European and US Approaches to the Georgian-Abkhaz Conflict | International Alert

General features and nuances of the "western" approach

Arda Inal-Ipa

Until recently, there were no serious differences between European and US approaches to the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict. This was in spite of the US government’s "special relationship" with Georgia, often referred to as an “American project” under Saakashvili. Both European and US relations are characterised by an insistence of the precedence of territorial integrity over the right to self-determination; a denial that a precedent had been set in Kosovo; and praise for Georgia’s post-communist democracy-building while ignoring democratisation in Abkhazia and persistently refusing to recognise the legitimacy of Abkhaz elections.

The Europeans and US responded alike even to Georgia’s democratic shortcomings in the domestic arena, failing to critique departures from democratic governance such as the suppression of free speech, persecution of the opposition, increased control of civil society organisations, the forced dispersal of peaceful demonstrations and others.

Even when Saakashvili’s policies flagrantly failed to toe the line established by Washington or Brussels "nudges" to pull the Georgian administration into line were conveyed exclusively behind the scenes.

In geopolitical terms, the US has positioned itself as the more active and interested player in the context of the Georgian-Abkhaz and Georgian-Ossetian conflicts.The US, more than Europe, also tends to perceive the conflicts in terms of opposition to Russia. Europe has not, of course, matched the level of confrontation with Russia reached by the US in 2008 when the US deployed its navy to the Black Sea.

On the other hand, at the level of high politics, both Europe and America deal unceremoniously with countries that have recognised Abkhazia’s independence or are merely considering this as an option. Belarus has been threatened with retaliatory measures by Javier Solana, as has Tuvalu in a letter from Hillary Clinton, as well as the Dominican Republic and other actual or potential political partners of Abkhazia.1

The change in the White House administration brought hopes that the US might take a more objective view of the Georgian-Ossetian and Georgian-Abkhaz conflicts. A fairly constructive meeting was held between Hillary Clinton and Sergey Lavrov in Moscow in October 2009, following which Clinton spoke of the importance of constructing a ‘status neutral approach’.2 However in reality nothing changed and the current rhetoric used by the American administration involves repeatedly raising the subject of “territorial integrity” and the “occupied territories”, which differs little from Senator McCain’s speeches.

Of course, neither the US nor Europe could have failed to realise that current approaches to the conflicts are not leading anywhere. Given the lack of any evident progress and with no alternative policies, the US has simply stopped spending money on expensive peacebuilding projects. This has led to a virtual cessation of visits to Abkhazia by US diplomats and representatives of US foundations which might support humanitarian, research or development programmes in Abkhazia.

Distinctive aspects of European policy

Unlike the US, Europe is actively exploring new approaches towards resolution. In 2009, a European strategy was proposed on Abkhazia and South Ossetia “engagement without recognition”.3 This strategy was aimed at overcoming the isolation of these partially recognised countries. The Georgian administration understood well the potential of this approach and promptly presented their own “State Strategy on the Occupied Territories”, which stated that all engagement with Abkhazia and South Ossetia had to be authorised by or in some way involve the Georgian Ministry of Reintegration. Unsurprisingly, this proposal was rejected by the Abkhaz and South Ossetians and unfortunately the Europeans quickly lost the initiative over its new approach, allowing the Georgians to stamp out all proposals for Abkhaz direct engagement with Europe.

It is of course difficult to talk of a unified European approach given the variety of European institutions and programmes which often operate independently of each other – the OSCE, the EU’s European Neighbourhood and Eastern Partnership policies, the European Parliament, PACE, etc. Moreover, there are substantive differences between the old and new member states’ approaches. Despite these difficulties, Europe is attempting to construct a more systemic approach based on expert research, field studies and public opinion. Europe’s interest in gaining a deeper understanding of the context may be because Abkhazia and Georgia share a Black Sea border with EU member states and therefore instability in that region would present a real threat for Europe. This may also be the reason why Europe continues to support international NGOs working on both sides of the conflict divide despite the economic crisis. As a result, European institutions are taking a more rounded and sophisticated view of the situation. Europe appears to be beginning to understand that there is no future in an over-simplistic vision of conflict resolution through confidence-building meetings between the sides and that instead, the time has come to build confidence with Europe itself. Europe’s image as an “honest broker” has been dented by its uncritical stance on Georgia's position on the one hand and its rigid approach to the unrecognised states over many years on the other.

