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The EU and the Conflicts in the Eastern Neighborhood: The Case of Abkhazia, by Irakli Khintba

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Heinrich Böll Stiftung

The Green Political Foundation

The European Union appeared to be visible as a collective actor in the South Caucasus in 2003 and 2004. The next wave of European enlargement that encompassed 10 states of Central Europe brought the EU closer to the Black Sea region. “The Rose Revolution” in Georgia and manifest European interest in ensuring sustained and diversified routes for energy resource transportation contributed to the fact that security and stability within the South Caucasus became a significant aim of European foreign policy.

The war in August 2008 was a landmark for the region’s development. The recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia by the Russian Federation and the increase of its military presence in the region established the “new realities” in the South Caucasus. An EU-brokered peace agreement (Sarkozi-Medvedev plan) was a real sign of Europe’s claim for a greater role in conflict resolution processes. Since 2004, the EU’s influence – exerted particularly through the instrument and mechanism of the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP) – has demonstrated results in promoting modernization of partner states but failed to ensure peaceful resolution of conflicts.

Today, the EU is implementing three main tasks regarding conflicts in the South Caucasus region: conflict prevention (EUMM, EUBM), conflict settlement (EU-sponsored Geneva talks), and conflict transformation (confidence-building, infrastructure, and engagement). None of these three tasks can be defined as having been fulfilled.

Russia’s recognition introduced the feeling of security into Abkhaz society. With intense financial support from Moscow (direct transfers to budget and targeted funding) and deepening economic ties with the Russian market, Abkhazia has a chance to be reborn after the devastating war with Georgia in 1992/1993. Today, the roads have been rebuilt and the buildings renovated all over Abkhazia.

At the same time, Abkhazia risks finding itself in deepening isolation. The non-recognition policy imposed on Abkhazia by Western countries and Georgia’s efforts to block any direct contacts with Abkhaz authorities make for strengthening Abkhaz reliance on Russia’s support, including political reliance. Today, one can even come across the opinion within Abkhaz society that Russia’s recognition is enough to ensure some basic parameters of “normal life.”

But independence still remains the uncontested goal for the Abkhaz people. To achieve maybe not internationally recognized independence but an enhanced level of self-sustainability and political maneuverability, there is a need for a diversified external environment.

Abkhazians have a historical and cultural inclination to Europe. Though not overtly manifested, there is a will to be open toward European influence and values. The EU’s propensity to use “soft power” instead of military force, which positively differentiates Europe from NATO and other actors, served as one of the main reasons why Sukhum favored the EU’s possible engagement in conflict resolution processes.

When it comes to political discourse initially (from 2003–2004), Europe was perceived by the Abkhaz side as a new and “untarnished” (in contrast to “Group of Friends” or the United States) actor that could breathe fresh life into ensuring regional security and stability. With these favorable circumstances, European engagement could have gained solid grounds for legitimacy.

Sukhum tried to demonstrate its interest in cooperating with the EU. For example, the Abkhaz peace plan, “Key to Future,” presented in 2006, declared that “in the context of broad regional cooperation Abkhazia and Georgia should foster modern and civilized forms of mutual cooperation within the framework of European Neighborhood Policy” (1) and implied almost nothing about Russia’s possible role. Another signal was made by the concept of a “multi-vector policy,” which had been reiterated by Abkhaz officials up to August 2008. Although this term could be defined differently, it has a persistent interpretation within the post-soviet context: It implies the will to elude Russian monopolistic influence. Before the war in August 2008, a large group of European visitors came to Abkhazia to negotiate stepping up the EU’s involvement in conflict resolution. But as it turned out, the time had passed and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier’s plan, revealed and presented on the eve of August 2008, was out of date. The principle of territorial integrity viewed as a dogma and “magic invocation” proved useless as a means of resolving the Georgia-Abkhaz conflict, and the EU failed to seize upon the messages from the Abkhaz side.

