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Caucasus Times: Interview with Donnacha Ó Beacháin

Donnacha Ó Beacháin

Donnacha Ó Beacháin - Professor of International Relations at the School of Law and Government at Dublin City University. He is the author, co-author or editor of several books on the problems of post-Soviet states and on Irish politics.  Professor Ó Beacháin has conducted numerous studies of ethno-political conflicts and election procedures in the former Soviet Union, including the breakaway republics of the South Caucasus [1]. This interview and notes have been prepared for the Caucasus Times by Sergey Markedonov, a visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (Washington, DC).The original publication in Russian can be accessed at http://www.caucasustimes.com/article.asp?id=21185

Sergey Markedonov: As far as I know you recently start teaching a special course on unrecognized states. You are Professor at Dublin City University.[2] In what extent is this topic interesting for Irish students, your colleagues as well as practitioners? How can you explain this interest? Maybe it is determined by the history of your country. In 1919-1922 Ireland itself was an  unrecognized state? And have you seen any parallels between the Irish experience and the development around Abkhazia and South Ossetia?

Donnacha Ó Beacháin: I was quite surprised by the extraordinary level of interest in the course. Students are enthralled by the notion of a state that exists in practice but not in theory. You might remember that when Galileo was forced to recant that the earth moves around the sun as it contradicted the theological certainty that the earth was the center of the universe, he is said to have uttered defiantly: “And yet it [the earth] moves”. [3] In other words, the facts have a nasty habit of undermining ideological certainties. So it is, in a way, with unrecognized states. They are denied the right to exist, and yet they endure for decades. Students are interested in de facto states precisely because they are interested in the irregular, the deviant, the square pegs that exist in a world of round holes.

As for the Irish experience of being an unrecognized state it is true that a national parliament was established in 1919, which claimed complete independence and sovereignty, attempted to carry out the functions of a state as best it could, and sought international recognition. The rhetoric of the time was very much in favor of self-determination. You will remember US President Woodrow Wilson’s 14 Points and his support for the re-emergence of Poland, freedom for the Baltic States and the creation of new states like Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. [4] His enthusiasm for anti-imperial self-determination did not, however, extend to the Irish, not least because the US was allied to the British Empire, and did not wish to offend their ally. Not for the first time, a small nation hoped that the justice of their case alone would stir the emotions of the international statesmen, only to be confronted by the grim realities of great-power politics.

International recognition for the partial though substantial level of independence achieved came only following a treaty signed between the representatives of the unrecognized Irish Government and their counterparts in London. Terminology and titles bedeviled the negotiations. For the British Prime Minister and his cabinet, they negotiated not with a government but with representatives of the dominant political party in Ireland (Sinn Fein) [5] and they would not concede a republic but could countenance a ‘free state’. This level of ambiguity, with each side maintaining its own interpretation of the significance of the talks and of those with whom they conduct negotiations is a feature of discussions today between representatives of the unrecognized states and those entities from which they have effectively seceded.

Interestingly, the only country to recognize the Republic of Ireland during this period was Bolshevik Russia, which was itself unrecognized. This illustrates another feature that we can see today – how unrecognized states have an obvious interest in collaboration and mutual recognition irrespective of their other dissimilarities (and there was an ocean of difference between communist Russia and Catholic Ireland in 1920). Symptomatic of this collaboration was the loan of $20,000, a substantial sum at the time, provided by the unrecognized Irish parliament to Bolshevik Russia with some of the Tsar’s jewels given by Russia as collateral.

As was to be the case in subsequent acts of decolonization, those depicted as separatists and terrorists by the European imperial regimes from which they sought independence became widely respected statesmen after international recognition. The President of the unrecognized Irish republic, Eamon de Valera, served as prime minister and president for several decades while the IRA leader, Michael Collins, became chairman of the first government of the Irish Free State. [6]

Sergey Markedonov: In your course you pay attention not only to the post-Soviet space. It is much broader and covers unrecognized entities as an international phenomenon. However can you define any common prerequisites for emerging of de facto states unrecognized internationally? Do you see any specific features for the South Caucasus entities’ creation and political dynamics?

