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Commentary | 2 February 2015

Abkhazia and the west: Rehabilitating engagement without recognition

Abkhazia, the unrecognised statelet on the eastern shore of the Black Sea, rarely features in international publications except in relation to perceived Russian expansionism. The furore surrounding the signing in November 2014 of the Agreement on Alliance and Integration [1] between Russia and Abkhazia was one such moment. This document includes provisions that call for the creation of a Russian-Abkhazian “joint group of forces” to defend Abkhazia in the event of external aggression and a pledge to bring Abkhazian customs legislation into line with that of the Eurasian Economic Union within three years. [2] Such measures have been condemned as proof of Russia’s gradual but inevitable annexation of Abkhazia. What is not being discussed is whether this treaty, and the trend it represents, was preventable and whether the west’s policy toward Abkhazia is adequate. Following Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the ongoing uncertainty in Eastern Ukraine the wider Black Sea basin has become one of the epicentres of a deepening confrontation between Russia and the west. In this context the lessons of western failures in Abkhazia must be understood and applied to other conflict areas, including Crimea, to avoid an unintended escalation of current tensions.

A 2010 paper by Alexander Cooley and Lincoln Mitchell entitled Engagement without Recognition called for a new approach to western-Abkhazian engagement. It proposed moving away from the policy of total isolation that has forced Abkhazia so deeply into the Russian orbit and onto a policy of economic, political, and cultural engagement whilst making very clear that full recognition of Abkhazian statehood was not an option. Such a policy was designed to decrease Abkhazian reliance on Russia in these spheres and create an environment that was more responsive to productive Georgian-Abkhazian negotiations. The European Union did show an initial interest in this policy but practical measures simply did not materialise. This lack of action was heavily criticised by the Abkhazian leadership at the time and has now been forgotten. For clear reasons what little western engagement there was with Abkhazia has dramatically subsided since Russian recognition of Abkhazian statehood in August 2008.

It is often overlooked that Russia has not always been a supporter of a secessionist Abkhazia. On the contrary, the Russian Federation spent the majority of the 1990s imposing an economic blockade on Abkhazia and restricting the movement of its residents at the behest of the Georgian government. That Abkhazia accepted closer relations with the Russian Federation from the late 1990s to the present is indicative of a wider failure. The lack of a constructive relationship between Sukhum(i) and Tbilisi in the years preceding Russian recognition served to ensure Abkhazian isolation. Whilst Georgian efforts to prohibit diplomatic recognition of Abkhazia were prudent, restricting economic development and reconstruction following the 1992/3 Abkhaz-Georgian war has proved to be a double-edged sword. Far from encouraging the Abkhazians into a renewed union with Georgia such deprivation cemented local resentment, and created the conditions whereby the Abkhazian political elite had little choice but to accept what assistance they were offered, no matter who offered it. Had the Abkhazians had multiple sources of income with which to balance offers of trade with Russia and various Russian aid packages then they would have had a stronger bargaining position with which to resist Russian political encroachment.

Drawing lessons from these past experiences, there are a number of areas where western engagement may still be beneficial.

Firstly, Abkhazian officials and civil society representatives need to be granted permission to visit western capitals on a regular basis in order to participate in discussions relating to the future of their region. Notably, in the past Abkhazian NGOs have cooperated with such international organisations such as the European Commission, UNDP and OSCE and have played an important role in supporting the free press and in the creation of civil society within Abkhazia and must be supported in the future. Similarly measures should be undertaken to enable Abkhazian students to study in the west and opportunities for tourist visas should be examined.

A primary difficulty in implementing this outreach initiative is that Abkhazian passports are not recognised outside of Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela and Nauru; meaning that Abkhazians are reliant on Russian passports to travel abroad. In 2011 a solution was presented in the form of neutral travel documents, to be issued by the Georgian government to the residents of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Not surprisingly these documents were rejected by the Sukhum(i) authorities, who condemned them as Georgian rather than neutral. The precedent does exist, however, for the issuance of UN sponsored, politically neutral travel documents. The UNMIK Travel Document, in use in Kosovo by those residents unable to obtain a Yugoslavian (Serbian) passport between the years 2000-2008, provided the option of international travel to those states that recognised the document. The issuance of a similar, UN sponsored, document to residents of Abkhazia, in combination with a coordinated recognition of the document by the EU and other western actors, would provide a valid option of travel to Abkhazians without the tacit acquiescence of Russian authorities. Western-Russian tension over the latter’s annexation of Crimea will perhaps make the option of a neutral document preferable to a Russian passport among Abkhazian residents when traveling abroad. [3]

Reducing travel restrictions on Abkhazia would open up the possibility of greater trade with the region, lessening its total reliance on Russia. Western diplomatic efforts should focus on creating a tacit framework whereby Turkish vessels can routinely visit Abkhazian ports, and on the creation of a ferry link between Abkhazia and Trabzon. Close cooperation would be required with the Georgian authorities when negotiating such access, but it must be stressed that such actions are preferable in the long-term to the ongoing integration of Abkhazia and Russia. Including Georgia in this process is crucial, as it is reluctance to damage bilateral relations with Tbilisi that has restrained Turkish economic engagement with Abkhazia thus far.

As an institution the EU has a poor record when engaging Abkhazia politically, limiting its role to that of aid provision and the maintenance of the European Union Monitoring Mission in Georgian territory bordering Abkhazia. The lack of an active state sponsor within the EU for the policy of engagement without recognition has hindered the process, and the current conflict between the EU and Russia over events in Ukraine makes an initiative such as this very politically sensitive. This being the case, the most suitable candidate to take this forward may be Austria, with its tradition of bloc-neutrality and focus on mediation through the UN and OSCE, Austria will avoid charges of partiality that an association with NATO or Russia would bring to other interested states.

The ongoing Ukrainian crisis has brought into stark relief the need for a more creative and proactive engagement with the disputed spaces of the former Soviet Union on the part of the west. The current default position toward Abkhazia, that of total isolation, is failing. Rather than reconsidering reintegration into the Georgian polity the Abkhazian leadership has deepened its ties with Russia, thus adding to the growing instability in the Black Sea region. A reappraisal of the engagement without recognition principle would provide the Abkhazian leadership with other political and economic outlets, lessening Abkhazia’s total reliance on Russia. It could perhaps pave the way towards more productive Abkhazian-Georgian negotiations. To rule out future engagement would only reinforce western failures.


[1] The treaty was ratified by the Duma on 23 January 2015
[2] The full treaty, as well as earlier drafts, can be accessed here. (In Russian)
[3] It is unlikely, however, that Abkhazians will be induced to surrender their Russian passports due to the access to a Russian pension they provide.


The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges of our time.