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Analysis, book reviews and photography from Abkhazia and the wider Caucasus — updates when time permits

Vanuatu withdraws its recognition of Abkhazia? – making some sense of a messy story

It now appears that Vanuatu has decided to withdraw its recognition of Abkhazia, after less than a month (June 17th, May 23rd). Normally, diplomatic recognition is a rather simple affair, but Vanuatu’s communication has been so unclear and there have been so many conflicting updates to this story, that Lincoln Mitchell over at the Faster Times even questions whether Vanuatu had ever really recognised Abkhazia.

I think that it is possible to make some sense of this affair, and that Mitchell is coming down a bit hard on Abkhazia’s diplomats. There is no doubt that Vanuatu initially recognised Abkhazia and that diplomatic relations were established. Not only do we have the relevant document published by Kommersant to show for that, it actually says so on Vanuatu’s government website. Abkhazia’s diplomats can hardly be blamed for the initial confusion and the eventual withdrawal of recognition. Rather, these are due to internal Vanuatu politics, and quite likely US pressure. Vanuatu’s ambassador over at the UN is a former Prime Minister and a rival of Prime Minister Kilman (who established diplomatic relations). The recognition has been withdrawn now not because Kilman changed his mind, but because there has been a change in government. This decision was taken by interim Prime Minister Natapei, who already threatened to do so while he was still in opposition.

While I agree with Mitchell that this looks very bad for Abkhazia, I would say we haven’t seen the last of this. The recent change of government came not after a vote of no confidence, but after the Chief Justice ruled that proper procedure had been violated when Kilman was originally elected in December 2010. Natapei is only interim Prime Minister, there is to be a new election (by Parliament) next Thursday. Since in principle, Kilman does actually enjoy the support of a small majority in Parliament, he could simply be re-elected and Abkhazia’s recognition could be re-affirmed. (That is, if no parliamentarians defect, which does happen a lot in Vanuatu.)

What is most damaging about this for Abkhazia is that it shows (as Mitchell argues) that recognitions can be withdrawn. Certainly in the case of Nicaragua and Venezuela also, recognition seems very much dependent on Ortega and Chavez staying in power. In that perspective, Abkhazia is well-advised to seek recognition from countries whose foreign policy is more stable and that are more immune to US bullying (Brazil would be gold for Abkhazia, Peru is perhaps more realistic, given the recent election of Ollanta Humala, who actually tried to get Abkhazia and South Ossetia recognised while still in opposition).

There is another reason why it would be very bitter for Abkhazia if Vanuatu’s recognition proves to be non-permanent. This was the first instance of a country recognising Abkhazia’s independence but not South Ossetia’s, and it also seemed to be the first achievement of Abkhazia’s diplomacy independent of overt Russian support. If Abkhazia wants to achieve wider recognition, it needs to convince the world that it is more than just a Russian foreign policy project. And as its merits for statehood are much better than South Ossetia’s, it wouldn’t hurt if the two cases were disassociated a bit more.

One final observation. The press statement released by interim Prime Minister Natapei, in which he makes public his decision to ‘cancel’ Vanuatu’s recognition of Abkhazia, is a shoddy piece of work. Natapei was in quite a hurry to get this out into the world, the morning after the court decision and seeing that legally, he his currently interim Prime Minister by virtue of the fact that he had lost a vote of no-confidence in December 2009. The press statement not only contains a number of grammatical errors and stylistic oddities (Date at Port Vila on 17th of June 2011?), it also pulls forward the disintegration of the Soviet Union to 1980 and the incorporation of Abkhazia into Georgia to 1930 (should be 1991 and 1931 respectively).

Filed under: Abkhazia, Peru, The Great Recognition Game, United States of America, Vanuatu, , , ,

Cartography: the Russo-Abkhazian border dispute

When it was first reported that during the Russo-Abkhazian meetings on border demarcation, Russia had proposed that Abkhazia should cede some 160 sq km of land of its Gagra District, it was unclear exactly what part was meant. Was Gagra itself to be included? Now thanks to an article by Vladimir Vorobin in the Komsomolskaya Pravda we have a map:

Initial stretch of Abkhazian territory supposedly to be ceded to Russia

Official statements first denied that the disagreement was over such a large amount of territory, but the head of the Abkhazian delegation, MP Valeri Kvarchia, then confirmed that the Russian side had indeed at first made this ‘proposal’. From the second meeting onwards, the dispute instead narrowed on the small village of Aibga, as displayed on this Soviet map (one segment of the grid corresponds to 2 km):

