The reluctance of EU Member States to recognize Abkhazia has been driven mainly by the fear of losing the support of Georgia, which is the EU’s main point of influence in the South Caucasus. Since the declaration of the independence of Abkhazia in 1992, Georgia never stopped claiming the reintegration of the region into its own territory and adopted a policy of non-recognition and isolation in order to avoid both its recognition and the development of relations between Abkhazia and other states in international society. (Featured Image © United Nations)
At the same time, Georgia struggled to become a member of NATO and to move closer to the European Union, which it tried in order to escape Russia’s influence and to confront its expansion in Georgia’s breakaway territories. This article draws a picture of the status quo that occurs since the 2008 conflict, as well as the disadvantages of such a situation for the European Union’s influence in the South Caucasus as compared to Russia. In this regard, it analyzes the advantages and the difficulties that may arise in term of geopolitics and international law if the EU Member States were to recognize Abkhazia.
Changes in the Geopolitical Landscape After the 2008 Conflict
The 2008 conflict, in which the Georgian army opposed the Russian forces, seriously reshuffled the geopolitical cards between Russia, Georgia and the European Union. The conflict was preceded by increasing tensions within the separatist areas, notably after Russia had allegedly shot down a Georgian spy drone over the territory of Abkhazia by the end of April 2008.1
Russia, which was present in Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the aftermath of the independence conflicts2 through its “peacekeeping operation”, increased its military presence a few days later in both regions. The reason was that Georgia had violated the ceasefire agreement by sending a drone into the separatist area and was “preparing for war” by massing 1500 soldiers on the Abkhazian border.3 As tensions between Russia/South Ossetia/Abkhazia and Georgia were still high, the Georgian army launched an attack against South Ossetia during the night of 7 to 8 August 2008.
This attack blocked Georgia from integration into NATO for many years to come. Indeed, NATO member states feared that the entrance of Georgia in the alliance would encourage the country to launch another military operation in the contested regions, this time using Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. Calling on collective defense, it would have led to a direct war between NATO and Russia. This blockade of Georgia’s NATO membership was a windfall for the Kremlin, which has always considered the presence of the West and NATO in the Caucasus as a real threat to the development of its influence.4
NATO member states feared that the entrance of Georgia in the alliance would encourage the country to launch another military operation in the contested regions. Calling on collective defense, this would have meant a direct war between NATO and Russia.
Moreover, Russia’s recognition of Abkhazia seriously decreased the chances of Georgia taking back its former regions. One main reason is that Georgia would now need to obtain the “de facto consent” of both Abkhazia and Russia to integrate the breakaway region into its territory. It seems unlikely that such an agreement could still come about. Considering that their identity has never been fully recognized by the Georgian government.5, Abkhazians remain strongly reluctant to reintegrate the region into Georgia. Furthermore, Russia has strong interests in maintaining the current situation.
The fact that Russia remains the only great power which has officially recognized Abkhazia – the recognition by Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Nauru in 2008-2009 did not have a great impact both in the partially recognized State and in the region – allows it to ensure a monopoly position in the breakaway territory and to strengthen its presence in the South Caucasus. Indeed, Russia represents Abkhazia’s only way to reach the international stage, thanks to the many bilateral treaties concluded between Moscow and Sukhumi (the capital of Abkhazia), their trade exchange, and to the issuance of Russian passports for all Abkhazians.
However, this situation causes adverse effecs on Abkhazia, especially in politics. Even if independent and attracted by democratic ideals of the West (the Abkhazian population dreams of becoming the “Switzerland of the Caucasus”, that is to say, a democratic and neutral State in the region)6, Sukhumi remains strongly linked to Russian influence and governance. Another example of this is the adoption of the Russian sanctions imposed on Turkey in November 2015, despite the major economic disadvantage this would cause for Abkhazia.7
The fact that Russia remains the only great power which has officially recognized Abkhazia allows it to ensure a monopoly position in the breakaway territory and to strengthen its presence in the South Caucasus
Meanwhile, the current position of Russia vis-à-vis Sukhumi allows it to increase its military presence in the breakaway territory. While this is a violation of Georgia’s territorial integrity and a threat to peace in the South Caucasus8, it is Abkhazia’s only way to remain safe from any attack from its neighbor state, in absence of an effective Abkhazian army and the willingness of other states to recognize it.9
EU Member States’ Recognition of Abkhazia as a State: a Solution?
The continuation of the non-recognition policy also created adverse effects for the interests of the European Union. In fact, this policy not only perpetuates the frozen conflict but also pushes Abkhazia to look only to Russia. Thus, this gives Moscow the opportunity to maintain its monopoly position in the breakaway territory and space to further expand its presence in the South-Caucasus – most notably in regards to the control of the Black Sea. Unfortunately, this is at the expense of Abkhazia itself, which cannot diversify its economy or upgrade its institutions.
The European Union must therefore change its strategy towards Abkhazia in order to amplify and promote its influence. For example, developing stronger relationships with Sukhumi would contribute to implementing the democratic values of the European Union there, which would in turn reinforce both European security and presence in the region. The European Union has already conducted humanitarian aid projects in the breakaway territory, especially in Gali, with a view to reducing Abkhazia’s dependence on Russia. However, these measures appeared limited in absence of any recognition, and, as one author noted, a few million euros are nothing when Russia offers “a future”.10
Developing stronger relationships with Sukhumi would contribute to implementing the democratic values of the European Union there, which would reinforce both European security and presence in the region.
