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

Vanuatu leaders still disagree over Abkhazia recognition

Less than three months ago, Vanuatu’s Foreign Minister Sato Kilman met with his Abkhazian counterpart Viacheslav Chirikba in Moscow and confirmed that although Vanuatu had established diplomatic relations with Georgia, it had never stopped recognising Abkhazia, and that he hoped relations with Abkhazia would soon be ‘finalised’ as well. While somewhat surprising, this statement was not directly contradictory, because there did not in fact seem to exist any explicit previous statement by Vanuatu terminating its recognition of Abkhazia.

That is, until now, because last week Kilman was dismissed as Foreign Minister by Prime Minister Joe Natuman and in a press conference on Tuesday, Natuman listed Kilman’s meeting with Chirikba among the reasons for his dismissal, claiming that the government’s position had always been that Abkhazia is part of Georgia. (Of Natuman’s complaints, the most serious was that Kilman reportedly failed to properly represent Vanuatu’s support for West Papuan self-determination, in particular declaring that Vanuatu planned to open an embassy in Indonesia, a statement already publicly refuted by Natuman at the time.)

However, according to Natuman, the immediate reason for dismissing Kilman was his support for opposition plans to topple him. And in another twist befitting Vanuatu’s political tradition, today the opposition managed to pass a vote of no confidence against Natuman and to elect Kilman as the new Prime Minister.

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

Vanuatu Foreign Minister: recognition of Abkhazia has “not changed”

In a 31 March interview with RIA Novosti, Vanuatu’s Foreign Minister Sato Kilman confirmed that Vanuatu does in fact still recognise Abkhazia.

Vanuatu’s recognition of Abkhazia’s independence has received a lot of pushback throughout the years. When the news first broke in 2011, Vanuatu’s representative to the United Nations Donald Kalpokas emphatically denied it was true when asked by the New York Times. And less than a month later, Sato Kilman was briefly unseated as Prime Minister by Edward Natapei, who very hastily published an error-ridden note in which he `cancelled and withdrew’ recognition. However, not before long Kilman was re-instated as Prime Minister and Vanuatu’s recognition of Abkhazia reconfirmed.

In 2013, Kilman was ousted as Prime Minister by a government led by Moana Carcasses Kalosil and having Natapei as Minister for Foreign Affairs. This government agreed to establish diplomatic relations with Georgia, and Donald Kalpokas (whose authority was unclear since he had been formally retired as representative to the United Nations) signed an agreement in which Abkhazia was explicitly stated to be part of Georgia. Georgia’s government also claimed that Carcasses had actually withdrawn Vanuatu’s recognition of Abkhazia, but there were no statements from ni-Vanuatu officials to back this up.

However, Carcasses’s government fell in May 2014 and Joe Natuman, who had been Foreign Minister under Natapei, has been Prime Minister since. Sato Kilman is Foreign Minister in this government and on 30 March, during a visit to Moscow to discuss relief following Hurricane Pam, he met with his Abkhazian counterpart Viacheslav Chirikba. The day after, he stated in an interview RIA Novosti that “nothing had changed” in respect to Vanuatu’s 2011 recognition of Abkhazia, and that Carcasses’s government had merely decided to pursue diplomatic relations with Georgia, noting that he didn’t consider these to be incompatible with relations with Abkhazia, which he hoped would soon be finalised.

It is clear that Vanuatu’s frequent government changes play an important role in its ambivalent attitude towards Abkhazia. And it may be the case that its contradictory statements have been influenced by the desire to remain on friendly terms with Russia on the one hand and with Western powers on the other. But part of the confusion is certainly also due to unclarity over what constitutes recognition and diplomatic relations. Despite the May 2011 document explicitly stating that Abkhazia and Vanuatu resolved to “establish diplomatic relations at the level of Ambassadors from the signing of this statement”, and despite Vanuatu’s Foreign Minister Alfred Carlot’s October 2011 explanation that “Vanuatu signed diplomatic relations with the Republic of Abkhazia”, it seems that Vanuatu considers diplomatic relations to not have been finalised. And so a number of ni-Vanuatu statements that have been interpreted as a denial of its recognition of Abkhazia in fact pertained only to having full diplomatic relations.

[Previous stories in this series]

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

Georgia and Vanuatu establish diplomatic relations

On 12 July, Georgia’s Foreign Ministry announced that diplomatic relations had been established with Vanuatu. The news comes as no surprise as the intention to do so was already expressed by Vanuatu’s former Minister for Foreign Affairs Alfred Carlot in March, and by Vanuatu’s new government in April. Furthermore, with respect to Vanuatu’s recognition of Abkhazia, the establishment of diplomatic relations with Georgia is in itself much less relevant than Vanuatu’s general political support for Georgia as of late.

What is interesting is that the agreement signed in New York explicitly affirms that Vanuatu recognises Georgia’s territory as comprising Abkhazia and South Ossetia. But this does not yet amount to a formal suspension of Vanuatu’s recognition of Abkhazia. The agreement was signed by ni-Vanuatu Ambassador to the U.N. Donald Kalpokas, who has a history of going against his government on the issue, triggering an attempt by Alfred Carlot to recall him (it is in fact doubtful whether he is actually still Ambassador to the U.N. at the moment).

And while President Saakashvili claimed in May that Prime Minister Moana Carcasses Kalosil of Vanuatu had confirmed to him having withdrawn recognition, a video of the meeting does not back this up, and ni-Vanuatu sources only affirm that Vanuatu has decided not to maintain diplomatic relations with Abkhazia, a subtle difference. (From the perspective of international law, it would be quite irresponsible of Vanuatu to withdraw recognition without this being merited by changed circumstances on the ground.)

Nevertheless, this is clearly a PR-victory for Georgia. Vanuatu’s change of mind would be unimpressive if Abkhazia had since secured recognition from a series of other countries, but at the moment, it only serves to underline that it has not. (Even though Abkhazia’s task to overcome Georgian and U.S. lobbying and expectations of monetary reward — justified or not — is a truly formidable one.)

Ni-Vanuatu politicians don’t come off looking very well from this. Radio New Zealand International quoted former Vanuatu Foreign Minister Jo Natuman as speculating that Alfred Carlot started pursuing friendly relations with Georgia after failing to secure money from Russia for recognising Abkhazia. This receives some confirmation by a recent statement by Australia Ministry for Foreign Affairs official Lachlan Strahan, who admitted that Russia hadn’t actually paid money to pacific states for recognising Abkhazia. And there were reports — evidently believed by former Prime Minister Sato Kilman — that one party had asked Georgia for money in the run-up to the 2012 elections.

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

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, , , ,

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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