The village of Aibga, which straddles the river Psou and hence the Russo-Abkhazian border

Aibga straddles the river Psou (the thick blue line on the map) which marked the border in Soviet times, dividing Aibga into a northern, Russian and a southern, Abkhazian half. Abkhazia wants to perpetuate this state of affairs, whereas Russia apparently claims the entire village. As can be seen from the map, the amount of land and people involved is very small. Most of Aibga lies north of the Psou. In addition, even the southern half of Aibga is de facto part of Russia, in the sense that by car it can only be reached from Russia, it probably gets all its services from Russia, it is principally inhabited by Russians and there are no border controls on Aibga’s two bridges. It would even be a surprise if Aibga was included in the Abkhazian census of last February. Thus if Abkhazia were to give in, it wouldn’t lose much in practical terms. But of course, the symbolic impact would be much larger, hence the outrage in Abkhazian society.

The Russian stance in this dispute is puzzling. Russia appears to have no legal arguments for its claims. The 160 sq km of the first proposal would certainly have been a lucrative acquisition. But while the territory is sparsely populated, it does include Lake Ritsa, and it is unthinkable that Abkhazia would give up its principal touristic asset next to its Black Sea coastline. The more recent proposal over Aibga is much more modest, but the lack of practical benefits raises the question, why bother? Why risk permanently alienating your friendly and grateful neighbour, which offers you many lucrative business opportunities, over a tiny, insignificant jot of land? The only plausible explanation that comes to mind is that Russia is using this issue to force concessions in other areas, such as the ownership of Abkhazian land by non-Abkhazian (i.e. Russian) nationals, or Russian influence over Abkhazia’s army. (In this context, see Abkhazian Army Purge? – part 3.)

Filed under: Abkhazia, Cartography, Negotiations, Russia, , , ,

Unclarity surrounding Vanuatu’s recognition of Abkhazia due to political crisis in Vanuatu?

Shortly after President Sergei Bagapsh’s death on May the 29th, Foreign Minister Maksim Gvinjia announced that Abkhazia and Vanuatu had established diplomatic relations on the 23rd and that by extension, Abkhazia had been recognised as an independent state by Vanuatu. The news was slowly taken up by various media while confirmation by Vanuatu’s government was not forthcoming. The only source which suggested that it had actually received a confirmation was the New York Times, but that could just have been a paraphrase of the Abkhazian Foreign Ministry’s statement. Of course, it doesn’t help that Vanuatu’s presence on the internet seems to be practically non-existent, even though it has about the same population size as Abkhazia (243,304 per the 2009 census).

Then on June the 3rd Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported that Vanuatu’s ambassador to the UN had denied the news. Confusingly, on the same day, Radio Fiji came forward with more details about the alledged establishment of diplomatic relations. It reported that the agreement had been signed in Vanuatu’s capital, Port Vila, between Vanuatu’s Prime Minister Sato Kilman and Abkhazia’s Prime Minister Sergei Shamba.

All the while, the official website of Vanuatu’s government doesn’t carry any news more recent than May the 15th. Its most recent news item however provides one possible explanation for Vanuatu’s incoherent position. Apparently, on April the 24th a motion of no-confidence against Sato Kilman had been adopted by 26 of Parliament’s 52 members. This decision was then unsuccessfully challenged before court on the 30th, but on May the 13th the Court of Appeal found that the motion was unconstitutional since it had not been supported by an absolute majority and that Kilman’s government was to govern as before.

However, Kilman does not enjoy the support of half of Parliament’s members, and during his absence a new government had already been formed headed by Serge Vohor. All this should be sufficient reason for some disarray among Vanuatu’s government institutions. It also puts its recognition of Abkhazia’s independence (if it really happened) on a rather uncertain footing. Especially so since Vanuatu has previously gone back and forth on recognising Taiwan and the Sahrawi Republic and its stance in these matters seems to depend very much on the person who is currently Prime Minister.

The news report from Radio Fiji raises one other question. Did Sergei Shamba really fly all the way to the Pacific last week? If so, he has managed to keep it awfully quiet.

Filed under: Abkhazia, The Great Recognition Game, Vanuatu, , , , ,

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