Charlotte Hille | Special to Abkhaz World
Abkhazia’s Third Anniversary as a Recognised State: Achievements and Possibilities
Today three years ago, on August 26, 2008, Abkhazia was recognised as an independent state by the Russian Federation. Since that date, four other states have recognised Abkhazia as an independent state. Today, on the third anniversary of Abkhazia’s recognition, I want to look at what recognition has brought Abkhazia so far.
In the past three years, the discussion about recognition and the solving of conflicts over status of territory has gotten a new dimension, since we have witnessed that if a conflict over status of territory is not resolved, it may either result in renewed hostilities, in a frozen conflict, or in recognition as a state by some states, and not by others. Recognition is a unilateral act, which is in principle irreversible.
The recognition of Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Kosovo in 2008 has created opportunities to rethink state building and consider new concepts of internal and external sovereignty, common state ideas, federal and confederal options. The fear of losing cultural and ethnic rights, and the fear of assimilation is often a starting point for feelings of discontent, which, when not addressed, may easily escalate.
The development of relations with de facto states and states which are recognised by a minority of states means that boycotts against entities which seek external self-determination could be reconsidered, and that conflict prevention methods, including preventive mediation, should be used at a much earlier stage when minorities feel at risk. How international law on this topic will develop still depends on the willingness of states to use new concepts of state. It is however clear that with the recognition of Kosovo by some 82 states a precedent has been created of recognising lower entities than Union republics, which until then was not allowed in international legal theory. However, after Kosovo’s recognition by several Western states, Vladimir Putin in 2008 has used the same rationale by recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states.
In 1994 Abkhazia adopted its own constitution. Since the fall of the Soviet Union Abkhazia had been governed by the constitution Abkhazia adopted in 1925, when it was a treaty SSR in the Soviet Union. The de facto independence of Abkhazia made the need for a modern Constitution felt. Everywhere in Eastern Europe and in the republics of the former Soviet Union, constitutions were often modeled along the lines of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations. The Constitution of Abkhazia underlines that Abkhazia is a republic, with a presidential system and a Supreme Court. In November 1994 when the Abkhaz president Vladislav Ardzinba pledged the oath on the new constitution, this was a special moment for Abkhazia. The Republic of Georgia only adopted a new Constitution in 1995.
Another landmark moment in the journey towards recognition and statehood was the referendum held in Abkhazia in December 1999. The population overwhelmingly voted in favour of independence, and in favour of the constitution, at that moment 5 years in force. This referendum paved the way towards a formal declaration of independence, which followed directly after the referendum in 1999.
Relations with the Russian Federation
In the past three years the relations between Abkhazia and the Russian Federation have intensified, both in the economic sphere, especially in the tourism industry, and in matters related to security. Russian troops are stationed in Abkhazia, at the request of the Abkhazian government and based on bilateral agreements, signed after Abkhazia was recognized as a state, to help protect the territory against Georgia. Not much has changed, since Russian troops had been present, even at the same military base, before the start of the war in 2008, as part of CIS peace keeping troops. When the CIS troops, including the Russian troops, withdrew after the Russian-Georgian war, in October 2008, negotiations between the Russian Federation and Abkhazia started about support in providing security.
Late President Sergei Bagapsh stated:
“No one ever asks the question: ‘Why is there a brigade of 7,000 NATO troops in Kosovo? Why have all former Warsaw Pact countries been integrated into NATO?’ There is one reason: everyone wants a security for the state,” Abkhaz President Sergei Bagapsh said. “If other countries can do this, why can’t we pick a partner to defend us?”
The strained relationship between Georgia and Abkhazia creates missed opportunities. Georgia regards Abkhazia and South Ossetia as ‘occupied territory’ by the Russian Federation. This, and the prohibition of organizations, from the Georgian point of view, to enter Abkhazia to deliver humanitarian aid, only broadens the gap between the two.
Today, 26 August 2011, there will be presidential elections in Abkhazia. Several Western and Latin American governments and non-governmental organizations have sent election observers to monitor the elections. This is important, since it will show to the world how democracy works in Abkhazia. The elections show a multiparty democratic system, with three presidential candidates, who each have been awarded time on television to promote their policy platforms. One of the topics which are addressed by both presidential candidate Khajimba and presidential candidate Shamba is security. The level of dependency of Abkhazia on Russian security and Russian aid was cited by both candidates as a cause of concern. This situation is in a way a self-fulfilling prophecy. As long as Georgia and other states that have not recognised Abkhazia as an independent state persist in their boycott of Abkhazia, and use rhetoric as ‘de-occupation of Abkhazia” the logical result will be that Abkhazia will strengthen its ties with the Russian Federation. If Georgia and other states, such as the USA are opposed to Abkhazia's strengthened relationship with the Russian Federation, they should give Abkhazia an alternative.
