Before 8 August most of the Russian elite believed that although Abkhazia and South Ossetia should be given all possible help, there was no need to hurry to recognise them as independent states. But the mass bombings of the South Ossetian capital by Georgian troops has fundamentally changed the situation. Moscow has finally made its position clear: President Dmitry Medvedev, despite serious pressure from the USA and a number of European Union countries, has recognised the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
In the light of the South Ossetian tragedy, Georgian aggression can hardly be said to have come as a big surprise. For the last two years at least, since Georgian troops entered the upper reaches of Abkhazia's Kodor gorge, the shadow of a new war has been hanging over the region like the sword of Damocles. Experts tried to guess who Georgia would attack first - South Ossetia or Abkhazia? In April of this year, only prompt action by Russia, which moved quickly to increase its peace-keeping contingent in the zone of the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict, saved Abkhazia from an attempt at military revenge from Georgia.
This was followed by an unprecedented burst of activity from the leading powers of the European Union. They tried to revive negotiations that had reached a dead end. But this was dictated not so much by a desire to de-escalate tensions in the region, as by hostility towards Russia's steadily increasing influence in the Caucasus. In the end, the activities of the European Union achieved nothing, although now and then high-ranking European politicians did seem to have realised that the optimal and least painful option for regulating the conflict would be to legalise the status quo, that is to say recognise the statehood of Abkhazia.
For Abkhazia had no intention of joining Georgia under any circumstances. Restoring the ‘territorial integrity' of Georgia, a phrase that became a kind of dogma in the mouths of western politicians, could only be achieved by a war, and only if the Georgians won. On the whole, European politicians did understand the situation, though their actions suggested otherwise.
The Steinmeier Plan
In the end, the Steinmeier Plan proposed by a group of friends of the UN General Secretary, as well as the earlier ‘Dieter Boden Plan', reflected no more than Georgian desires. These had nothing to do with reality. And it was quite logical that the Abkhazians rejected the Steinmeier Plan, which involved regulating the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict only in the context of restoring the territorial integrity of Georgia.
The German Foreign Minister was quite wrong to think that the solid economic aid promised under one article of the plan would motivate the Abkhazians to renounce their independence. The West, in the person of Steinmeier, also did not want to understand that Abkhazians were not prepared to bargain with their independence under any circumstances, as this was the only status capable of guaranteeing the self-preservation and the further development of the small Abkhazian ethnic group. Unlike South Ossetia, which sees independence as a transitional phase towards the republic joining Russia, Abkhazia never had such plans.
Most Western analysts still believe that Abkhazia is a republic that is completely under the control of the Kremlin, and that if Russia would agree to let Abkhazia join Georgia, then Sukhumi would have no choice but to obey this decision. But if one examines the situation of Russian-Abkhazian relations over the last 15 years in detail, it is clear how wrong they are. Relations between Moscow and Sukhumi were not always as good as they are now. The West, primarily focused on the policies of Putin, somehow forgets that there was also President Yeltsin.
Under Yeltsin, in 1994, (immediately after the end of the Georgian-Abkhazian war), Abkhazia was subjected to a severe economic and political blockade. According to these sanctions, no Abkhazian man aged from 16 to 65 could legally cross the Russian-Abkhazian border along the River Psou. The list of what could be taken in and out of the blockaded republic could be written on a scrap of paper. Even ordinary antibiotics, without which no medical institution could function, were prohibited.
Yeltsin's Russia seemed to be carrying out an experiment on a country that had suffered enormous loss of life, one whose economy and infrastructure had been completely destroyed. The Russian Foreign Minster at the time, Andrei Kozyrev, tried to do all he could to force President Vladislav Ardzinba to become part of Georgia again. But the severe blockade, which lasted until Vladimir Putin came to power, did not break the will of the Abkhazian people to build their own independent nation. It was under President Putin that relations with Abkhazia began to improve gradually.
However, while Russian-Abkhazian relations over the last 15 years have changed drastically, the West's position has not changed during this period. Nor has its view on a solution to the conflict. This in no way differs from Tbilisi's position. This approach did not prove very productive, however. Every time the West refused to help Sukhumi with issues that were very important for Abkhazia, it pushed the country further into the zone of Russian influence.
Passports & sanctions
This happened with the problem of passports. From the mid-1990s onwards, Sukhumi has made regular appeals to the UN and to western intermediaries to provide residents of Abkhazia with a ‘Nansen passport', or some other kind of internationally recognised documents of identity. Abkhazians were refused this. ‘Take a Georgian passport,' they were told repeatedly, as though there were no such thing as a Georgian-Abkhazian conflict. But when Abkhazians were given the chance to legalize their status with Russian passports, after Putin came to power, the ‘civilised' world became alarmed.
The same thing happened with sanctions. Sukhumi requested at least for the economic blockade to be lifted. But the USA and European countries insisted that first the territorial integrity of Georgia should be restored. Only then would sanctions be lifted, and investment would follow. When Moscow officially removed the embargo at the beginning of this year (although in reality the sanctions had not been applied for several years), this step was harshly condemned in Washington and Brussels.
Furthermore, when it came to recognising Kosovan independence, the Western powers insisted on the ‘uniqueness' of the situation, as if emphasise that Abkhazia should not hope to follow this example. Once again, Russia was the only defender of the Abkhazian right to independence.
Overall, the consistent denial of Abkhazian interests has proved counterproductive for the West. For the result of this policy has been the social, economic, political, and now military integration of Abkhazia into the Russian sphere. Given that the majority of politicians who determine the position of the USA and the European Union still look at Russia through the prism of the ‘cold war', it can be said that by categorically denying the right of Abkhazians to their own nation in every respect, in order to please Georgia, Washington and Brussels have ended up achieving exactly the opposite of what they were fighting for in the first place: Abkhazia is now a kind of continuation of Russian territory up to the Ingur river. And this situation will continue until the USA and the West realise that recognition of independence is something that cannot be taken back, and the only acceptable way forward is to stop temporising and endorse what Moscow did on 26 August. This option will at least make it possible for them to declare their interests or negotiate them beforehand.
Washington and Brussels are now at a crossroads. The time has come for them to make their choice.