Donnacha Ó Beacháin: Though the course is broad in scope the primary focus in terms of case studies is the post-Soviet quartet. Students are encouraged to identify the geopolitical conditions that produce unrecognized states and to evaluate how successful these de facto states have been in building structures of governance that enjoy internal political legitimacy. Students seek to understand how these unrecognized states endure and estimate the impact the Kosovo precedent has had on the legitimacy of other unrecognized de facto states. [7]

In terms of commonalities between unrecognized states worldwide these are defined as secessionist regions that are establishing internal sovereignty but that lack widespread recognition as states in the international system. They usually have an organized political leadership based on popular support and are able to provide basic services to the population residing on a clearly defined territory over which they have had effective control for a certain minimum period of time. The key thing that unites them, of course, and which differentiates them from other states, is the absence or paucity of recognition by UN member-states. Most de facto states do not see the status quo as the optimal solution but rather seek to change it and to join the club of UN member states.

The Caucasus has of course a multiplicity of nations and languages. There are multiple layers of identities, one smaller than the next like the "matrioshka" dolls, and we have rival nation and state building projects. What has determined a recognized and unrecognized state has not been a matter of an objective, rational, legal and detailed appraisal of the merits of the myriad of national claims to independence and sovereignty in the region. Rather it is based on the hasty acceptance in 1991-92 of the borders imposed decades earlier as the Soviet Union took shape. The arbitrary movement of Stalin’s dictatorial pen meant that geographical boundaries frequently did not follow mental boundaries.

The unrecognized states are defined not only in terms of their own aspirations to unfettered self-determination but also in opposition to larger nationalizing states. The South Caucasus unrecognized states also have in common an external benefactor, in the case of Abkhazia and South Ossetia this is Russia, in the case of Nagorno-Karabakh it is Armenia. The ties between Armenia and Karabakh are ethnic whereas it is more accurate to portray the Russian relationship with the Abkhaz and Ossets as one of strategic allies.

There has been a lack of sustained effective involvement and action on the part of the international community. This played a role in making a conflict involving Georgia and Russia more likely in 2008 and may yet be a factor in unleashing further military conflict over the disputed territory of Nagoro-Karabakh.

Sergey Markedonov: Recently you made a series of impressive presentations in Washington, DC on electoral campaigns in unrecognized states?[8] What particularities of electoral procedures and democratization attempts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia can you specially indicate? What challenges do those entities face (and will face) in their electoral processes?

Donnacha Ó Beacháin: I conducted field research in Abkhazia throughout the most recent presidential (August 2011) and parliamentary (March 2012) elections. I also travelled to Nagorno-Karabakh to observe the presidential elections of July 2012 and to Transnistria to research the seminal elections of December 2011 that led to the removal of veteran president Igor Smirnov. I did not manage to travel to South Ossetia for the controversial presidential elections there in 2011 and 2012 but I followed them closely in the media.

The most remarkable aspect of the elections that I observed in Abkhazia was their very ordinariness. The public meetings I attended of the three presidential candidates and dozens of parliamentary candidates were normal opportunities for candidates to address the electorate and to listen to their concerns. These concerns were not about international recognition or relations with Russia, Georgia or the US but rather about the mundane but vital topics of healthcare, education, employment, infrastructure, pensions and so on.

Recent elections have demonstrated that the de facto states are capable of holding competitive elections in which real opposition candidates participate and enjoy prospects of success. There have been successful transfers of power from government to opposition in Abkhazia and Transnistria and the results have been unpredictable. Another striking feature of the elections, bolstered by the recent presidential elections in South Ossetia in 2011-12, is the fact that the patron states (Russia and, in the case of Karabakh, Armenia) are not as influential as is often supposed.

