Thursday, 20 March 2008

Moscow not Ready to Recognise Abkhazia

Russia responds to Kosovo’s independence declaration by strengthening ties with Abkhazia, but not officially recognising it.

By Oleg Papaskiri in Sukhum, Abkhazia (CRS No. 436 19-Mar-08), IWPR

Kosovo’s declaration of independence last month was awaited with keen interest in Abkhazia, with the unrecognised republic asserting its right to independence from Georgia just as the Kosovars were doing with regard to Serbia.

Even though de facto Abkhaz president Sergei Bagapsh had said explicitly that he did not think his republic’s future depended on the Kosovo case, attitudes among ordinary people were different, with many hoping that Moscow would now recognise Abkhazia’s claim to independence.

On March 7, the Abkhaz parliament adopted resolutions calling on the Russian parliament, the secretary general of the United Nations, and heads of government around the world to recognise Abkhazia as an independent state.

Following the 1992-94 war which left it effectively separate from Georgia, Abkhazia formally declared itself independent in 1999, although no country has yet recognised this.

In the wake of Kosovo’s February 17 declaration of independence, Russia has stopped short of recognising Abkhazia. However, it did announce on March 6 that it was withdrawing from the sanctions which the Commonwealth of Independent States, CIS, imposed on the territory in January 1996, thereby freeing it from many restrictions.

“This is good and pleasant news for us,” Bagapsh said in response to the move. “It tells us that relations between Abkhazia and Russia are improving. The removal of sanctions will assist the economic integration of Abkhazia into Russia.”

The lower house of the Russian parliament, the State Duma, has been more vigorous in expressing support for Abkhazia and for South Ossetia, which also claims independence from Georgia, than the Russian government has.

“We will insist that the government take steps to change the format of relations with the unrecognised republics,” said Alexei Ostrovsky, head of the Duma committee for relations with other former Soviet states.

“In principle, I don’t like the term ‘unrecognized republics’ and I would like it to be changed. That does not mean that there will be immediate recognition [of Abkhazia and South Ossetia], but we could definitely take the step of moving to an international legal concept such as ‘deferred status’ for these republics. That would be logical.”

Abkhazia’s de facto foreign minister Sergei Shamba reacted coldly to this proposal, saying, “‘Deferred status’ or the term ‘frozen conflict’ are all factors for instability, so there is no point in discussing these kind of projects in the current environment.”

Russia’s decision not to recognise Abkhazia has caused some disillusionment among people there, especially the older generation.

“I’m not especially worried about what is happening with Kosovo, but Russia has promised to recognise us yet has not done so so,” said geography teacher Almaskhan Tarba. “But I think it will happen in the future.”

History student Madina Bouba, however, said she was not disappointed as what mattered were practical improvement.

“Russia can’t recognise us as that would be a violation of international law and agreements. But now that sanctions have been lifted, it’s become much easier to cross the [Russian-Abkhaz] border. And relations are so good now that [the border] will just become a mere formality soon,” she said.

Abkhazia’s only open land border is across the River Psou into southern Russia. Until recently, travellers had to undergo hours of checks before being allowed through.

Many Abkhaz are also pinning their hopes on the fact that the 2014 Winter Olympics will take place in Sochi, just a few kilometres over the border in Russia, and are hoping they too will benefit.

Dmitry Kozak, Russia’s minister for regional development, has said that when Sochi starts building Olympic facilities, it could buy construction materials and hire workers from Abkhazia

The 1996 CIS sanctions banned official contacts with “representatives or officials” of civilian and military structures in Abkhazia, and proscribed arms sales to the republic.

Sergei Mironov, speaker of the Federation Council or upper house of Russian’s parliament, said he would instruct the regional representatives who sit in the chamber that they could now pursue economic cooperation with Abkhazia.

Officials in Sukhum welcomed the fact that Moscow was signalling its withdrawal from a document that condemned Abkhazia’s “destructive position” on resolving the conflict with Tbilisi.

Stanislav Lakoba, head of Abkhazia’s security council, said Russia was adopting the “Taiwanese model” in its relations with Abkhazia. He was referring to the international practice according to which many states informally acknowledge and deal with Taiwan while not officially recognising it, for fear of offending Communist China which claims sovereignty.

Fyodor Lukyanov, editor-in-chief of the journal Russia in Global Politics, agreed that “for political reasons and reasons of international law, Moscow cannot recognise the unrecognised territories, as that would lead to a grave international crisis.”

Therefore, he explained, “The path has been chosen of formally recognising the territorial integrity of Georgia, but at the same time there will be active encouragement of all kinds of economic, humanitarian and political cooperation with these territories, and the opening of representative offices.”

Oleg Papaskiri is a freelance journalist in Abkhazia.

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