Recognition of Abkhazia: Challenges and Opportunities, by Liana Kvarchelia

Liana Kvarchelia,
Director of The Center for Humanitarian Programs, Former Head of Department of English at University of Abkhazia

Paper read at the conference “Independence of Abkhazia and Prospects for the Caucasus” organized by the Friends of Abkhazia Civil Initiative. Istanbul, Bilgi University, 30 May 2009.

The August events of 2008 significantly changed the international relations paradigm, affecting the situation both globally and regionally. The August war and the following recognition by Russia clearly brought the situation in and around Abkhazia to a new level. These events, however, did not change the nature of Abkhazia’s striving for international recognition as an independent state, becpause since the collapse of the USSR and the subsequent Georgian-Abkhazian war Abkhazia’s sovereignty and statehood have been on the agenda of the political elites and the Abkhaz society in general. The August events added new fundamentally important dimensions to Abkhazia's situation both externally and internally, and set old tasks in a new political and economic environment. Today Abkhazia is bound to address the following internal and external tasks, that are in many ways interlinked and have an effect upon each. Moreover, within these tasks there is a potential both for conflict and for development:

• Internally, the task is to move from the strategy of surviving and patching up holes to the strategy of modernization, from the Soviet administrative methods – to democratic governance. This is an important prerequisite for the consolidation of Abkhazia's internal sovereignty.

• Externally the task is to develop relations with Russia and aspire for international recognition, which will help to consolidate further Abkhazia's security and external sovereignty.

The post August context opens new opportunities and poses new challenges for the implementation of the above tasks.

If we look at the issue of Abkhazia's external sovereignty, then it becomes obvious that the August events have added a very important security dimension. What happened in South Ossetia had a very clear message for Abkhazia: if Georgia’s operation in South Ossetia were successful, Abkhazia would have been the next target. People in Abkhazia were not surprised by the inability of the international community to prevent the Georgian attack on South Ossetia, since there has been little if any Western public criticism of Georgia once independent Georgia had positioned itself as a pro-Western state. Apparently such unconditional Western support and impunity gave Georgia a free hand in dealing with neighbouring Abkhazia and South Ossetia. It is a fact that on the morning of the 8-th of August, after the Georgian attack had taken place and before the Russian troops entered South Ossetia, the US and the UK representatives in the UN Security Council refused to support even a resolution calling on Georgia and South Ossetia to stop hostilities. This refusal was not only appalling in itself, but also gave a very clear message to the Abkhazians: should Georgia attack Abkhazia, the West will never protect them.

There has been much speculation and debate about Russia's motives in August and Moscow's aspiration to be a single regional power that determines security arrangements in its so called near abroad. Unfortunately, before August there was little questioning of Saakashvili's provocative attempts to push Russia out of both the peace-keeping operation and the negotiation processes both in Abkhazia and in South Ossetia in a situation where neither Ossetia nor Abkhazia were prepared to accept any security arrangements that excluded Russia. For Tskhinval and Sukhum Western guarantees were not reliable, since the international community and particularly the US, fundamentally lacked impartiality and were therefore regarded as pro-Georgian. Should Russia have taken a pro-Georgian position as well and helped Tbilisi “to restore the territorial integrity,” there would have been no objections on the Georgian part to Russia’s “mediation.” Apparently for Russia, taking a pro-Georgian position at the time when Georgia was drifting towards NATO membership was out of the question. Instead of trying to engage in a meaningful dialogue on the non-use of force and international guarantees, that included all interested parties, Saakashvili attempted to have and to eat his cake both. His tactics were to present Russia as the party to the conflict, completely ignoring the Abkhazian-Georgian contradictions, and to push Russia out of all processes in the region; to pedal Georgia’s NATO accession; and to restore “Georgia’s territorial integrity” (so called ) by force under the pretext that all peaceful means have been exhausted, of course, meaning by “peace” “the restoration of Georgia’s territorial integrity.”

The August war demonstrated to an unbiased observer that not only was the Georgian policy adventurous and provocative, but also that the West failed to produce a message of the inadmissibility of the use of force in such a way that the message could not have been misinterpreted. Moreover, there has been little public resistance within Georgia to the idea of using force in dealing with the so called “conflict regions.” The very few anti-war voices in Tbilisi could not compete with triumphant crowds of revanchists celebrating “victory” on the morning of 8-th of August, while the rest of the public were simply afraid to speak out.

As for those who were hiding from Georgian bombs in the basements of Tskhinval, and those in Abkhazia who were horrified to see on TV the attack on South Ossetia, they had nobody but Russia to look to for help against a heavily armed Georgia.

