step would help Abkhazia make the transition from Russian client state to a genuine member of the international community.

For South Ossetia, the consequences of Georgian and Western recognition would be far more contradictory. On the one hand, the South Ossetian government would certainly claim that this was vindication of its argument that its existence reflects an act of national self-determination. But on the other, such recognition would make it far more difficult for those in South Ossetia who would like to have their territory absorbed by the Russian Federation as part of an expanded Ossetia.  Indeed, it almost certainly would mean that many in North Ossetia would start looking south and consider the possibility of an expanded and independent Ossetian state. For that reason, if no other, many in South Ossetia’s establishment would likely have mixed feelings about Georgian and Western recognition, whatever they might say initially.

For the West, such extension of recognition would be difficult because it would require the kind of reversal that most governments are uncomfortable with but often nonetheless act upon.  Indeed, it has often been the case that Western governments have announced that they will never do something until they do and then take credit for doing so.  The current case, however, is especially difficult.  The West has taken a very hard line on this question. It has linked non-recognition of Abkhazian and South Ossetian statehood to its support for Georgia’s Saakashvili.  And it faces a resurgent Moscow, one that many fear would see any Western shift on this question as opening the way to still more Russian actions elsewhere.

But at the same time, the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia by the West could work to the West’s advantage in ways that few  are now considering.  First, it would almost certainly lead to a change in the presidency of Georgia, thus removing from the scene someone who has in the minds of some become a liability to the West.  Second, it would eliminate one major bone of contention with Moscow.  And third – and this is the most interesting thing – it would challenge the Russian government in fundamental ways by opening up again the possibility that national self-determination should be applied on the post-Soviet space generally and in the Russian Federation in particular.

That too would represent a reversal. In February 1992, the United States said that it would not support “any secession from secession” on the post-Soviet space, an unfortunate term of art that had the effect of redefining the nature of what in fact had happened in 1991 and of opening the way for post-Soviet governments to use violence against minorities with the expectation that the West would not oppose them too harshly.  The violence that Moscow has visited on the North Caucasus and the discrimination Russian officials have imposed on people from that region are just one of the horrible responses to that policy. A shift on Abkhazia and South Ossetia, therefore, would mark a more general shift.

And consequently, for Russia, a decision by Georgia and the West to do what Moscow says it hopes for would entail both pluses and minuses perhaps even greater than those such moves would have for South Ossetia.  On the one hand, Moscow would certainly trumpet such a change as a victory for Russian policy. It would certainly quiet discussions about Russian culpability for the August 2008 war, and it would allow Russia to present itself more plausibly not as a re-emerging imperial state but as a more honest broker in the post-Soviet space.

But on the other hand, such a step would constrain Moscow in a double sense. It would mean that the Russian regime would not have uncontested influence in either Abkhazia or South Ossetia, thus limiting its influence in both capitals.  And it would open the door to a new period of expanded claims of national self-determination within the Russian Federation itself.  Some in Moscow might not be opposed to that entirely.  After all, a revival of ethnic assertiveness could at least in the North Caucasus undercut Islamist movements that had appeared to displace such assertiveness over the last decade. But such a new wave would represent a challenge to Moscow’s control of what many now call “the inner empire.”

That in turn could mean that despite all its efforts to secure recognition for Abkhazia and South Ossetia from countries like Nicaragua, Venezuela, and so far unsuccessfully Belarus, Moscow would in the end be not entirely pleased if Georgia and the West were to reverse course on recognition.  And that is something those considering what Tbilisi and Western capitals should do next ought to be reflecting upon as well, something that can best be understood by thinking the unthinkable in this sphere as in so many others.

Paul Goble is a longtime specialist on ethnic and religious questions in Eurasia. Most recently, he was director of research and publications at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy. Earlier, he served as vice dean for the social sciences and humanities at Audentes University in Tallinn and a senior research associate at the EuroCollege of the University of Tartu in Estonia. While there, he launched the “Window on Eurasia” series. Prior to joining the faculty there in 2004, he served in various capacities in the U.S. State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency and the International Broadcasting Bureau as well as at the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He writes frequently on ethnic and religious issues and has edited five volumes on ethnicity and religion in the former Soviet space. Trained at Miami University in Ohio and the University of Chicago, he has been decorated by the governments of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania for his work in promoting Baltic independence and the withdrawal of Russian forces from those formerly occupied lands.

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