It would be prudent for the EU and US to pay more attention to the democratization process within Abkhazia and South Ossetia and to support and engage with it where possible, not least because the representatives of these states participate in international talks. Recent elections in Abkhazia and South Ossetia have demonstrated that the society’s residents in both regions have an independent will and they are determined to elect leaders who will represent them domestically and on the international stage. This should not be under-estimated considering that most post-Soviet countries have never enjoyed a peaceful constitutional transfer of power from government to opposition. Refusing to engage with the elected authorities in these regions while affording extensive cooperation and funds to less democratic post-Soviet polities, such as those in Central Asia for example, has encouraged widespread cynicism towards the West’s self-professed emphasis on democratic values.

Sergey Markedonov: You are well-known specialist who makes substantial field work both in Abkhazia and Georgia? What more can you tell more about the perception of your papers, statements, trips on the both sides of the conflict? Have you seen any changes in the Georgian and Abkhaz perceptions of each other?

Donnacha Ó Beacháin: The relationship between Georgians and Abkhaz remains one devoid of trust and prone to misunderstandings due to contradictory historical narratives and divergent views as to what constitutes the basis of the conflict.

We often encounter in the literature on de facto states the term “parent state” to describe those entities from which the de facto states have seceded. It is an inappropriate and inaccurate term for it suggests that the Serbs give birth to Kosovo Albanians, the Azeris to the Armenians of Karabakh, Moldovans to Transnistrians, and Georgians to the Abkhaz. This is, of course, absurd.

Far more accurate would be to portray the relationship as a marriage, an arranged one at that, which has ended in an acrimonious separation. One side hopes the separation will be legalized formally as a divorce while the other hopes that a court order demanding the two sides return to cohabitation will be implemented.

Attitudes towards Abkhazia in Georgia are quite heterogeneous. Opinion polls show that the issue of territorial integrity still ranks very highly with the Georgian electorate and is the second or third most important issue for ordinary Georgians after jobs and healthcare. Most Georgians hope rather than expect that Abkhazia will one day be part of the same jurisdiction. The unrealistic optimism that the ‘lost territories’ would be easily regained has given way to an understanding that it’s a matter of “if” rather than “when” the desired integration will occur. An increasing, though still small, section of the Georgian population can even conceive of recognizing Abkhazia so as to regularize relations and to facilitate cross-border travel. The vast majority of Georgians, however, would not countenance independence for Abkhazia and it would be politically suicidal for any government to embark on such a path.

Despite the desire to integrate with Abkhazia, most Georgians know remarkably little about day-to-day life there. They often have an idealized view of Abkhazia based on memories of holidays on the beaches over 20 years ago. This Abkhazia no longer exists in many fundamental respects.

Information regarding domestic politics within Abkhazia is practically non-existent in the Georgian media. When I present my research on Abkhazia in Tbilisi I find that in general people are genuinely curious about how life is progressing there. The research that I presented on elections and domestic politics in Abkhazia received a very positive reception, though I should stress that audiences were composed primarily of what might be called the intellectual elite, broadly defined. There are a lot of people in Georgia who wish the Abkhaz well. But they are also many people, unfortunately probably a substantial majority, who have difficulties in accommodating differences, be they ethnic, religious or otherwise.

The Abkhaz are no less hospitable than the Georgians but experience has made them more wary of outsiders.  This wariness, their small numbers and, of course, lack of recognition, has meant the Abkhaz have far less opportunities in getting their case across to the international community. There is a feeling of increased frustration with the EU and western countries generally, which they accuse of hypocrisy and indifference. In one terrible year (1992-1993) the Abkhaz, as an ethnic group, lost 4% of their population. In percentage terms, that’s the same as the US losing 12 million of its citizens. It is frequently put to me in Abkhazia that the international community did nothing to protect the Abkhaz when they faced this onslaught or when they faced a post-war trade embargo throughout the 1990s. [9] But now that they have survived, the Abkhaz argue, the same western countries lecture them on how they should conduct their business. The general sentiment is that the EU and US blindly follow Georgia’s policy on Abkhazia and have little empathy for, or knowledge of, the Abkhaz position.