The war in August 2008 and recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia changed drastically the configuration of the international presence in the region. The withdrawal of the United Nations Observer Mission in Georgia in June 2009, due to contradictions on its mandate and name, left Abkhazia without an institutional international presence except for some international NGOs and UN agency activities. The EU Monitoring Mission (EUMM) envisaged by the Sarkozy-Medvedev ceasefire plan operates on Georgian territory despite the EU’s claims to have extended its mandate on Abkhazia.

Today, the overall EU’s influence and political presence in Abkhazia is being subject to gradual reductions. What are the main reasons for the EU’s failure to obtain a significant role in the conflict resolutions and what are the ways of strengthening its possible contribution to the new realities?

  1. Lack of credibility on the Abkhaz side. The EU’s reiteration of the principle of territorial integrity of Georgia and unwillingness to make some tactical moves beyond this framework contributed to the failure in obtaining a crucial amount of credibility needed to affect attitudes of the Abkhazian side. The European mechanisms for transforming the conflict were accepted with precautions and mistrust because they presupposed the normative goal – territorial integrity of Georgia – and also because Abkhazia always felt its vulnerability and considered any concession as a possible tool to be used against it.

  2. Political divisions within the EU and ambiguity in relations with Russia. Though Brussels believes that it is not in the EU’s interest “that enlargement should create new dividing lines in Europe,” (2) indeed these lines emerged. The cleavage is mainly based on how to deal with Russia and also on EU-American relations. The so-called young European states that scrambled out of Soviet influence are more likely to implement hard policies toward Russia. On the other hand, there is a more pragmatic and realistic stance of the “old democracies” of Europe – Germany, Italy, France.

    Official European Security Strategy regards Russia as “a major factor in our [i.e., European] security and prosperity.” (3) This, sometimes quite overt, pragmatism caused a fierce reaction from the proponents of realpolitik. They believe that a “zero-sum game” and countering Russia are the ways to effectively engage in conflict resolution in the South Caucasus. As Steven Blank stated, instead of activating its soft power, the EU approached states in the South Caucasus “with a policy of half measures and hesitation that, in regard to the question of Russia, is bereft of strategic logic.” (4)

    The Eastern Partnership (EP) emerged in the aftermath of the Russo-Georgian war. “Some European officials consider this a way of countering Russia’s influence in the region.” (5) EU-backed diversification of energy supplies is an irritant for Russia. Moreover, one could see how the EP was used as a real leverage to prevent Belarus from recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia. At the same time, official rhetoric of both Moscow and Brussels is of maximum neutrality. Nobody wants to exaggerate publicly possible contradictions that could be caused by implementing the EP, but certain preoccupations exist. This can be drawn from the words of Russian president D. Medvedev. Though he sees nothing in the EP that would be directed against Russia, he made it clear that “Russia does not regard the EU's Eastern Partnership program for closer ties with ex-Soviet states as useful.” (6)

  3. Structural and procedural problems within the EU. Of course the difficulties in performing quick and effective policies are connected with clumsy mechanisms of decision making within the “Common Foreign and Security Policy” and “confusing EU leadership structure established by the Lisbon Treaty.” (7)

    Lack of conflict prevention and conflict transformation power. As to ENP activities prior to the August war, “these incentives failed to produce the desired outcome in terms of curbing Saakashvili’s aggressive conflict-resolution policies.” (8) The United States and Europe from 1995 to 2005 provided Georgia with more aid per head than any other post-soviet state was rendered but were not rigid in allocating this funding particularly for the purposes of institutional reform and democratization policies. (9) The purpose of ensuring Georgia’s political loyalty sometimes caused the “eyes-shut” approach. As it is stated in an IIFFMCG report:

    "The EU and Georgia had different approaches to conflict resolution. The EU did not disagree with the idea of a proactive policy concerning conflict resolution, but it stressed the need to be cautious and to take a long-term perspective when designing conflict resolution policies. Georgia was primarily interested in turning the secessionist conflicts it was confronting into a priority on the European agenda, an objective that was not necessarily best served by a cautious, long-term approach." (10)

    That collision between Georgian “impatience” and European “prudence” negatively affected the EU’s abilities to prevent excessive militarization of Georgia and accommodate internal discourse to exclude violent means of conflict resolution. This impatience also prevented the EU from implementing sustainable policies aimed at transforming the conflict.