The Georgian government concentrates on restoration of their territorial integrity. Though secession results in a violation of territorial integrity, and Georgia is supported by many states and international intergovernmental organizations as the EU, OSCE, UN and Council of Europe, a continuation of the conflict with Abkhazia has serious repercussions for Georgia. One of the repercussions is that Georgia cannot become a member of NATO. As long as Georgia considers it has a conflict with its neighbor Russia and as long as Georgia considers there is a conflict on its territory, NATO will not invite Georgia for membership. NATO cannot take the risk that article 5 of the NATO Treaty, an attack on one member is regarded as an attack on all, has to become operational.
The UN has been sharing the mediations concerning the aftermath of the Georgian-Russian war with the OSCE and the EU since August 2008. The EU, under the presidency of French president Nicolas Sarkozy, and not the UN, brokered a cease fire between Georgia and Russia. In this case it is understandable that the position of the UN, and especially the position of the Security Council, was difficult, having a permanent member as a party to a violent conflict. The UN, OSCE and EU have combined their energy to negotiate with the parties to the August 2008 conflict, which include Abkhazia and South Ossetia. This generates a lot of interest in the process, combining forces and putting parties under pressure to take the negotiation process serious, but the joint effort also leads to a weakness in the process. If the negotiations fail, what credibility the UN, OSCE and EU may be diminished.
Recognition by Vanuatu
The recognition of Abkhazia as an independent state by Vanuatu turned out to be debated. The government of Vanuatu recognised Abkhazia on 23 May 2011, and confirmed this on 7 June. A week later, on 19 June, the new interim Prime Minister of Vanuatu, Edward Natapei, made public that he was going to withdraw the recognition of Abkhazia and was seeking better relations and recognition of Georgia. Withdrawing recognition is regarded in diplomatic terms as very harmful for diplomatic and political relations. Again little more than a week later, on 26 June, Sato Kilman, who had been Prime Minister during the recognition of Abkhazia in May 2011, was re-elected. On 12 July it was stated that the government of Vanuata reconfirmed its recognition of Abkhazia.
Abkhazia has opened embassies in the Russian Federation, and Venezuela. The negotiations with Nicaragua on exchange of diplomats have been completed. The embassy of Nicaragua in Moscow also covers Abkhazia.
What is the recognition by five states worth? Although the states recognising are small, and the state recognised is small, this does not in any way affect the recognition. Nor does the amount of states that recognizes a state. In principle, once a state has recognised another state, as in the case of the Russian Federation and Abkhazia, this state is regarded as a de iure state, and no longer de facto. Nevertheless, as long as there is debate about a recognition, it happens that states which oppose recognition indicate that they consider a certain amount of recognitions, or the (political) importance of the state insufficient to regard the state as recognized. This however does not have any backing by international law theory.
The past two years have shown that international non-governmental organizations are more willing to be active in Abkhazia, and the relations between Russia and Abkhazia have expanded. The elections are monitored by Western states and non-governmental organizations. In order to realize a lasting peace agreement, relations with Georgia remain important. Abkhazia has lived through twenty years of change. While leaving the Soviet Union, it developed from an ASSR to a de facto state, to recognition. Abkhazia shows that state building and the expression of full external self-determination is a continuing process.
 I would like to thank Renee Gendron MA for her valuable feedback on this article.
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 http://www.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=19330, accessed 26 August 2011
 http://www.rferl.org/content/abkhazia_presidential_election/24301047.html, accessed 26 August 2011
 http://www.tert.am/en/news/2011/08/01/us-south-ossetia-abkhazia/, accessed 26 Augsust 2011
 http://en.rian.ru/world/20091217/157264795.html, accessed 26 August 2011.
Charlotte Hille, assistant professor at the Department of Political Science, University of Amsterdam. Dr Hille is specialised in State building, conflict resolution and international mediation. She is the author of State Building and Conflict Resolution in the Caucasus, Brill, 2010.