Many Abkhaz suspect that the average Georgian is more interested in the territory of Abkhazia rather than the Abkhaz who currently live there. As time passes, a political union of Georgia and Abkhazia seems less and less likely. Most Abkhaz in their early 20s have no memories of speaking to a Georgian. The idea of living in a Georgian state is completely alien to them and I have little doubt that many would fight, as their parents did, to prevent such an eventuality.

Sergey Markedonov: What policy recommendations would you propose to the the U.S. and EU decision-makers in terms of how they should approach Abkhazia and South Ossetia at the present time?

Donnacha Ó Beacháin: The EU has traditionally viewed Abkhazia and South Ossetia almost exclusively through the prism of Russia-Georgia relations, which is precisely the approach that has hitherto proved problematic and a barrier to developing an independent strategy. This is not to say that Russia is not a vital component or that the EU should not seek to persuade Russia to fulfil all of its obligations under the 2008 ceasefire agreement. [10] What I am saying is that it is necessary to more effectively separate policies towards the Georgia-Russia relationship from those focussed on Abkhazia and South Ossetia. They are connected but not the same.

The EU must have a distinctive policy. There is a natural desire in Tbilisi for the EU to act as a counterbalance to Russia, which is justifiably felt to be hostile to Georgia’s concept of its territorial integrity and its mission to join Euro-Atlantic structures. However, the EU will deprive itself of a useful role, both in terms of mediation and in terms of engagement with the Abkhaz and Ossets if it continues to open every discussion or statement with a trenchant proclamation of support for the Georgian position. The US has more latitude in this regard as it does not pretend to be an objective external arbitrator.

The EU and US would be wise to make a clearer distinction between the Georgia-Abkhazia conflict and the Georgia-South Ossetia conflict. The two conflicts are fundamentally different in terms of causes, character, means to manage the current situation, and potential for resolution.

The EU in particular has made “engagement without recognition” a central plank of its policy towards Abkhazia and South Ossetia. But while it has been firm on non-recognition there has been, at least from the perspective of public and political opinion in Abkhazia, very little evidence of a willingness to engage. South Ossetia, again, appears different in this respect, being more content to be absorbed into the Russian Federation. However, as the Abkhaz are wedded to a multi-vector foreign policy, they need engagement with the EU to counter-balance Russia’s creeping influence.

The Georgian Government should also welcome such engagement as it offers the potential to help challenge Russia’s role in Abkhazia. Too often in the past, however, the Georgian government has been more concerned to maintain the image of Abkhazia as an occupied territory than in preventing that eventuality. There is no surer way to guarantee that Abkhazia becomes de facto a Russian province than by offering them no alternative means of interaction or engagement with the rest of the world unless it is done through Georgia, a condition that the Abkhaz will not accept.

Practical steps should be taken to transfer EU skills and know-how to civil society in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. This might include but is not confined to the spheres of education, business expertise, sport, and culture. Training in the main languages of the EU, particularly English, would help the people of Abkhazia and South Ossetia interact more effectively with European societies. EU Information centres could be opened in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Programmes conducted by the EU and US should be as status-neutral as possible. It makes little sense to focus on ends now, when this can kill an initiative before it has the opportunity to make an impact.  

One of the most effective and non-controversial ways that the EU could make a positive impact is to help promote the Abkhaz language. The current foreign minister of Abkhazia, Dr Viacheslav Chirikba, has written a book on the Abkhaz language in which he discusses the Israeli and Irish government attempts to revive their respective languages. [11] The book concludes balefully that Abkhaz is probably more likely to go the way of Irish than Hebrew. The situation is critical but not beyond being arrested for there is still a large (relative to Abkhazia’s current population) pool of Abkhaz native speakers. Numbering about 50,000, they constitute about 20% of the population, a far more favourable position than that of native Irish speakers. However, the Abkhaz administration has nowhere near the means to do what is necessary to conserve and enhance the current state of the Abkhaz language. The EU could do much in this regard. It would be a confidence building measure that no Georgian government could object to, considering their complaint regarding the Russification of Abkhazia, and the fact that they are themselves committed officially to promoting Abkhaz culture and language.

