Staunton, July 15 – Despite declarations to the contrary, the European Union and the United States are pursuing very different approaches to Abkhazia, with the former now prepared to develop relations with that breakaway republic on the basis of the principle of “involvement without recognition” while the latter simply demands that Abkhazia submit to Georgian rule.
That difference was very much on view during the visit to Sukhumi yesterday by Peter Semneby, the special representative of the European Union to the South Caucasus, a visit whose importance for the region and more generally, Moscow analyst Sergey Markedonov says, no one should “underestimate” (www.politcom.ru/10440.html).
According to Markedonov, Semneby’s visit during which he stressed the interest of the European Union in “involving” Abkhazia in various European initiatives was important because it highlighted “the essential difference in the approaches of Washington and Brussels” to Abkhazia and its neighbors.
“American rhetoric,” the Russian analyst who is currently a visiting scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, “is directed at ‘the de-occupation of Georgia.” But the European approach is directed “at the broadening of international contacts for overcoming the isolation of Abkhazia.”
During an earlier visit to Sukhumi in the spring, Semneby suggested that Europe’s “policy cannot consist only of non-recognition because this will not give any results and will be counter-productive,” an argument that some American scholars have begun to advance, although without any indication that US officials are prepared to agree.
But however that may be, Markedonov suggests, “the number of people who understand that Abkhazia is not simply a political marionette of Moscow but a political subject [in its own right] is growing,” something that “pragmatically thinking diplomats,” the Moscow scholar suggest,” cannot fail to understand” if they base their positions on the facts of the ground.
(At the same time, Markedonov points out that Semneby’s statements may be intended to keep his job. The EU’s “foreign minister” has suggested doing away with his position, something that would leave the Europeans without a voice in this and other disputes in the Caucasus and in Moldova.)
“But the visit of the representative of ‘united Europe’ to Abkhazia is interesting not only from the point of view of the internal bureaucratic dynamic in the European Union,” Markedonov argues. “The political contacts of the Abkhaz leadership and the EU” also throw into sharp relief the differences in the approach of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
“If Abkhazia is striving for a diversified foreign policy – at the least, declaring the necessity of such a course – the South Ossetian powers that be are satisfied with recognition alone,” as perhaps Moscow may be all of its declarations about the likelihood that other countries will follow Russia’s lead.
One reason for that conclusion is that the situation in Abkhazia and South Ossetia would change fundamentally if these partially recognized states gained support from the outside or were encouraged to develop in ways very different from the way in which Moscow could like them to proceed.
Abkhazia is clearly interested in doing just that. As the republic’s Sergey Shamba put it during Semneby’s earlier visit to Sukhumi, “we will do everything so that Russia will understand that Abkhazia is a reliable partner and neighbor who meets European standards” in its policies and behavior.
And after Semneby’s visit this week, Abkhazia’s Sergey Bagapsh declared that “the powers that be of the republic ‘at this state understand the position of the European Union at the level of non-recognition [but at the same time its commitment for] involvement in European processes and the community.”
“We do not demand recognition because, since we understand the situation, we are open for dialogue, but it is necessary to move forward in order that there will be a positive” outcome, Bagapsh continued, an approach that contributes to what is a still “not formalized and not verbalized” European distinction between Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
“With Abkhazia,” Markedonov continues, “Europe [unlike the United States] is ready to conduct relations” inspire of “the unresolved status problems.” But for things to move forward, Abkhazia will have to make some significant changes given that its titular nationality does not dominate the republic as the titular nationality does in other partially recognized states.
That will present challenges, the Moscow analyst says, not only to Abkhazia but also to Georgia, to Tbilisi’s Western backers, and especially the Russian Federation which, if it hopes to avoid “accusations of occupation and annexation,” will have to give Abkhazia at least and South Ossetia possibly “greater political possibilities, including foreign contacts.”
But if Moscow feels compelled to do so as a result of what Semneby has said, the EU approach he adumbrated this week will likely a far greater threat to Russian influence in both the southern and northern portions of the Caucasus region than does the US policy of not having anything to do with these breakaway republics.