Friday, 11 December 2009

Abkhaz election highlights the need to reappraise thinking on Georgia's breakaway regions

Abkhazia goes to the polls on Saturday in order to elect its president and the contest is likely to be dominated by two contenders who last went head to head four years ago. Sergei Bagapsh is the current incumbent and Raul Khadzhimba is his main challenger and the current prime minister.

The Black Sea region, which traditionally attracted Soviet officials seeking rest and recuperation, is ostensibly identical in status to South Ossetia. Its independence is recognised by Russia, Venezuela and Nicaragua. The rest of the world considers it part of Georgia.

However, whilst prevailing opinion in Tskhinvali favours eventual absorption into the Russian Federation, and unification of the southern and northern parts of Ossetia, in Sukhumi there is a more complicated relationship with Abkhazia’s Moscow patron. Leaders insist that they are animated, not by an aspiration to reunify with Russia, but by the desire to achieve full independence for Abkhazia.

In the previous election the Kremlin offered its backing to Khadzhimba, and Bagapsh’s eventual victory was attributed to a buoyant sense of national identity, although he gained important votes from ethnic Georgians in Abkhazia, who still number about 40,000.

This time, the potential electorate has been limited by a requirement for Abkhaz passports to be used as identification. Russia is not officially supporting any of the five strong field.

It is expected that the election could require a run off and that, in this eventuality, falsifications would be likely. Because Abkhazia is not a member country, OSCE observers will not be present to assess the legitimacy of the election. The Moscow Times reports that Russia’s Central Election Commission will attend. However, international observation will be badly circumscribed, in deference to Georgian territorial sensibilities.

Territorial integrity is certainly an important concept and unilateral declarations of independence should be discouraged in almost every circumstance. I am no more eager that Abkhazia, South Ossetia or Transnistria should be recognised internationally, than Kosovo. Perpetuating a dangerous precedent is no more desirable that the precedent itself.

However Abkhazia and South Ossetia have never willingly been part of an independent, post Soviet Georgian state. Certainly neither region assented to the unilateral abolition of their autonomy which Tbilisi attempted in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s dissolution. Georgia’s sovereignty never extended, de facto, to its breakaway territories.

It is up to the international community to deal with the circumstances in the Caucasus as they are, rather than as they would like them to be. In the FPC’s Spotlight on Georgia report, Thomas de Waal argued that the western policy response had not yet addressed the actual situation in the two territories. He called for ‘status neutral’ interventions, which would not necessarily entail abandoning support for Georgia’s territorial integrity.

Making a meaningful attempt to observe Abkhazia’s elections would be a useful start. And ultimately Georgia should be encouraged to institutionally acknowledge the regions’ exceptional circumstances.


yourcousin said...

Sorry to have sat on this one so long, but what can I say? It's the holidays. The problem with what you ascribe is that Abkazians were never a majority in Abkazia, making up less than twenty percent of the population with ethnic Georgians making up just under half of the population. The fact that the Soviet Union ie Russia gave them undue representation in the local farce representative bodies (which quit being a farce after the collapse of the USSR) does not inherently give them anymore legitimacy in terms of democratic governance.

As to Russia's recognition of Abkazia's independence. I feel like that's more of a fig leaf than anything else. I look back at the 2004 as evidence of this. As sometimes happens in democracy the people don't vote for who they should. In this instance it was the candidate not backed by Russia. The election was then voided and thereafter came a "unity government". To me that's not even trying to hide the strings.

I note your concern about the legitimacy of the election but I don't think you quite square up the legitimacy of the enterprise beyond saying that it is exceptional.

I would disagree (obviously). Abkazia, S Ossetia, Chechnya, and Karabakh would indicate to me that conflict in the wake of Soviet collapse in the Caucasus is the rule (or damn close to it). Dagestan or say Ingushetia might be the exceptional circumstances though Ingushetia is showing the strain. Abkazia has defacto independence as a Russian protectorate because that is realpolitik. No one is going to send their sons to die for the de jure rule of Georgia (not even Georgia anymore apparently).

International law/the International community are far more consistent in theory than in reality. This is because everything they do is based largely on realpolitik and self interest. I earnestly wish that priniple and the idea of objective law was more widely adhered to but we both know that this is not the case. And that stop gaps for one instance have unintended consequences for something else (ie the Dayton peace accords and Kosovo). I'd like to debate this with you further at some point but with only three regular season games left for the Broncos I've got to run to catch the game.

Anonymous said...

really an eye opener for me.

- Robson

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