New messages coming from Europe

In May 2012, the latest ENP annual Progress Report on Georgia set out delicately but quite clearly some areas where the EU and US views on engagement with the “conflict regions” diverge. Recommendations in the report stress that “Status Neutral Travel Documents” should not be the only means of travel for populations of Abkhazia and South Ossetia since they are not widely accepted by them. Particularly important is the fact that the report invites Georgia to review the law on occupied territories because it is hindering de-isolation.4

The significance of this EU report for the Abkhaz can hardly be exaggerated, given its explicit statement that European engagement with Abkhazia is not simply a proclaimed abstract aim but Europe is ready to undertake real steps to overcome isolation of Abkhazia.

Returning to the US position, we also see some signs that the EU report has not been entirely ignored by the US administration. Hillary Clinton, in her speech in Batumi in June 2012,5 appeared at first sight to give exclusive backing to the idea of “neutral passports” for people living in South Ossetia and Abkhazia by promising that the US would recognise them and that it was willing to grant those in possession of these documents the possibility to study at American educational establishments. However, a closer look at the wording used by Ms Clinton used (‘for those who choose” the neutral document) suggest that she is also admitting the right to choose freely between documents. In other words, Clinton is not ruling out the possibility that people living in South Ossetia and Abkhazia can use their current Russian passports, as such differing from the position which would fully satisfy Georgia -a statement denying the legitimacy of Russian passports for South Ossetians and Abkhaz.

The EU report thus sends out very important signals to all interested parties. Primarily, the EU’s recommendations demonstrate unambiguously that Europe’s strategy on engagement with Abkhazia and South Ossetia does not coincide with the Georgian strategy on engagement on major issues.

Secondly, it is now clear that Europe’s dealings with Georgia involve not only signalling support for Georgia but also publicly expressing disapproval and concern at a series of destructive but widely publicised actions in relation to the conflicts. Of course a question remains over whether, if Georgia chooses to ignore the European recommendations, there will be the will to apply the usual sanctions.


The ENP report on Georgia signals opportunities for positive change. This makes it more likely that Abkhazia will accept the findings of European experts rather than dismissing them as deliberately biased, which in turn may allow it to consider some useful recommendations outlined in earlier assessments of European diplomats and experts which the Abkhaz side rejected because of their “pro-Georgian” starting point.

If Abkhazia adopts a more constructive tone in its relations with Europe and dispenses with ultimatums and nit-picking over formalities, there could be grounds for some hope that progress will be made on Abkhazia’s de-isolation.

A more consistent approach by Europe in relation to Georgia is important for both Abkhaz and Georgian societies. On the eve of the October 2012 parliamentary elections, new notes in Europe’s messages will send out a signal that Europe will not turn a blind eye to the use of undemocratic campaigning methods.6

If there is further evidence that Europe is adopting a more balanced approach to the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict, this will be hugely significant since this will help Europe to be a more effective and sought-after mediator throughout the South Caucasus. Unconditional support for one side of the conflict will only exacerbate divisions, whereas strenuous efforts at objectivity and impartiality will create the right conditions for the mutual search for formula for stability in the Caucasus which involves both sides in the conflict and major players such as Russia and Europe.


1. ‘Solana: ES peresmotrit otnosheniya s RB v sluchae priznaniya Abkhazii i YuO’ ('Solana: EU will review its relations with Belorussia if it recognises Abkhazia and South Ossetia),, 17th March 2009. Available in Russian at; ‘K stranam, sobirayushimsia priznat Abkhaziyu primenyayutsia shantazh i ugrozy’ ('Threats and blackmail are directed towards countries that intend to recognise Abkhazia'), Apsnypress, 18th April 2012. Available in Russian at

2. Hillary Clinton said ‘In my meetings with Minister Lavrov [on October 13], we have discussed how we can perhaps go back to the drawing boards to create a status-neutral approach…’ See: ‘Clinton on “Status-Neutral” Approach to Abkhazia, S.Ossetia’, Civil Georgia, 15th October 2009. Available at

3. This also led to this approach being reinforced in a European Parliament Resolution of 8.04.2011 which referred alongside the principle of territorial integrity to nations’ right of self-determination and proposed to strengthen links with the de facto authorities and societies of the unrecognised states.

4. The text reads: ‘…Georgia is invited to: the law on Occupied Territories; 'Status Neutral Travel Documents', a welcome step towards the de-isolation of inhabitants of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, should not be the only means of travel for these populations until they are more widely accepted by them.’ Full text of the report is available at

5. ‘Clinton Stresses Importance of Elections’, Civil Georgia, 5th June 2012. Available at

6. There were also clear messages on this from the US, but given the failure of their demands that the Georgian administration exercise restraint in 2008, and their signing of a charter on a strategic partnership following the war in August, it seems unlikely that the American admonitions will have any effect.

Source: International Alert




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