As previously mentioned, EU Member States cannot recognize Abkhazia as long as Georgia maintains its non-recognition policy towards its breakaway territories. Indeed, in the case of the recognition of Abkhazia as a state, Georgia could decide to join the Eurasian Economic Union of Russia, which would constitute the only and last way to reintegrate the breakaway regions into its territory. The Kremlin could put pressure on Georgian authorities by promising the withdrawal of its recognition of Abkhazia in exchange for the integration of Georgia into the Union.11
In this context, the only remaining solution for the EU would then be to influence and indirectly push other states to recognize Abkhazia, but this option incontestably creates some difficulties. First, one should remember that this solution can have very little impact depending on the importance of the recognizing state. It remains to be seen which states can recognize Abkhazia without having to fear losing the support of Georgia so that Abkhazia can diversify its economy and politics.
Second, many states are reluctant to recognize breakaway territories because of their own issues with separatist regions. For instance, because of its important position internationally, China’s recognition of Abkhazia would be one of the most significant. However, given its internal problems with regions like Tibet or Taiwan, China always refused to recognize separatist territories, making such a scenario unlikely to happen.
Third, the recognition of Abkhazia by more states could create a precedent for other de facto states in the South Caucasus. For example, this could cause profound changes in the turmulent Nagorno-Karabakh region, which would then constitute a breach of international law. Needless to say that this could be dangerous not only in the South Caucasus, but also for other states threatened by separatist claims.
The Recognition of Abkhazia as a State: the Difficulty in Finding a Legal Basis
The non-recognition of Abkhazia does not only result from geopolitical concerns, but also from the lack of a real legal basis to the secession of the breakaway territory. First of all, it is widely accepted that the “right of peoples to self-determination” can only be applied to colonial and post-colonial situations, that is to say to the territories which are geographically separated from the state under whose sovereignty they are and which have a separate public legal status.12
Any extension of the scope of this principle to other situations – such as the right of minorities to self-determination – has always been rejected by states and the United Nations. Secondly, there does not exist any right to secession in International Law. Therefore, Abkhazia could not a priori invoke any right to self-determination or any right to secession in order to legally support its separation from Georgia’s territory.
The non-recognition of Abkhazia does not only result from geopolitical concerns, but also from the lack of a real legal basis to the secession of the breakaway territory.
When recognizing Abkhazia, Russia, however, supported the right of its population to create its own state in view of the “aggressive, chauvinistic policy pursued by Tbilisi” (Georgia’s capital) since the early 1990s as well as the “extermination” and the “genocide” of the Abkhazians which was supposedly planned by the Georgian authorities.13 Indeed, based on the Resolution 2625 of the General Assembly, it has been gradually approved by a part of the legal doctrine that international law may tolerate secession in exceptional cases: (i) when the original State has committed serious violations of the human rights of a part of the population, and (ii) when secession constitutes the only way to resolve the crisis.14 For example, Kosovo has been recognized by some countries on these grounds.
Since the proclamation of its independence in 1992, Abkhazia never stopped denouncing alleged human rights violations by Georgia. Particularly, according to the breakaway region, the “georgianisation” policy established during the Soviet times by Georgia – itself subordinated to the Moscow’s sovietisation policy – in order to assimilate Abkhazia and to keep it into its own territory constituted a gross violation of its fundamental rights. In fact, one must know that while still under Georgia’s jurisdiction, the Abkhaz language was replaced by Georgian both in schools and within the administrative institutions. Thousands of Georgians were settled in Abkhazia in order to change the demographical balance while many streets were renamed with Georgian names.15
But even if one would consider these facts as violations of human rights, it is doubtful that they can be seen as serious violations. Contrary to Kosovo’s case, in which many reports were filed by states, the UN, and NGOs against the Milosevic government then accused of committing international crimes, it is difficult to say if an ethnic group has been subject to systematic human rights violations because no one took any objective position in this sense. Essentially, for Abkhazia, it is unthinkable to reintegrate into Georgia. The reasoning goes that this would lead to the disappearance of Abkhaz culture, as Georgian authorities still claim that Abkhaz identity has been created by Russia in order to make ethnic claims in the region. In such circumstances, one can wonder if forced assimilation or cultural genocide – if proven – fulfils the requirement of the existence of serious human rights violations in order to allow the secession of a territory from its original state. Today, lacking precedent in the international society, the question remains unanswered.
To conclude, the non-recognition policy conducted towards Abkhazia created adverse effects for the interests of the European Union since it cannot fully extend its influence in the region – contrary to the Kremlin, which benefits from a monopoly position in the breakaway territory since 2008. Even if the EU Member States’ recognition of the separatist region could help to reverse such a situation, it is unlikely to occur, mainly because of the strong relationship that Brussels maintains with Tbilisi.
Given the few chances of Tbilisi taking back the lost regions and the threat of seeing Abkhazia definitely turning to Russia, would a formal rapprochement between Georgia and its disputed territory not be the best option?
Also, in the case of European Union indirectly pushing other States to recognize Abkhazia, this would lead to geopolitical and legal difficulties. First, many states would not be inclined to recognize a breakaway region due to existing separatist claims within their own borders, as well as their reluctance to create any precedent in this regard. Second, for now, Abkhazia does not have any arguments under international law to claim for its secession.
In such a context, it seems that today the only road to resolution of the situation relies on Georgia. Given the few chances of Tbilisi taking back the lost regions and the threat of seeing Abkhazia definitively turning to Russia, would a formal rapprochement between Georgia and its disputed territory not be the best option?