Through cooperation or without recognition?, by Sergey Markedonov

Georgia's approach is paradoxical, Europe's more realistic

Sergey Markedonov
Visiting Fellow in the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington DC.

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

The respective strategic approaches of the European Union and Georgia towards Abkhazia and South Ossetia have to be viewed in a very different light, as each has its own motivations and goals. From the Georgian viewpoint, Abkhazia and South Ossetia are primarily internal political issues. As the problem is closely linked to the 'Russia factor', Tbilisi is keen to transform the interpretation of the Abkhazian and South Ossetian conflicts, hence the emergence of the concept of 'occupied territories' territories whose loss did not result from Tbilisi's own errors and miscalculations but from the interference of an external enemy.

For the EU on the other hand, Abkhazia and South Ossetia are not an internal problem but problem regions of increased risk territorieswhere Europe would like to have greater influence and gain a better understanding of internal dynamics. This creates better prerequisites for unemotional and pragmatic approaches and gives some ground for potential cooperation between Russia and the EU on Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Viewed as an internal issue, the conflict with Abkhazia and South Ossetia has been a source of national trauma for Georgians and a sign of the Georgian state's failings. Moreover, internally displaced persons (IDPs) from those regions are important electorally for the government and the opposition alike: it is sufficient to recall the role of western Georgia, with its large numbers of refugees from Abkhazia, in supporting Georgia's President Mikheil Saakashvili during the Rose Revolution of 2003, as well as the election campaigns of 2004 and 2008. Therefore, even if the chances of successfully reintegrating the two former autonomous regions are extremely poor, Tbilisi cannot drop the subject of reintegration. 

This leads to a paradoxical situation. On the one hand, the Georgian authorities are offering a strategy of 'engagement through cooperation' – in other words, sending a positive signal to Sukhumi and Tskhinvali. On the other hand, Georgia is promoting in the West the notion of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as occupied territories, thus denying Abkhazians and South Ossetians their independence. The inference is that Abkhazia and South Ossetia are not political subjects but objects of Russian manipulation. According to this logic, instead of engaging with them directly, engagement should take place with the occupying force –in other words, the Kremlin. The Latvian and Romanian parliaments have recently declared Abkhazia and South Ossetia to be not simply parties to a conflict but 'occupied territories'. Tbilisi is planning to lobby for similar resolutions in the US Congress and NATO. 

The visit to Washington by David Bakradze, the Speaker of the Georgian Parliament, in September 2010 largely had this objective in mind. Yet even if this course of action succeeds and NATO's assembly in Warsaw in November declares Russia to be an occupying power, and Abkhazia and South Ossetia to be occupied territories, could this be a pivotal point in reintegrating the territories? The most likely answer is 'no'.

This is because Georgia would merely have successfully completed a domestic public-relations exercise. The Georgian authorities would once again be able to tell their electorate that the 'West is with us', but this would not make Abkhazia or South Ossetia join Georgia on the road to a brighter future. A rapprochement between nations is not achieved through militarypolitical alliances; it is achieved through direct dialogue. And this is something for which neither Sukhumi, Tskhinvali, nor indeed Tbilisi itself, is ready.

Nor should one discount the interest that NATO member states have in maintaining relations with Russia. For some–Turkey, Germany and Slovakia –this forms part of their economic priorities. For others – the US, UK and France –the main consideration is geopolitical, involving Iran or Afghanistan. For others still – Poland –it is the long-awaited normalisation of bilateral relations that is of concern. Neither is NATO dreaming of ousting Russian military bases from Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In other words, the more Georgia lobbies for the idea of 'occupied territories' in the international arena, the more it undermines its own reintegration efforts. 

Turning to the EU standpoint, European diplomats and experts (in private, rather than in public) reveal an understanding of two key points. The first is the fact that Abkhazia and South Ossetia differ considerably from each other. They have different resources and opportunities for creating an independent state, and different levels of involvement with Russia, Georgia and the rest of the world. This explains the EU's desire to diversify its policies in relation to these two entities. 

The second point is that Abkhazia and South Ossetia are de facto situated outside Georgia (and are likely to remain so for a long time). This is why there is a need for new approaches to engagement with them that do not follow the old mantra of 'territorial integrity'. 

At present, the EU is looking for a new solution through the formula of 'engagement without recognition'. It is too early to assert that the new European approach has taken shape. Within the EU there are different attitudes to Georgia and its reintegration efforts, just as there are different perceptions of Russia and its policies in the Caucasus. But the very fact that there is such a search for a better approach to these two problem regions in the South Caucasus should be welcomed. It may be that this exploration by the EU will end in the realisation, both within individual European countries and in the EU as a whole that these two conflicts are not really about the Georgian–Russian confrontation. Rather, they belong to a process of formation of nation states that springs from the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of new political identities.


The reality is that Abkhazia and South Ossetia have now existed for many years as political entities, even without a formal legal recognition, and to continue ignoring this would hardly be worthwhile.

Last, but no less importantly, while Georgia's approach to Abkhazia and South Ossetia has the potential for confrontation with Russia, which is seen by Tbilisi as mainly to blame for its difficulties, the EU's approach offers opportunities for Moscow to show cooperation. In the end, Moscow's attempt to become the exclusive player in Abkhazia and South Ossetia would undermine its own recognition of these territories' independence on 26 August 2008, and thus add credibility to the talk of Russia's occupation. The EU approach contains an important element that Moscow could learn from, namely guarantees of humanitarian development and humanitarian security in the conflict regions. An ability to guarantee the security of Georgians in the Gali district of Abkhazia or the Akhalgori district of South Ossetia, together with a guarantee of a certain level of education in Georgian and secure border crossings in both directions, could only be to Moscow's advantage.


Sergey Markedonov is a Visiting Fellow in the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington DC.


Source: The International Institute for Strategic Studies




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