Engagement without Recognition: A New Strategy toward Abkhazia and Eurasia's Unrecognized States

Cooley, Alexander A.; Mitchell, Lincoln A.

The Russia-Georgia war of August 2008 had repercussions well beyond the South Caucasus. The war was the culmination of Western tensions with Russia over its influence in the post-Soviet space, while the fallout exposed divisions within the transatlantic community over how aggressively to confront Moscow after its invasion of undisputed Georgian territory and its permanent stationing of troops in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The conflict also called into question Georgia's relationship with the United States, as well as U.S. credibility as a regional security partner in light of Washington's apparent inability either to restrain Tbilisi from launching an attack against Tskhinvali in August 2008 or to help its ally once the war began. Since the war, both the United States and Europe have provided significant financial support to help rebuild Georgia and have denounced the continued presence of Russian forces in the breakaway territories. The transatlantic community, however, has failed to develop a forward-looking strategy toward those territories. The West's adamant refusal to accept Russia's recognition of the declared independence of these two territories in August 2008 is legally correct, but just pledging enduring support for Georgia's territorial integrity is impractical and somewhat meaningless now that Abkhazia and South Ossetia are even further out of Georgian sovereignty than they were before the war. These territories almost certainly are lost to Georgia for the short and medium terms—possibly for a period of decades—and Russian influence has substantially increased in both regions. Russia has formally recognized their independence, and perhaps ironically, the territories have gone from enjoying de facto independence as unrecognized states and parties to frozen conflicts, before August 2008, to becoming almost de facto parts of the Russian Federation in their new status as "independent states." Further, Russia has sought international support (particularly from Latin American countries) for the policy, offering economic incentives to secure recognition from third parties such as Nicaragua and Venezuela. Russia's "sovereign diplomatic" offensive, therefore, has further eroded the very international regime of sovereignty which Moscow professed to uphold when it criticized Kosovo's 2008 unilateral declaration of independence as a "dangerous precedent." The war's troubling consequences for the region's territorial disputes do not seem to have resulted in any updated Western policy initiatives or active measures to rollback Russia's accelerating absorption of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Nearly 20 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Eurasia's unrecognized states remain isolated and dependent on regional patrons, removed from international governance structures, rules, and norms. Instead of a region pursuing greater global integration, the unrecognized states continue to act as islands of isolation while regional powers seek to monopolize their interactions. With these pressing factors in mind, we propose a basic outline of a new approach called "engagement without recognition" for Western policy toward at least Abkhazia, a policy that could serve as a model for crafting more robust engagement with Eurasia's other unrecognized states. According to this strategy, Abkhazia would be given the opportunity to engage with the West on a number of political, economic, social, and cultural issues for the purpose of lessening Russia's influence. While undertaking this strategy, the West must make it clear that Abkhazia's status as an independent state will never be accepted by either the United States or the EU. By separating the international legal dimensions of sovereignty (the question of non-recognition) from its governance aspects, the West can attempt to gain some needed strategic leverage over Abkhazia, which it currently lacks.

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Harriman Institute
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September 14, 2011