For Abkhazian society independence and security have become two inseparable issues. Russia’s military and diplomatic support in a situation of international denial not only of Abkhazia's sovereignty, but of her legitimate security concerns, has become the only guarantee for the survival of the Abkhazian people and of Abkhazia’s statehood. The more threats emanate from Georgia, the more security support Abkhazia will need.

Russia's decision to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia was not an easy one. It complicated Russia's relations with its Western partners. The alternative for Russia, however, would have been to agree to an increased Western presence at its borders, including a military one, and to accept new security arrangements that would have dramatically minimized Russia's role in the region. For Abkhazia it would have meant increased pressure from the international community to to give up its independence, which would have inevitably aggravated the conflict situation. The change of the sixth principle in the Medvedev-Sarkozy plan after Sarkozy's visit to Tbilisi, was a signal for Moscow, that Russia should finally make the difficult choice.

In a situation of a military threat from a very unpredictable and unstable neighbour, whose defense budget increased from 36 million American dollars in 2003 to 990 million in 2008, Abkhazia naturally sought alliance with the only external power that was determined not to accept a forceful restoration of “Georgia’s territorial integrity.” Apparently, the situation of unilateral recognition by a very powerful neighbour means a certain degree of dependence on this world power. It is clear, of course, that in terms of the political and economic weight of the two parties it is in many ways an asymmetrical relationship. The challenge here is to find such a balance in Russian-Abkhazian relations that will allow both sides to feel that they are truly gaining from this relationship.

It is also important to overcome the isolationist policies of Georgia that create obstacles for Abkhazia in establishing trade, economic, financial, educational, and cultural links with the outside world. It is important also for the international community to realize that the political and security context has completely changed, and that Abkhazia will not be part of Georgia again. Today we are still far from having recognition by the world community, but the fact that the rest of the world is not prepared to recognize us immediately does not mean that we have to give up our quest for international recognition. Of course, international recognition is not an idée fixe, but rather is seen as a way of creating conditions that will strengthen Abkhazia's independence and viability as a state. In the meantime, as a short and mid-term task, Abkhazia needs to find ways of engaging the international community in Abkhazia in the forms that acceptable both for Abkhazia and for the international community.

Despite tactical differences among political elites with regard to the relationship with Russia and the so called Western countries along with general frustration over the West’s pro-Georgian position, there is a consensus in the society, first of all, about the need to strengthen Abkhazia’s sovereignty, about the role of Russia as Abkhazia’s strategic partner, and also about the need to develop relations with other countries that are open to different forms of cooperation. Even in the absence of international recognition the President of Abkhazia and other officials spoke about being open for cooperation with such actors as the UN and even the EU, but it is becoming more difficult to see, for example, the EU as an unbiased and impartial actor Abkhazia might trust. If the EU took at least a status neutral position with regard to Abkhazia, that could have opened the doors not only for the EU‘s humanitarian and economic activities, but also possibly for the EU monitoring mission. The fact, however, that the EU not only refuses to announce its neutrality towards independence, not to mention recognition of Abkhazia, but actively opposes the recognition, either by calling on Russia to denounce its 26 August decision, or by putting pressure on countries that can potentially recognize Abkhazia, creates serious challenges to the prospects for and the nature of cooperation with the EU.

In view of the forthcoming Presidential elections, Abkhazia’s relations with external actors inevitably and unfortunately have become the most disputed issue in the internal political struggle. The current Government have come under severe criticism from the opposition over the agreement with Russia on border guards. The opposition blamed the President simultaneously of backtracking on Abkhazia’s sovereignty in favour of Russia, and of advancing a multi-vector policy at the expense of Abkhaz-Russian relations, ignoring the obvious contradiction in these two claims. No doubt the decision making processes in Abkhazia have to be more inclusive and transparent, and there should be more forums where the Government, the Parliament, opposition parties and civic organizations can discuss the most important issues concerning the future of Abkhazia. This does not mean, of course, that there should be no political competition. There are many areas which the opposition could rightfully address, such as the situation with the independent or opposition media, the need to improve governance, the problems with the rule of law or the situation in the judiciary, etc. The instrumentalization by the opposition, however, of issues related to Abkhazia’s external relations, in the internal power contest, will undoubtedly make Abkhazia’s position and sovereignty more vulnerable.

