23 August 2018 | author: Thomas de Waal
Moscow’s recognition of both Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states in 2008 has benefited no one—including the two territories and Russia itself.
Ten years ago, the Georgia-Russia war of August 2008 played out like a horrible movie in which terrible forebodings all came to pass. For two years we watched as Russia intimidated the Georgians and ratcheted up the pressure; as then Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili grew evermore reckless and provoked the Russians; as parts of the Bush administration in Washington made things worse and failed to rein Saakashvili in. All that came to a head in violence in South Ossetia on the night of August 7-8, 2008.
Yet the denouement that came on August 26, 2008 was still unexpected. On that day Moscow recognized both Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states, turning the geopolitics of the Caucasus upside down.
From the perspective of a decade on, we can see that that decision benefited no one—not even, I would argue, the Russians.
In August 2008, Georgia lost any meaningful chance of recovery of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
First of all, the recognition move basically killed off the negotiating process over the two regions. The Geneva International Discussions, held four times a year, are a forum for the interested parties to raise current issues, but no more than that. They are a pale imitation of the processes that preceded them, mediated by the United Nations and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Simply put, the Abkhaz and Ossetians have no incentive to compromise on status or security issues when there are two Russian embassies in Sukhumi and Tskhinvali and 7,000 Russian troops at their back.
Russian recognition solved Abkhazia’s security worries. A big influx of Russian money has made it much better off. Yet most of the internationals have gone, its global isolation is deeper, and since the Ukraine crisis no one talks about the EU any more. Nowadays the biggest building in the center of Sukhumi is the big new Russian embassy. All roads lead to de facto integration with Russia, something the Abkhaz elite do not want but can at best only slow down.
[In Abkhazia], most of the internationals have gone, its global isolation is deeper, and since the Ukraine crisis no one talks about the EU any more.
As for the Russians, they surely hoped for a lot more in 2008. There are reasons to believe that the decision was taken by then prime minister Vladimir Putin and then president Dmitry Medvedev in a moment of euphoria and that other key figures in Moscow were not consulted. The rumor certainly is that foreign minister Sergei Lavrov advised against the move.
Medvedev talked about Kosovo as he announced the recognition of the two territories. The expectation was apparently that there would be a counterwave of recognitions in parallel to that of Kosovo. Reality bit hard when Putin’s closest ally, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, declined to follow his lead. Lukashenko told a press conference in 2014 that he was subjected to vigorous lobbying by the Russians on the one hand and by then EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana on the other—Solana’s arguments were more persuasive.
As a result, the only countries that now recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia are Russian allies with no stake in the region (Nicaragua, Venezuela, and, recently, Syria) and a Pacific island state notorious for putting its acts of recognition politics up to the highest bidder (Nauru).
Where does this leave Russia? With two rather tricky clients, which make big claims on its budget but do not respond with much gratitude. The Abkhaz still push back against Russia’s requests to legalize the sale of property to foreigners—meaning Russians. The South Ossetians had the nerve to elect the “wrong” president in 2011, and it took a lot of effort for the vote to be rerun.
Putin is sometimes credited with being a chess player. His recognition politics of a decade ago only led to a stalemate for all concerned, including himself
In return, Russia has basically lost Georgia. For sure, NATO is still reluctant to admit Georgia so long as the Abkhaz and Ossetian conflicts are unresolved. Yet that was already the case a decade ago, and Georgia now needs NATO membership less anyway, having since 2008 forged a much stronger bilateral military relationship with the United States. Moscow, still vilified as the occupying power and having no diplomatic relations with Tbilisi, can only watch as Georgia builds a deeper economic and political relationship with the EU and discusses its future with everybody but Russia.
Putin is sometimes credited with being a chess player. His recognition politics of a decade ago only led to a stalemate for all concerned, including himself.