Vienna, January 29 – When Moscow recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia following its invasion of Georgia, the Russian government confidently predicted that a significant number of other countries would do the same. So far, however, only one has recognized these breakaway republics, but even Nicaragua has not opened an embassy in either.
Many observers have suggested that this represents a serious diplomatic and political defeat for Moscow, and in one respect – the failure of its predictions to come true – that is certainly the case. But there are at least three ways in which Moscow may be benefitting from the failure of the international community to extend recognition to Sukhumi and Tskhinvali.
In an article posted on the Caucasus Times portal yesterday, Sergey Markedonov, an internationally recognized specialist on the Caucasus, points to two of these, arguing they reflect Moscow’s efforts to “extract [political] profit’ from what is now its “exclusive recognition” of the independence of these two republics (www.caucasustimes.com/article.asp?id=18914).
On the one hand, he writes, the Russian government has consistently striven to prevent “non-regional players” from having any role in the Caucasus North or South. Consequently, it cannot be entirely unhappy that no other state has sent an ambassador to these states, a step that would “internationalize” not only this dispute but perhaps others as well.
And on the other, Markedonov says, “the Kremlin understands that is unilateral action guarantees it great freedom of action on the ground,” allowing Russian business interests and officials to dictate to the governments of these two republics in ways that would simply be impossible if “five or six foreign embassies were working” there.
But in addition to these immediate consequences, there is a third, one Markedonov implies but does not discuss in this article, that may be even more to Moscow’s liking. The failure of the international community to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia sends a powerful message to non-Russian republics inside Russia that they would face an uphill battle in securing recognition.
Given how great have been the expectations of some in the West and how great the fears of some in Moscow that the Kremlin’s move with regard to Abkhazia and South Ossetia might spark new demands by these republics for independence or at the very least trigger a new “parade of sovereignties.”
That helps Moscow to maintain its control over what remains an extremely restive region, even though its inability to get other governments to follow its lead on the two breakaway republics highlights Russian weakness as compared to the strength the US and the EU displayed in gaining widespread recognition for Kosovo in the former Yugoslavia.
Before making these points, Markedonov traces the history of the question of the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, a history that has been far more complicated in the case of many of the countries mentioned as being interested in making such a diplomatic move than most commentary about this subject suggests.
At present, Markedonov says, “only Russia has completed the complete circle of the recognition of the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. It has established diplomatic relations. It has sent ambassadors to Tskhinvali and Sukhumi. And [the Russian government] has concluded and ratified agreements” with these two republics.
Although Nicaragua is typically counted as having recognized the two breakaway republics, its situation is in fact less definitive than many assume, the Moscow analyst says. That country’s president, Daniel Ortega, did declare on September 5, 2008, that he recognized the independence of the two de facto.
Under the terms of the Nicaraguan constitution, that is sufficient, but there has been no parliamentary ratification of this declaration, and the failure of the legislators to act “sharply reduces the value of this recognition. Moreover, “official Managua has not established” diplomatic relations with the two and deals with them via its consulate in Cyprus.
Earlier this week, Moise Kabaku Muchan, the ambassador of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire) to the Russian Federation, visited Sukhumi and said that he would support Abkhazia’s request for expanded ties with his country, but neither he nor his government has moved to recognize them formally.
Moreover, two other countries – Venezuela and Libya – which have said they are prepared to have some kind of relationship with the two have not gone beyond those public declarations, and both of them, Markedonov notes, have been careful not to use language that might be construed as formal recognition.
Nor have Moscow’s closest allies within the CIS made any move to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Armenia, for example, has said it would do so only if other CIS countries recognized the independence of Nagorno-Karabakh, a step not one of the 11 is currently prepared to take.
According to Markedonov, Moscow has not been upset by this reluctance except in the case of Belarus. On the one hand, because Belarus and the Russian Federation have signed documents creating a union state, the Russian government is upset that Moscow has made a diplomatic move than Mensk has not followed.
And on the other, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and other Belarusian officials have thrown up one excuse after another for Mensk’s delay in recognizing the two breakaway republics, excuses that most observers in the Russian capital see as yet another indication that Belarus is pandering to the West and does not intend to follow Moscow’s line.
No other country appears close to moving, leaving Russia and its two client republics in a diplomatic situation that is unlikely to change de jure even though few in Georgia expect Tbilisi to recover these breakaway republics and the EU has acknowledged their existence after a fashion by pushing for their inclusion in talks with Moscow and the Georgian government.
That leaves Sukhumi, Tskhinvali, Moscow, Tbilisi and the international community in a new place, one resembling the situation between Turkey and Northern Cyprus that is recognized only by Ankara. But that comparison suggests that the current arrangements in the Caucasus could last a long time, even if all involved say they want a rapid resolution of the situation