Relations with Russia have been a disputed issue not only within Abkhazia. Western politicians and analysts often question Abkhazia's ability to survive as an independent state in view of her proximity to Russia. Western concerns over the viability of Abkhazia's independence, however, have not resulted so far in the realization that international recognition would help to consolidate Abkhazia’s statehood, and that for the Abkhaz reunification with Georgia is not regarded as an alternative at all. In the past months there has been a slight shift in the perception of Abkhazia by the West. There is probably a more nuanced understanding of the situation, but this is happening mainly on the expert level. There is also a growing understanding that the policy of isolating of Abkhazia is only increasing Abkhazia's dependence on Russia, but this understanding is not able to overcome Western inertia or fears inherited from the times of the Cold War. Unfortunately the principle “those who are not with us, are against us” has become dominant in relations between the West and Russia and subsequently in their relations with smaller states. One thing is clear, however. Abkhazia is open to building relations with the outside world, but Abkhazia will not enter into confrontation with Russia in exchange for recognition from other states.

It is important also to look at the issue of Abkhazia’s relationship with Georgia. In this regard opinions in Abkhazian society differ. Some think that after recognition Abkhazia does not need to think about Georgia at all, and that the conflict is over. On the government level and in the NGO and expert community, however, there is an understanding that the fact that the conflict is not resolved has a huge impact on Abkhazia’s situation. There has to be a process for the final resolution of the conflict. This process, however, has to be based on the understanding of the new post-August reality that leaves no space for old frameworks based on the idea of Georgia’s territorial integrity.

One step towards a resolution could be the signing of an agreement on the nonuse of force. The international community has to use its power to persuade Georgia to sign such an agreement sooner rather than later, because failure or unwillingness to do so would virtually mean abetting Georgia’s militarist tendencies. To re-build normal relations between Abkhazia and Georgia Tbilisi needs to understand above all that the Abkhazian people have the right to self-determination, and that there is no way back to Georgia’s ‘embrace.” Instead of questioning the legitimacy of Abkhazia’s independence, Georgia could at least have started discussions about what Tbilisi may expect in exchange for recognizing Abkhazia.

International disputes about whether Abkhazia's independence is viable, are heavily loaded with geopolitical connotations, while the internal aspects of Abkhazia’s sovereignty remain largely ignored, but Abkhazia’s ability to function as a state with appropriate state institutions based on democratic principles, the rule of law, human rights protection, etc. is no less important than the external dimension of sovereignty. Moreover, the way Abkhazia will develop internally in many ways will influence Abkhazia’s independence. In the past 15 years Abkhazia was able to create a functioning state system, which is based on democratic principles. Of course, this is a state of a transitional type, in which democratic institutions are in the process of developing.

Democratization processes in Abkhazia unlike in Georgia, or in most post-Soviet states, were taking place against a most unfavorable background: war and war inflicted destruction, difficult post-war rehabilitation under the conditions of trade and economic sanctions, as well as political pressure from the international community with the aim of bringing Abkhazia back under Georgia’s control,(despite of what Georgia did), constant military threat from Tbilisi and Georgia’s refusal to sign a non-aggression pact. Unlike Kosovo, where there was an enormous Western presence and investment in state-building, Abkhazia was developing its state institutions on the basis of democratic principles practically without outside help.

There are important tasks that Abkhazia has to address in reforming her system of governance. These include reforming the centralized system of vertical governance into a modernized horizontal system; widening public participation in decision making at various levels, strengthening local self-governance, adopting reforms in the judiciary that will make this branch of power truly independent, strengthening the rule of law, etc.

For Abkhazian civil society achieving independence and recognition is not a final goal. We see the main task of our society in building such a state in which the rights of our citizens will be protected, irrespective of their religion, ethnicity, gender etc. Our NGOs are actively involved in drafting proposals on various laws, that promote human rights and public participation. In 2004 they founded a League of Voters for Fair Elections, which monitored presidential elections, and which prepared a list of amendments to the election legislation to be considered by the Parliament. A working group consisting of NGO activists drafted a law on the Access to Information, which was adopted by the Parliament last year. Currently the NGOs are initiating or participating in the discussions about possible amendments to the laws on elections and on citizenship, discussions around the judiciary reform, good governance and transparency, programs for the repatriation of Abkhazians from abroad, and establishing functioning channels of communication with the Diaspora, etc.


The following factors will help to consolidate the sovereignty of Abkhazia.

1. Strengthening the internal sovereignty of Abkhazia through consolidating democratic institutions and good governance.

2. Developing communication channels with the Diaspora; including the Diaspora in the important political, economic and social processes in Abkhazia. Enhancing efforts to create conditions for the repatriation of those representatives of the Diaspora who wish to live in Abkhazia permanently or temporarily.

3. Signing an agreement with Georgia on the non-use of force in resolving the conflict, supported by international guarantees.

4. Developing mutually beneficial links with Russia and establishing economic, trade and cultural links with other countries that have a realistic understanding of the new political and security context in the region and therefore demonstrate a pragmatic approach towards it.

5. Increasing efforts to internationally advocate Abkhazia’s independence.




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