No one could accuse the world’s great powers of consistency in their treatment of small “breakaway states”, in which individual bilateral relationships and geopolitics tend always to trump a principled approach to issues of self-determination. Hence Moscow’s friendship with Serbia underlies its vehement opposition to the independence of Kosovo, while its hostility to Georgia contributed to its recognition of Abkhazia. The United States, by the same token, has sought to punish past Serbian aggression and continuing recalcitrance by leading the charge in support of Kosovo’s statehood, while concurrently providing unwavering support to Georgia’s territorial integrity.
The parties to Eurasia’s separatist conflicts are often unwilling or unable to fully recognise this inconsistency, frequently to their own cost. Hence, many in Abkhazia saw their goal of sovereign statehood moving a step closer when the International Court of Justice ruled on 22 July 2010 that Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence on 17 February 2008 was not in breach of international law. These hopes have been further encouraged by the vote of Southern Sudanese in January 2011 for secession from Sudan. But the reality is that the region’s status is trapped in a geopolitical limbo, with the great powers asserting irreconcilable positions on its future.
Russia recognised Abkhazia after the brief destructive war with Georgia in August 2008. Yet only Nicaragua, Venezuela and the tiny Pacific nation of Nauru have followed Moscow’s lead - far fewer than the dozens that have opened diplomatic relations with Kosovo. Moscow is obsessed with maintaining control over Abkhazia, which greatly increases its Black Sea influence and allows the Kremlin further to punish Georgia for turning its back on Russia.
The United States and the European Union (a majority of whose member-states back Kosovo’s independence) adamantly reject Abkhazia’s claim. To them, Georgia’s territorial integrity is inviolable, and became even more an ideological red line with the 2008 war. Any consideration of Abkhaz independence would be, according to European and American diplomats, tantamount to allowing Russia to redraw state borders through the use of force. An increasing number among them are adopting Tbilisi’s language of Russian occupation of Abkhazia.
In the ongoing positional contest between Russia and the west, Abkhaz self-determination is secondary to the big players’ strategic interests. But in Abkhazia, geopolitics is only half of the equation of a potential future settlement. The other half is about self-determination. And despite the political and security imperatives of the great powers, an open debate on self-determination - and how to reconcile it with territorial integrity and the right of return for ethnic Georgians displaced by conflict - is key to untangling conflict in Abkhazia and other parts of Eurasia.
The ingredients of change
Self-determination remains a fundamental right of a people, embodied in the United Nations charter and in major human-rights treaties, whose signatories have vowed to uphold it. It is commonly categorised as either internal or external in nature. Internal self-determination encompasses cultural, social, political, linguistic and religious rights for minority groups within a parent state - and can lead to autonomous or self-rule arrangements short of statehood, as seen in Catalonia and the Basque country in Spain, or the entities in Bosnia. External self-determination refers to a right (agreed or remedial) to secession or independence by a people. This is most commonly invoked if a people’s basic rights have been egregiously violated.
Eritrea and Timor Leste are cases where a struggle for external self-determination received widespread acceptance in the 1990s and 2000s. But there are exceedingly few other examples. Southern Sudan may yet become one, but it still has many hurdles to overcome before it becomes a sovereign entity. For the most part, states remain opposed to the partition of their fellow states and the creation of new ones, particularly as they fear the likely conflict that would arise from contested secessions.
The cases of Kosovo and Abkhazia are enough to show how complex the concept of self-determination can be in practice. Russia and the west are united in arguing that no two conflict-situations are alike, and that each must be judged according to its particular political, historic and legal context. But this truism leads them to diametrically opposed conclusions.
There are surface parallels between Kosovo and Abkhazia, but these are overshadowed by fundamental differences. Violations of human rights, central to the argument for Kosovo’s independence, were visited on both sides of the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict, though not in as egregious forms as in Kosovo.
Georgians started the war in 1992, after Soviet Georgia’s repression of the Abkhaz, and committed large-scale human-rights abuses. The Abkhaz were responsible for their share of violent abuses in return; some 240,000 Georgians were forced to flee Abkhazia by the time hostilities ended in 1993, most of whom have been unable to return.
Kosovo’s western orchestrated independence was the result of a long-term internationally supervised process; Russia’s recognition of Abkhazia was an impulsive political move by the Kremlin. The efficacy of each is telling.
The west has invested heavily in making Kosovo’s independence work, and will continue to do so, a thankless task though it may be. Russia on the other hand will continue to support Abkhazia financially and militarily, but has no apparent interest in improving its governance, or making its claimed independence genuinely viable.
The relative success of Kosovo’s move to statehood has led some to dream and others to fear a surge of secession attempts around the world. But the same old realities remain: the great powers dominate the debate and hold the aspirations of the populations seeking independence hostage to their geopolitical contests.
The view on the ground
But superpowers’ interests should not be allowed to restrict or distort discussion of self-determination in places where the geopolitics are not to their liking. In other words, the future of territories such as Abkhazia needs to be examined on their own terms and not just in relation to superpower rivalry - otherwise conflict-resolution efforts are likely to fail.
In Abkhazia’s case, avoiding the self-determination debate and focusing only on the Georgian-Russian dimension of the conflict will see the region quickly absorbed into Russia, while the west ritualistically echoes Georgia’s legal arguments in support of territorial integrity and maintains the fiction that Abkhazia is still part of Georgia.
Those seeking greater self-determination, and those opposing it, would both be foolish to trust the promises of princes. They would better advance their respective causes by looking closer to home and promoting conflict-resolution efforts locally. They should strengthen governance and institutions, improve their human-rights records and start addressing deep-rooted grievances that drive conflict. This will not be sufficient to win the argument, but it will ensure that they have the stronger claim for international endorsement should the geopolitical stars realign.