Rethinking Abkhazia: the Consequences of Isolation

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By Michael Cecire

World Politics Review
October 5, 2009

 

On the heels of signing a major arms agreement with Russia on Sept. 10, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez announced his country's recognition of Georgian breakaway regions Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states, becoming only the third country after Nicaragua and Russia to do so. A little over a year since Russia unilaterally recognized the two statelets following its brief war with Georgian forces, the international community -- including Russia's close allies Belarus and Kazakhstan -- has continued to keep its distance.

Predictably, the response to Chavez's announcement from Georgia's capital, Tbilisi, was dismissive. A statement released by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs even claimed confidently that the act would only strengthen the resolve of "those states who respect international law to continue support of Georgia's territorial integrity." For its part, Washington downplayed the event, noting that Venezuela's recognition "doesn't add legitimacy to [South Ossetia and Abkhazia's] status."

The outlook for further diplomatic recognition of the breakaway republics remains bleak. Yet only a few days after Chavez's colorful pronouncement, rumors began to circulate of a possible recognition of Abkhazia by regional power Turkey, which has longstanding cultural and historic ties to the region. Such a move would constitute nothing short of a geopolitical sea change, and despite repeated denials from Ankara, the rumors have remained surprisingly resilient.

Turkish officials maintain that Turkey's view of Georgia's territorial integrity had not changed, despite a recent visit by a high-ranking Turkish Foreign Ministry official to Sukhumi and Foreign Minister Akhmet Davutoglu's declared intention to visit Abkhazia in the future. Turkey makes no secret of its interest in leveraging its growing international clout to facilitate greater integration of the region, so its overtures are entirely understandable. However, the inevitable fallout with the European Union, and not to mention Georgia, would decidedly undermine this goal if Turkey took the full step of recognition.

At the same time, signals from Western governments and Georgia in support of eventual "reunification" between Sukhumi and Tbilisi are paradoxically securing Abkhazia's place in Russia's orbit. Unlike South Ossetia, which has unabashedly declared its desire to join the Russian Federation, Abkhazia has made it very clear that it wants nothing short of full independence. Indeed, Russia's consolidation of power in Abkhazia has drawn strong reactions from some Abkhazians wary of being swallowed by yet another larger neighbor.

Many in the opposition, including ex-KGB officer and former Vice President Raul Khadjimba, have decried the government's decision to hand control of its borders and key transport infrastructure to Russia. Coupled with the presence of large numbers of Russian troops, the construction of Russia's newest Black Sea naval base in Ochamchire, and the Abkhazian state's utter financial dependence on appropriations from Moscow, a heightened sensitivity by Abkhazians to the health of their sovereignty is understandable. Intensified Russian involvement in Abkhazian affairs since Russian recognition have harmed the region's long-term goal in pursuing a truly independent course, free from domination by Tbilisi, Moscow, or anyone else. Although Georgian forces have been expelled, Abkhazia's international contacts have also dwindled following the expulsion of OSCE and U.N. missions by Russia. Today, Abkhazia's window to the outside world is primarily routed through -- and dictated by -- Russia.

But Russia cannot be held solely responsible for these developments. Given the international consensus on Georgia's territorial integrity, most countries have honored an unofficial economic and diplomatic embargo against Abkhazia. With only very minor diplomatic contact with the outside world and few opportunities for trade, Abkhazia has no alternative to dependence on Russian patronage. Unsurprisingly, this strategy has not contributed to reunification or reconciliation efforts with Tbilisi. And even if Abkhazian politicians sought to wean themselves from Russian coffers and protection, there's a real sense that Russia would be loath to relinquish the privileged position it has created for itself in the region once known as the "Soviet Riviera."

From this perspective, calling Russia's bluff and recognizing Abkhazia's independence could be a shrewd move by Western governments or even Tbilisi. There are several possible advantages to the idea, one being simply the ability to deal with Abkhazia on its own terms and without the specter of Russian interests haunting the negotiating table. Another would be the greater opportunity to defuse tensions between Sukhumi and Tbilisi through discussions as equals, a dynamic that has never characterized Russian-Georgian talks. (Tbilisi has rejected the principle in the past.)

George Hewitt, a professor of linguistics at London's School of Oriental and African Studies and an Abkhazian Honorary Consul, indicates that there is a potential audience in Abkhazia for the proposition of building ties with the West. "There is widespread disgust at the West's double standards," he says, "but at the same time there is, if not universal, then widespread acknowledgment that something is needed to counter potential Russian domination."

Going about the process of recognizing Abkhazia would be no easy task, however. Aside from breaking with longstanding policies and undermining pro-Western sentiments in Georgia, recognition of Abkhazia could be construed as an endorsement of the status quo and, by implication, the means by which it was achieved -- namely, Russia's military intervention last year and the campaigns of ethnic cleansing that saw the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Georgians since the early 1990s. Such a move would also essentially legitimize Russia's continued non-compliance with the French-brokered ceasefire, and would virtually surrender the Western argument of distinctiveness between the cases of Kosovo and Georgia's breakaway regions.

But given the potential advantages of providing Abkhazia with an alternative to Russia, a new policy of active engagement with the Sukhumi regime needs to be considered. With the situation at a practical impasse, no one benefits from the status quo except Russia. Turkey's cordial relations with both Russia and Georgia would make Ankara a natural choice to lead such a rapprochement, which could end up benefiting both Tbilisi and the West, while helping prevent what George Hewitt warns is an Abkhazia falling "ever deeper into Russia's embrace."