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The Presidents of Abkhazia (Sergei Bagapsh), Russia (Dimitri Medvedev) and South Ossetia (Eduard Kokoity) shake hands. Photo: kremlin.ru
The Presidents of Abkhazia (Sergei Bagapsh), Russia (Dimitri Medvedev) and South Ossetia (Eduard Kokoity) shake hands. Photo: kremlin.ru

Recognized occupation

In the direct aftermath of the 2008 Russian – Georgian war, the Russian Federation undertook a range of measures to extract both South Ossetia and Abkhazia from Georgia, starting with the recognition of both as independent, this weekend exactly ten years ago. A little exploration in the past.

Two weeks after the six-point (ceasefire) agreement between Georgia and Russia of August 12, 2008, President Dimitri Medvedev announced Russia recognizes both Georgian separatist regions South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent countries, citing requests from both regions, and popular support in the State Duma and Federation Council. Although this decision came as a surprise to many, it actually wasn’t.

In the years prior to the 2008 war Russian, Abkhazian and South Ossetian politicians repeatedly requested the Kremlin to recognize the regions. The political debate in Russia on the issue however was strongly connected with the (rise of the) international debate around the status of Kosovo, especially since the 2006 UN-led process resulting in the 2007 Ahtisaari Plan. It was in this period the Russian political elite started to become more verbal that a unilateral recognition of independence of Kosovo could lead to a change of position of Russia towards Moldova’s Transnistria and both Georgian regions. Until 2008 the Kremlin fundamentally stuck to a non-recognition policy in all of the conflict areas in its periphery (and beyond, such as Kosovo).

Especially after February 17, 2008 when Kosovo declared its independence, quickly followed by the recognition from the United States and many western partners, the Russian political elite pushed for a counter reaction. In March 2008 the State Duma accepted a resolution calling the Kremlin to recognize South Ossetia’s, Abkhazia’s and Transnistria’s independence if Georgia would become NATO member or after “military aggression”. The Kremlin kept this in their pocket, it first needed to pave the final pretext for such a step: pushing the Georgians into “military aggression”, creating the grounds for an intervention (“protection of Russian citizens”) and recognition of independence (“to protect the South Ossetians and Abkhazians from genocide by the Georgians” as Medvedev would say on August 26, 2008)

But why was this seemingly “tit for tat” with Kosovo in their mind so important for Russian politicians? Was it merely a reason and opportunity to an existing plan, a bigger plot? It was not only the general (but not unanimous) western recognition for Kosovo’s independence that struck the cord, but it was certainly part of the agitation. Much of the Russian anger sat in growing NATO frustration over NATO, such as intervention in 1999 against the Serbs, in protection of the Kosovars, that Russia deemed illegal. But it was more than that.

With the strong support of the American President Georgia W Bush, Georgia pushed for NATO membership since Mikheil Saakashvili came to power in 2003. Much to the agitation of Moscow. It had already witnessed NATO expansion towards its borders with the three Baltic States that were formally part of the Soviet Union and a handful of former Warsaw Pact countries. Under Vladimir Putin the tolerance changed radically. The Kremlin drew a red line: no more eastern expansion.

Since the Rose revolution, and President Saakashvili’s drive for both NATO membership and bringing the entire Georgian territory back under direct control of Tbilisi, the Kremlin saw its foothold in the country, through the peacekeeping missions in South Ossetia and Abkhazia threatened, and thus its potential for political leverage. Also, the Georgian government negotiated with the Kremlin to give up their military bases in the rest of Georgia. Moscow concluded that if it wanted to keep Georgia out of NATO, it should maintain strong military presence in the country or its separatist regions. As a security organization, NATO would not allow a member with disputed territories, it is a liability.

Moscow also understood it might need to resort to recognizing the independence of both regions in order to maintain and legitimize its military presence, expecting the West would stand by Georgia and would not follow Russia in a recognition, which would automatically put a veto on Georgia’s NATO aspirations. The six-point ceasefire agreement of August 12, 2008 had the loophole in article 5:

Russian military forces will have to withdraw to the lines held prior to the outbreak of hostilities. Pending an international mechanism, Russian peace-keeping forces will implement additional security measures.

By recognizing both areas as independent, it could legitimize its continued military presence as per international law, based on being invited by the (regional) authorities. The next step was to prevent the existing international missions to continue, in order to obstruct international mechanisms to take over from Russia’s “peacekeeping forces”, as stipulated in the six-point agreement.

Russia thus blocked the extension of both UN and OSCE missions in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The recognition also created grounds for the Kremlin to refuse the newly installed EU Monitoring Mission (EUMM) access to South Ossetia and Abkhazia. After all, they are “independent nations outside of the mandate of the mission” according to them. All of which is in violation of six-point agreement and the principles laid down in the Helsinki Final Act, which Russia officially still supports today, most specifically the inviolability of frontiers, the territorial integrity of states, non-intervention in internal affairs, cooperation among states, and the fulfilment of obligations under international law.

So, for Russia it was a mission accomplished: the non-functional Joint Control Commission (the joint Georgian – Russian peacekeeping mission) replaced by a Russian military occupation force of 4500 troops in either region, keeping Georgia out of NATO for as long as Georgia and the international community considers both regions as legal and inseparable parts of Georgia, and disallowing the international community access.

The recognition of the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia regions only served Russia’s geopolitical aims

Despite earlier threats, Russia did not move towards recognizing Moldova’s Transnistria, yet it keeps violating the 1994 agreement by not withdrawing its military forces from the region, despite frequent calls to do so. Moldova does not seek NATO membership, but the illegal presence of Russian troops, mounting to an occupation, is also in Moldova a tool of intimidation and threat against the Moldovan central government, which seeks more ties with the EU.

The proof that the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia have more to do with enabling an occupation for Moscow’s own geopolitical gains rather than sincerely supporting the development of a newly independent nation is in the details: since Russia’s recognition of both regions it has done nothing regarding capacity building or nation building, as opposed to the development of Kosovo with the support of western, and especially EU funded programs.

Both Georgian regions still have very weak institutions, rampant corruption, and public services such as healthcare and educational facilities at a substandard level, despite the limited size of the population. Russian authorities seem to care more about the standards of welfare within their military bases and family compounds in which it heavily invested.

Instead of assisting both regions in nation building, the Russian government has deployed a steady program of “creeping annexation” of both regions into Russia’s state institutions, marked in 2014 and 2015 by the “Alliance and Integration” agreements that meant inclusion of security, economic and social sectors into the Russian structures. Also, borderization and limiting the passage of civilians across the Administrative Boundary Line has taken flight in the years after the 2008 war. In other words, Russian authorities are actively seeking to extract the regions from Georgia, and include them within its own institutions: an annexation policy.

The European Union, as partner of Georgia, can only adopt symbolic but supportive resolutions, in which it at least recognizes the occupation.

Note: for popular reference “South Ossetia” is used instead of the Georgian official reference “Tskhinvali Region”, which does not imply a position on the status of the region.

About Jelger Groeneveld

Jelger Groeneveld has been closely watching the geopolitical developments in Eastern Europe and Georgia for over a decade. He hails from the Netherlands and is active in the fields of international security and international affairs.