    The fact that the EU’s conflict transformation strategies and policies are mostly aimed at cooperating with NGOs and exclude any interaction with official bodies increases the suspicion of the Abkhazians. The Abkhaz society, which has not yet escaped from the old patterns, still has some mistrust toward non-governmental structures, especially when they engage in such a painful sphere as conflict resolution. But as Bruno Coppieters put it:

    "EU support for NGO activities rather than for official structures is prompted largely by Georgian fears that transformation process will end up legitimizing the breakaway entity… The restrain prompted by Georgian fears has negative consequences for the EU’s ability to influence attitudes of the political elites in Abkhazia and South Ossetia… Again because of its fears of upsetting Georgia, EU is not able to support state reforms in the two entities…" (11)

  4. Insufficient moves from the Abkhaz side toward rapprochement with Europe. This was caused not only by the geo-political situation but also stems from complex internal discourse within the post-conflict Abkhaz society and the existence of different currents within the political elite. There is a considerable part of society that represents anti-Western attitudes that are mixed with nationalistic (even traditionalistic) spirit and paradoxically with some soviet admixture. The majority of “patriotic” groups constitute the opposition camp in modern Abkhazia. Within this community there is a solid conviction that the EU is trying to implement some sort of “soft strategies” aimed at restoration of Georgian territorial integrity. This argument and the exploitation of patriotic themes can serve as a strong political instrument to legitimize curtailing the EU’s activities in Abkhazia. That type of thinking also makes it impossible to justify any joint Georgian-Abkhaz projects and moves toward confidence-building. Confidence-building measures in and of themselves are perceived by them as constituting a threat to Abkhaz statehood. Even now, some opposition activists blame the Abkhaz NGOs for having “sold out to the Western funds.”

    This criticism, sometimes insurmountable, given the post-war context, and puts strong constraints on any “open doors policy” toward Europe; though there is a solid liberal-pragmatic current, represented by a large segment of the Abkhaz authority sector, local NGOs, and a significant sector of the society, which favors a “multi-vector” policy.

It is quite difficult to identify the EU’s coherent policies toward conflict transformation in the South Caucasus. If we look through the ENP Action Plan for Georgia, we might notice just an “externalist” approach – fostering confidence-building measures without any significant efforts to transform the context within Abkhazia. (12) Any will to support democratic consolidation in Abkhazia, fuel modernization, and even reformat value underpinnings of the society is viewed as promoting state-building within “separatist regions” and thus is deemed unacceptable.

Though the Georgian “Strategy on Occupied Territories: Engagement through Recognition” contains some reasonable ideas and is designed to avoid “externalism” by addressing the needs of the Abkhaz population. But it lacks credibility as it is highly politicized and biased when it comes to the nature of the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict and its normative goal of restoring Georgia’s territorial integrity. At the end of 2009, signs of the new European strategy on Abkhazia appeared. According to Peter Semneby, EU Special Representative in the South Caucasus, that strategy implies engagement in order to de-isolate Abkhazia via the non-recognition approach. It seems that this strategy, if adopted, would be more acceptable for Abkhaz authorities than the Georgian one. For example, from the recent statement by Semneby, it becomes clear that there is an intention to acknowledge the inner nature (i.e., ethno-political) of the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict, which implies the necessity to consider this factor when designing the conflict resolution policies. (13)

Having realized this, Georgia tried to catch up with European strategy. As Abkhaz expert Liana Kvarchelia wrote:

"It is very likely that the Strategy was invented to intercept EU initiatives (European “engagement without recognition” approach). The aim is either to try to channel them through Georgia, or at least to discredit them by linking international engagement to the idea of “de-occupation” and Georgia’s “territorial integrity.”" (14)

During her visit in July 2010 to Georgia, the EU’s High Representative Baroness Ashton stated that Europe welcomed the action plan of the “Strategy on Occupied Territories.” Considering the harsh criticism she suffered for lack of expertise and political weakness, (15) one can assume that her backing of the Georgian strategy was her strategic fault, as it inflicted harm on the legitimacy of European initiatives within the Abkhaz society.