Finally, the EU should immediately abandon its counter-productive practice of arbitrarily denying visas to people from Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The more Abkhaz and Ossets we have visiting the EU and being educated in our universities the better. Not only does denying visas to people from Abkhazia and South Ossetia prevent them from having the opportunity to engage with the outside world but it pushes them further into Russia’s embrace. It would be another important gesture to demonstrate that EU policy is about engagement and not just non-recognition.



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[1]  More information about the scientific work of Professor Ó Beacháin is available at: http://www.dcu.ie/iicrr/Donnacha_OBeachain.shtml
[2]  Dublin City University was established in 1989. The university is one of three universities in Ireland, which in international rankings was one of the top 300 universities in the world.
[3]  Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) - an outstanding physicist, mathematician, philosopher, astronomer. Historians are skeptical about the authenticity of the phrase "And yet it moves" as the sources related to the life and work of Galileo make no mention of it. However, this phrase has become a symbol of non-conformism and independence of thought. It is widely used in literature and art.
[4] Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) - 28th President of the United States from 1913-1921. In a speech before the U.S. Congress (8 January 1918) Wilson presented his thesis on the outcome of the First World War, which became known as the "14 points".  
[5]  "Sinn Féin” (“we ourselves") - the Irish political organization founded in 1905. Played an important role during the war of independence in Ireland (1919-1921).  
[6]  Eamon de Valera  (1882-1975) - one of the leaders of the struggle for the independence of Ireland and one of the leading politicians of this country in the twentieth century. Michael Collins  (1890 - 1922 ) - Irish revolutionary and politician, was involved in negotiations with the British government to secure independence and recognition for the Irish Government (1921)  The Irish Republican Army  was founded in 1919 after the merger of several  armed groups (such as the "Irish Volunteers" and the "Irish Citizen Army"). It took an active part in the war for independence. In 1949 it moved the center of its activity to Northern Ireland (which, after the war of independence remained under the jurisdiction of the British Crown).
[7] The independence of the former Serbian autonomous province of Kosovo was unilaterally declared by the Parliament of the de facto state February 17, 2008. As of October 2013 Kosovo recognized by 106 countries of the 193 UN member states. Two permanent members of the UN Security Council (Russia and China) do not support the independence of Kosovo.  
[8]  See the full video of the presentation made by Professor Ó Beacháin in Washington DC (Center for Strategic and International Studies, April 17, 2013): http://csis.org/event/elections-de-facto-states
[9]  After the outbreak of the anti-separatist campaign in Chechnya, Russia, on December 19, 1994, closed the border with Abkhazia on the river Psou. In 1995-1997, it also introduced a naval blockade of the unrecognized republic and cut off the telephone lines connecting it with the outside world. The Council of the CIS Heads of State, with the decisive role played by Georgia and Russia, on January 19, 1996 adopted a resolution "On measures to resolve the conflict in Abkhazia, Georgia", which proclaimed the termination of trade, economic, transport, financial and other transactions with the unrecognized republic. After Tbilisi announced the introduction of customs and border control on the territory of Abkhazia, Moscow blocked the port of Sukhumi for entry and exit of all foreign vessels. On the Russian side (largely because of Georgian politics) the blockade was significantly weakened in 1999-2000. However, its complete removal occurred only in the spring of 2008, shortly before the recognition of Abkhaz independence by Russia
[10]  This is the so-called "Medvedev-Sarkozy" Agreement (12 August 2008). One of the points of the agreement states: "Russian troops [will] return to the lines they held before the start of the military operations," though during the "five-day war" the Abkhaz and South Ossetian authorities (with Russian help) took territory previously controlled by Tbilisi (e.g. Akhalgori  in South Ossetia and the Kodori Gorge in Abkhazia).
[11]  Vyacheslav A. Chirikba (b. 1959) - linguist, scholar, politician. Since October 2011 - Minister of Foreign Affairs of Abkhazia. In 2009 he published the book "The development of the Abkhaz language in a multi-ethnic society: challenges and prospects."

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