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Story Publication logo August 26, 2008

Abkhazia: Recognition at Last?

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The war between Russia and Georgia caught most of the world by surprise but it is a conflict that...

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They've dreamed about it for years. In 1999, in a national referendum, Abkhazia's citizens voted overwhelmingly in favor of independence. When I met top Abkhaz politicians only few weeks ago, "independence" and "sovereign state" were terms they used frequently and longingly. For them, return to Georgia was simply unacceptable. They called Russia their "window to the world". However, they also remembered periods during the Yeltsin years when their neighbor to the North did not always seem to be a reliable ally. Abkhaz parliament speaker Nugzar Ashoba told me how much they were afraid in the nineties that the Russians might sign a compromise agreement with then-Georgian president Edouard Shevardnadze. And for years the Kremlin refused to lift sanctions imposed on Abkhazia.

Abkhazia's relations with the Kremlin have improved considerably since 2000. The new Russian president, Vladimir Putin, understood much better than his predecessor how useful the Abkhazia and South Ossetia cards could be in his geopolitical game in the South Caucasus. Step-by-step, Russia penetrated Abkhaz politics and the economy. Russian companies started investing in the local tourist industry and more and more Russians were ready to 'risk' a vacation on the Abkhaz Black Sea coast. At some point, Moscow agreed to give Russian passports to residents of the breakaway republic. It allowed its youth to study at Russian universities. But the Kremlin also did its best to control the internal politics of Abkhazia and was quite frustrated when its own enthusiastically-supported candidate, Raul Khajimba, lost a presidential election in 2004. Moscow's emissaries spared no threats or warnings in trying to enforce their will on Abkhazia's politicians. Only last-minute, backstage negotiations, conducted through friendly Russian parliamentarians, helped reach a compromise agreement. The Kremlin finally agreed to let Sergei Bagapsh become president, while its own candidate, Khajimba, got the job of top deputy.

When the most recent wave of tensions in Abkhazia began with a series of terrorist explosions earlier this spring, it was clear that they were part of the larger Georgian-Russian-American political game, rather than a reflection of some home-based frictions. All actors of the Abkhazia and South Ossetia conflicts were well aware of their global dimensions. They knew that it wasn't just Georgia's territorial integrity that was at stake, but also issues of much bigger importance such as NATO enlargement or alternative routes of oil transport, bypassing Russia.

As grateful as they were for Russia's support, the Abkhaz also hoped for wider engagement by other countries and international structures in playing constructive roles to resolve the Caucasus crisis. Even though they were always quite careful with their public statements, Abkhaz leaders were thrilled at hosting such politicians as European Union representative for foreign policy Javier Solana or German foreign minister Frank Steinmeier in their capital, Sukhumi, earlier this year. As one influential Abkhaz politician told me, Russia was, for sure, Abkhazia's best ally. But at the same time, it was not easy to talk to their politicians or emissaries, who were unable to hide their old imperial manners. That is why, he added, Abkhaz leaders would welcome greater European participation.

For sure the Abkhaz are very happy that now, in the aftermath of the war over South Ossetia, Russian president Dmitri Medvedev signed a decree recognizing the independence of the two South Caucasus republics. Reports from Sukhumi portray crowds of people shooting automatic guns in the air out of joy and enthusiasm at having their independence finally recognized by their big Northern neighbor. In the end, they've seen their long-held dream fulfilled.

But, as happy as they are right now, they cannot be blind to the new reality. Unlike Kosovo, which was recognized by the majority of Western nations, only the few countries most loyal to Russia will accept the new status of the two Caucasus republics. Now totally isolated from the West, even more than before the war, they will become real Russian pawns, totally at their mercy. And the Russia which recognized them is not the same as the Russia before the war. It's one thing to be recognized by a respected member of the international community. It's something else entirely to be recognized by an international outcast accused by nearly every democratic state of violating international law and whose relations with the outside world have deteriorated considerably.

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