From a pro-Russian advocacy position, I had earlier on expressed caution on the Russian diplomatic move which recognized the independence of the two former Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. This stance was taken shortly after the Georgian government’s military strike on South Ossetia in 2008. The Russian government was understandably perturbed by that armed action, which killed Russian military personnel and civilians.
Prior to the aforementioned Georgian attack, Russia did not recognize the independence of any of the disputed former Communist bloc territories. Within reason, Russia can technically claim a continued consistency of sorts by noting that since the wars of the 1990s, Serbia, Azerbaijan and Moldova have not militarily attacked the respective disputed land they each claim, in the manner of what the Georgian government undertook in 2008. With this comparison in mind, Russia can argue that Georgia is the “special case” for independence among the disputed former Communist bloc territories.
In Georgia, the recent election defeat of Mikheil Saakashvili has brought about someone who has expressed the desire to improve Russian-Georgian relations. There is a prolonged background that lends support for improved Russian-Georgian ties. In Soviet and pre-Soviet times, Russian-Georgian relations were pretty good. Despite the contentious issues that have become evident in the post-Soviet era, the Georgian views of Russians are generally positive. (On a related note: “What Georgians Really Think About Russia“, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, June 9, 2009 and “Poll: Over 70% of Georgian Population Favors Better Relations with Russia“, Kyiv Post, December 9, 2011) Improved Russian-Georgian ties serve to economically benefit the two countries.
Agree or disagree, Georgians across the political spectrum lean towards the view that South Ossetia and Abkhazia are Georgian territories – a position shared by the overwhelming majority of the international community. The Russian independence recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia is a major obstacle for improving Russia’s standing in Georgia.
The diplomatic and on the ground situation concerning Kosovo reveals the politically incorrect and realistically frank observation that might makes right. United Nations Security Council resolution 1244 giving credence to Serbia’s claim on Kosovo has been greatly disrespected (as evidenced by the over 90 nations recognizing Kosovo’s independence), with a NATO dominated troop presence in Kosovo (under KFOR), which has essentially backed Albanian preferences over Serb desires.
Russia did not have to recognize Abkhaz and South Ossetian independence in order to implement enhanced ties with these two lands. Very few nations recognize Abkhaz and South Ossetian independence. Nothing in the form of armed might would be taken against Russia, if the Kremlin did not recognize South Ossetian and Abkhaz independence, while maintaining a Russian military presence in the two former Georgian SSR territories. Russia is a regional power, which can militarily project its will in some areas that include South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
In terms of comparative diplomacy, the Russian independence recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia looks extremely weak to the considerably greater number of nations recognizing Kosovo’s independence. This situation is greatly influenced by the combined geopolitical clout of the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany and Turkey, as well as decades of Albanian lobbying efforts in the West.
Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov has categorically ruled out a change in Russia’s independence recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, as he stated the hope for improved Russian-Georgian ties. Bidzina Ivanishvili, the leader of the political grouping which defeated Saakashvili shares Saakashvili’s stance in support of Georgian membership in NATO and the reincorporation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia into Georgia. Lavrov, the Russian government at large and Ivanishvili appear sincere in seeking to improve Russian-Georgian relations. The Russian government and the newly elected Georgian one face differences over Georgian membership in NATO and the status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Maia Panjakidze, the candidate for Georgian foreign minister pointedly said that the restoration of Russian-Georgian relations will be impossible without South Ossetia and Abkhazia rejoining Georgia.
When compared to the status of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the issue of Georgian membership in NATO appears like it could be an easier matter to manage. There is some doubt on just how great the political decision making behind NATO seeks Georgian inclusion into that organization. There are indications (over the past year and before) that Georgian public opinion has exhibited some noticeable fluctuation on seeking Georgia’s membership into NATO. This includes a recent downturn which might continue. As polled, the relative pro-NATO membership popularity in Georgia is one of several issues concerning Georgians. A major concern is the economic challenges facing Georgia - something that can be improved upon with better Russian-Georgian relations.
A Russian backtracking on South Ossetian and Abkhaz independence will be viewed as the kind of mistake which governments are reluctant to acknowledge. Russia would have been arguably better off by not recognizing South Ossetia’s and Abkhazia’s independence, in a way that would nevertheless acknowledge Abkhaz and South Ossetian grievances with Georgia.
In place of an outright recognition or non-recognition, there is something else to consider, that is premised on past and present realities. In Soviet times, Ukraine and Belarus (Byelorussia as it had been commonly called) were represented in the United Nations (UN), with the same standing as the member states of that organization. (The explanation for this predicament was on the basis that these two Soviet republics bore a brunt of the Soviet World War II effort. In essence, the Byelorussian and Ukrainian UN representation was a compromise. The Soviet Union sought all of its republics to be individual UN members.) In the present day, numerous non-nations (like Hong Kong and Puerto Rico, among some others) compete in the Olympics under their own delegations.
Regarding these particulars, the creation of separate South Ossetian and Abkhaz UN and Olympic delegations, combined with South Ossetia and Abkhazia as officially autonomous parts of Georgia comes to mind as a compromise option. With the independence genie on South Ossetia and Abkhazia now out of the bottle, this idea will not fly as easily as it would if there were no existing independence recognition of these two lands.
One periodically brought up former Georgian SSR settlement option envisages a future deal involving the leading Western powers and Russia, which would grant a mutual recognition of Kosovo’s, South Ossetia’s and Abkhazia’s independence. For now, the implementation of this arrangement does not seem likely in the foreseeable future. Russia and the leading Western powers appear to be bogged down on their conflicting positions on the disputed former Communist bloc territories. The disputes over Cyprus and the geographical makeup of a Palestinian state serve as a reminder of how unresolved territorial issues can linger on for quite some time.
This article was initially placed on October 12 in the News Analysis section of the Foreign Policy Journal and is reprinted with permission.