Moreover, it happened against the background of current discussions about the future of Semneby’s EU Special Representative office. If it is abolished, its functions will presumably be transferred to the Special Representative for the Crisis in Georgia or the EU Delegation in Georgia. That will mean that the EU’s approaches are downgraded from the regional to the national level, which will seriously impede its activities in Abkhazia if not cease them altogether. There is a Georgian tendency to build up any Western approaches on the basis of conceptions created by Tbilisi after the 2008 war. One of these conceptions implies that the Georgian-Abkhaz ethno-political conflict is not a matter of fact. But Sukhum is ready to interact only at the regional level. The real transformation cannot be achieved and European soft power will further be perceived as a menace and threat to Abkhazian independence.

The Instrument for Stability fund was perceived in Abkhazia as being designed for the regional dimension, which made it possible to apply. The last moves by Baroness Ashton enforced fears that the EU-financed instrument Confidence Building Early Response Mechanism could be somehow linked with Georgian strategy. This prevented the majority of Abkhaz NGOs from applying to this fund.

Though a lot of time was missed, one can identify two arenas of possible European engagement in Abkhazia:

  1. As mediator and facilitator of conflict prevention and conflict transformation processes;
  2. As a source and agent of modernization of Abkhazia.

Although Europe is not fully perceived as a neutral mediator, it still has some capacity to perform this role. Taking into account that Abkhazia heavily relies on Russia and Georgia – among Western actors, it is primarily seeking support from the United States with its “hard power” – there is a real chance for the EU to gain some impartiality. If Europe undertakes a status-neutral position in regard to Sukhum, it could effectively enlarge the channel for European involvement. This status-neutrality is the only precondition for the EU to obtain any significant role today in Abkhazia and in conflict resolution processes since August 2008. There is also a hope that through the instrument of differentiation envisaged by the EP and by means of the negotiated Association Agreement with Georgia, the EU would have a more precise instrument to implement deeply conflictual transformation policies.

Legal mechanisms should be found for Abkhazia to be engaged in Eastern Partnership activities, especially those concerning modernization. Modernization – which implies democratization, economic development, and investments in human capital (education is most important) – is the only way to transform the context of the conflict and make it possible to alter public discourse in Abkhazia and Georgia toward new ideas for conflict resolution. To promote this, even programs of assistance and conditionality can be utilized. On the one hand, it is clear that Western actors are reluctant to support state-building, but on the other hand, not supporting democratization is a way to nowhere in terms of conflict transformation.

Abkhaz authorities welcome in principle the European ideas of engagement but stipulate for any contacts to be direct. Any activities overtly authorized by Tbilisi will be inevitably rejected. The Abkhaz government coherently denies the possibility of economic ties and cooperation with Georgia, but favors direct involvement and cooperation.

Of course, any positive EU engagement should not sharply contradict Russian interests. The role of Russia in Abkhazia has increased dramatically and will remain significant for the long term. The EU needs to find reliable mechanisms to cooperate with Russia in the region. (16) Possible aspects of this cooperation can be fixed in a new Agreement on Partnership and Cooperation, which is to be adopted in the foreseeable future.

Conclusion

EU “soft power” is an effective mechanism for conflict transformation and overall modernization of society and state institutions. But EU engagement should not be based on a “zero-sum game” in relations with Russia. Instead, formidable mechanisms should be elaborated in order to ensure cooperation and participation in the Georgian-Abkhaz context. Abkhazia is interested in European engagement, as there is a overarching need for de-isolation. But any strict politicization of this process and efforts to approach Abkhazia solely through Georgia will lead to closure of Abkhazia to any Western influence, which is not in the EU’s interest.

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(1) Предложения абхазской стороны о всеобъемлющем yрегулировании грузино-абхазского конфликта. «Ключ к будущему», http://www.mfaabkhazia.org/documents/stati_i_analiz/_/

(2) “A Secure Europe in a Better World. European Security Strategy,” Brussels, December 12, 2003, http://www.consilium.europa.eu/uedocs/cmsUpload/78367.pdf, p. 8.

(3) Ibid., p. 14.

