Russia’s unilateral recognition of the self-declared independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions on the 26th of August 2008, while pointing to the US-led recognition of Kosovo independence earlier in 2008, was not picked up by the international community. After 11 years, only five countries recognize the independence of the two, as opposed to 101 for Kosovo. Where are Abkhazia and South Ossetia heading with their “independence”?
Back in 2008 Nicaragua was quick to join the Kremlin’s recognition of the regions, while Venezuela followed a year later after a weapon deal under favourable conditions for the Chavez regime. The Pacific micro states of Nauru, Vanuatu and Tuvalu did so in 2009 and 2011, with the latter two withdrawing their recognition a few years later.
Finally, President Assad of Syria decided in 2018 to recognize the two regions, allegedly under Russian pressure. Both regions proudly established diplomatic posts, and cosied up with the leaders of these countries which have a terrible record on human rights and democracy.
Developments since 2008
Many things have happened in both regions since the 2008 Russo-Georgian war which displaced tens of thousands of people, mostly Georgians. Most importantly, Abkhazia and South Ossetia signed agreements with the Russian Federation to integrate the economy and bringing the entire security and defence sector under Russian military (and FSB) command. Over time additional amendments have been introduced furthering Russia’s grip over both regions.
When a ceasefire was brokered by the EU on 12th of August 2008 with the six-point agreement the Kremlin committed itself to withdraw its troops to positions it held prior to the war. However, the Russian Federation has radically increased its military presence to an estimated 9.000 troops divided over the two regions, and it has constructed an extensive network of military (and border patrol) bases.
The Russian security forces have been obstructing free movement across the administrative boundary limiting inter-community exchange by installing physical barriers as well as arresting alleged trespassers on a weekly basis, mostly Georgians on their way to their (farm)land or relatives.
Independence. Or not.
All of this is seemingly aimed at extracting the regions from Georgia as much as possible in lack of general de-jure recognition. But are the two regions really serious about their independence aspirations? South Ossetia for example has frequently toyed with referendums on joining the Russian Federation to “reunify” (a historic falsehood) with North Ossetia-Alania.
The Abkhazian population seems to be more serious about independence, but it’s leadership is powerless against Russian play and has taken the region to a point just short of formal annexation.
The Kosovo precedent
Russia and its sympathizers often point to Kosovo to legitimize Moscow’s recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as an inevitable event. While doing so they often speak of western hypocrisy: recognition of Kosovo, but not of the Georgian regions. Defending territorial integrity of Georgia, but not Serbian territorial integrity. But in fact, the western position on both regions is very consistent with its policies towards Kosovo and follow accepted international (UN) standards.
The lack of international recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia (apart from a few Russian client states) is entirely on the two regions itself. How so? A decisive factor is the refusal to negotiate a “standards before status” policy embedded in internationally supervised mechanisms and frameworks such as the UN or OSCE. Such an approach was shaped for Kosovo in 2002 (aka “Standards for Kosovo” – pdf) in full compliance with UN resolution 1244 (and with Russian consensus) through major international involvement and oversight.
This meant the Kosovo authorities had to comply with over 100 conditions, mostly in the good governance domain: setting up functioning democratic institutions based on the rule of law, executing electoral and police reform, establishing a dialogue with the Serbians and secure the protection of minority rights (for the Serbs in Kosovo) including double citizenship option. The right of return of Internally Displaced Persons (IDP’s) was one of the most important criteria.
All of which to be arranged or guaranteed before the international community would agree to negotiate on the legal status of Kosovo and its future.
Standards before status
How does this translate to Abkhazia and South Ossetia? Did they seriously work on good governance, establishing a proper rule of law state, with ethnic minority rights such as language, citizenship, education rights, guaranteeing rights of democratic participation? The right of return of IDP’s? Most of the readers will know the answer: No. None of it.
Western non-recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia is consistent with Kosovo policy
In all fairness it has to be said that Abkhazia scores better than South Ossetia according to the Freedom Index of Freedom House, but it definitely lacks in key aspects of “standards before status” such as minority rights, rule of law, judicial standards, democracy and electoral laws. Furthermore, both regions continue their refusal to seriously engage internationally in order to develop a widely agreed approach over their future status.
Let’s just highlight a few issues that have been standing in the way of more international openness to discuss the status of the regions.
The right of return of IDP’s is an important principle in international frameworks, as it touches on the core of ethnicity driven conflicts: ethnic cleansing. Rejecting an entire ethnicity to return to or to function in its home region is a policy aimed at ethnic cleansing. It is not without reason that at every relevant international forum (UN, OSCE, Council of Europe or EU) resolutions on the matter get support, and increasingly so with every year it gets submitted. The de-facto Abkhaz and South Ossetian authorities consistently refuse to negotiate the IDP issue at the Geneva International Discussions (GID) or other diplomatic formats.
There are an estimated 280.000 Georgian IDP’s from the Georgian-Abkhaz and Georgian-Ossetian conflicts in the early 90s with roughly 26.000 from the 2008 war. Most of them have been denied to return to their homes for more than 25 years. Their homes have often been looted, confiscated, or destroyed. Entire ethnic Georgian villages have been destroyed in the post 2008-ceasefire period in South Ossetia, a policy designed to remove justification of return.
Shortly prior to the Abkhazian Presidential elections in August 2014, Gali district ethnic Georgians were stripped of their Abkhazian passport, denying 23.000 (ethnic Georgians) their right to vote, roughly 20% of the electorate. Authorities cited they obtained their citizenship illegally. The election was decided in the first round with 50.6% of the vote for Raoul Khajimba, the long-time favourite of the Kremlin who failed the election three times in the past. Since then it has become harder for ethnic Georgians to obtain Abkhazian citizenship.
These examples amount to “collective punishment” against a singled out ethnicity, which runs against the very foundations of the international rule based world order and all its frameworks. The main reason the international recognition of both Abkhazia and South Ossetia has stalled beyond Russia and its client states.
Both regions can forget any progress on their independence recognition if they do not abandon this “collective punishment” against ethnic Georgians. Frequent international calls against this practice have been flatly ignored for more than a decade: the only conclusion can be that there is no interest in either region and their patron in Moscow to seriously advance international recognition of independence.
They have become Russian protectorates, intentionally withheld from participation in and access by the international community, serving Russian foreign policy interests and certainly not of the local population. Just short of being annexed with the sole purpose to keep Georgia out of the international alliances that it is determined to join: NATO and the European Union. Being occupied to obstruct a recognized independent state in its sovereignty.