(4) Stephen Blank, “From Neglect to Duress: The West and the Georgian Crisis Before the 2008 War,” in The Guns of August 2008: Russia’s War in Georgia, ed. Svante E. Cornell and S. Frederick Starr (New York & London: M.E. Sharpe, 2009), p. 115.
With regard to the August 2008 war, Europe’s impartiality and insufficient anti-Russian stance also gained criticism from the Americans. For example, the Sarkozi-Medvedev’s peace plan was characterized by the former US Permanent Representative to the United Nations John R. Bolton as “a ceasefire that failed to mention Georgia’s territorial integrity, and that all but gave Russia permission to continue its military operations as a “peacekeeping” force anywhere in Georgia. He also mentioned that “more troubling, over the long term, was that the EU saw its task as being mediator – its favorite role in the world – between Georgia and Russia, rather than an advocate for the victim of aggression” (John R. Bolton, “After Russia's Invasion of Georgia, What Now for the West?” August 15, 2008,
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/georgia/2563260/John-Bolton-After-Russias-invasion-of-Georgia-what-now-for-the-West.html.

(5) Magdalena Frichova Grono, “Georgia’s Conflicts: What Role for the EU as Mediator?” International Alert, 2010, http://initiativeforpeacebuilding.eu/pdf/Georgia_March2010.pdf, p. 15.

(6) “Medvedev Calls EU's Eastern Partnership Harmless but Pointless,” November 23, 2009, http://en.rian.ru/russia/20091123/156957618.html.

(7) David Charter and Graham Keeley, “Baroness Ashton Under Fire for Missing European Defense Summit,” February 26, 2010,
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/georgia/2563260/John-Bolton-After-Russias-invasion-of-Georgia-what-now-for-the-West.html.

(8) Frichova Grono, p. 27.

(9) Легволд Р. Постановка проблемы, Государственность и безопасность: Грузия после "революции роз". – М., 2005. С. 37.

(10) Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on the Conflict in Georgia, Volume II, p. 56.

(11) Bruno Coppieters, “The EU and Georgia: Time Perspectives in Conflict Resolution,” The EU Institute for Security Studies, Occasional Paper #70, December 2007, p. 17

(12) “EU/Georgia Action Plan,”http://ec.europa.eu/world/enp/pdf/action_plans/georgia_enp_ap_final_en.pdf p. 17-18.

(13) “The Russian-Georgian war was undoubtedly a war between states, but its foundations lay in the fraught inter-ethnic relations between Georgians on the one hand and Abkhaz and South Ossetians on the other, as a result from the wars of the early 1990s. These inter-ethnic conflicts gradually became hijacked as part of the larger inter-state conflict and geo-strategic shifts. The multi-dimensionality of this conflict has required us to respond at many levels to seek its resolution.” From testimony by the European Union Special Representative for the South Caucasus, Peter Semneby, U.S. Helsinki Commission Hearing on "Mitigating Inter-Ethnic Conflicts in the OSCE Region," Washington, D.C., May 4, 2010, p. 1.

(14) Liana Kvarchelia, “Georgia’s New “Strategy”: What’s behind It?” July 21, 2010, http://abkhazworld.com/articles/analysis/512-georgias-new-strategy-whats-behind-it-by-liana-kvarchelia.html.

(15) See: Timothy Garton Ash, “With This Timid Choice of Leaders, the EU May Have the Faces It Deserves,” November 25, 2009, http://ecfr.eu/content/entry/commentary_comment_is_free_guardian_ashton_garton_ash/; Baroness Ashton expected to quit EU job within months. April 30, 2010; http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/eu/7652438/Baroness-Ashton-expected-to-quit-EU-job-within-months.html; Charter and Keeley, “Baroness Ashton,”; http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/europe/article7041984.ece.

(16) This intention can be drawn from the ENP Action Plan for Georgia: encourage process of improving relations with Russia; adoption/implementation of bilateral treaty; cooperation on resolution of conflicts; border delimitation and cooperation in border management; promotion of stable economic cooperation; see “EU/Georgia Action Plan,” p. 16.

Source: Heinrich Böll Stiftung

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