Robert Crabtree

Abkhazians plays chess

There is a commonplace that you can choose your friends but not your relatives. In International Relations the equivalent might be that you can choose your allies (to an extent) but you cannot choose your neighbours.

Abkhazia’s quest for Self-Determination and Independence has been fraught by its neighbours, Georgia and Russia, and by its lack of other influential friends. Each neighbour has, in differing ways, scared away other potential friends to Abkhazia’s great disadvantage.

The quest has not been a simple one; it is based on the belief/ fact that Abkhazia was only ever demarcated as part of Georgia by others (Stalin and the signatories of the Alma-Ata Protocols[1]) against its will. When Georgia was recognized with its present claimed boundaries, an error was made.

On the scorecard of the old and simple test for nationhood, admittedly more discussed than applied, Abkhazia scores quite highly. The oft-stated requirements were: Boundaries, Territory, Population and Viability. This list derives from and adapts slightly the requirements for a State listed in Article 1 of the Montevideo Convention on Rights and Duties of States[2]. Montevideo listed: a permanent population, a defined territory, government, and the capacity to enter relations with other states. Abkhazia can claim boundaries and territory. There may be conflicting issues on rights to the territory, but there is little dispute as to the geography and boundaries. That there is a population is undisputed. Abkhaz there are. There are also others, including Mingrelians, Russians, Greeks, Swan, and Georgians. Who should be considered Abkhazian may be a matter of some dispute. I have written elsewhere on the problems of minorities, promoting the view that Abkhazia should take what some might see as a risk and be as inclusive as possible. There is a government (the product of free elections) that has capacity to enter relations with other States. This may be limited by the small size of the country and budget, but Montevideo required a capacity, not immediate embassies everywhere. Size has never been the issue.

Abkhazia has received limited Recognition. Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Nauru, Vanuatu and Tuvalu make up the current list of UN members[3]. There are also some undecided ‘fence-sitters’. South Ossetia, Transnistria and Nagorno-Karabakh form with Abkhazia a mutual group of the non-recognized who recognize each other. This list, and the lack of a longer one, can be ascribed to the activities of the neighbours.[4]

Self-Determination, however, logically precedes Recognition and may lead to outcomes other than Independence/Recognition. Since I studied and briefly visited Abkhazia, I have now turned, for my PhD thesis, to issues concerning the small island of Mayotte, in the Indian Ocean, north-west of Madagascar. It may sound surprising, but there are similarities. The status of both turns on the issue of Self-Determination and who may practise it. Mayotte has spent 50 years trying to become a Département of France and not to be a part of the Republic of Comores. It achieved this aim in 2011. This was an unusual Self-Determination - to become incorporated in the former colonial power, not to accede to independence. Mayotte did not want to be in the Comorien republic as much as Abkhazia does not want to be in Georgia. The same amount as, for example, Timor L’Este did not want to be in Indonesia. Abkhazia and Timor L’Este seek and sought independence, not integration into another state: all want the free ability to self-determine. All had neighbours with claims who stood in the way of this.

It has struck me that in these situations, and others, there is a triangulation, and that this is a significant feature. There is the searcher after self-determination, there is the neighbour who opposes, usually by claiming the territory for itself; there is the other neighbour or power that is necessary for an outcome to be achieved. While it remains bi-polar (the S-D claimant and the opposing neighbour), the matter will go on indefinitely. A triangulation is essential for an outcome. West Papua will unfortunately not make headway, however good its claims; Somaliland is unlikely to achieve the recognition it deserves while in a bi-polar stand-off with Somalia. The Chechens had no-one, nor did the Biafrans, the Bougainvilleans, the Quebecois and many others with claims of more or less merit. On the other hand, Bangladesh had India as a point of triangulation in its attempt to break from Pakistan. It was the complexity of relationships and influences between India and Pakistan, including but not solely force, which made it possible. Where would South Sudan be without the triangulation of the “Witness States”?  Timor L’Este ‘s point of triangulation was Australia, changing its policy of support for Indonesia, scenting oil in the Timor Sea, being a good neighbour, at least volunteering for the triangle, enabling support elsewhere, at the UN, to be garnered. Namibia had its case brought to court by UK. 

The Searcher for Self-Determination needs this third party/point of the triangle. It is more than a supporter; success requires a relationship between this third party and the opposer of Self-Determination. Polarity + support is not the same. The successful Self-Determination will emerge from this relationship between the other two points of the triangle and the complex of multiple pressures and interests that go to form it. These will vary from case to case. This is my suggestion; whether it is borne out in all cases will demand much more examination than is possible here.

Can Russia be seen as a benign or useful neighbour to Abkhazia? (Some would doubt, saying that it is a great white shark with its mouth open, others that Abkhazia is just a pawn on Russia’s chessboard, cynical manipulator of the Caucasus for its own ends). If Russia – clear third point at present – will only ever eat or manipulate Abkhazia – if these fears are true, then Abkhazia, if it is to achieve its aims needs another in its triangle. In the current triangle, Abkhazia needs to see relations between Russia and Georgia improve, an establishment of mutual self-interest, trade, joint-ventures, cultural exchanges, whatever, not just armed opposition. This is not easy when it is itself a major part of the reason for the armed stand-off. If this cannot be done, Abkhazia must look elsewhere for triangle-formulation.

It will not be the US, while Georgia under Saakashvili is so proficient at learning “Wall Street English”[5]. Georgia may have found it harder these last four years without George W Bush in the White House; the EU may not have welcomed its flag flying on every Georgian public building; they may have over-reached. However Georgia has had considerable success in establishing the US as a counter-triangulation point to extinguish Self-Determination claims. It has positioned itself to paint Abkhazia into the corner of the overbearing qualities of Russian foreign policy, for American and European consumption. If Russia is seen to support unattractive elements in Belarus, Ukraine... Syria even, then Abkhazia with Russian support must be unattractive too. Moreover, the use of the  words ‘Territorial Integrity’ gives many another state a subliminal shudder as it either momentarily contemplates its own dismemberment, or its treatment by previous generations of Russians.

Abkhazia may need to look elsewhere for a different third point of its triangle, if it is to achieve the Self-Determination it claims and deserves. Just down the Black Sea lies Turkey, home to the Abkhazian diaspora. Possibly a new best friend?


[1] Alma Ata Protocols 1991/2/3.

[2] Montevideo Convention on Rights and Duties of States. 1933. Article 1.

[3] The question of why Abkhazia’s recognition comes from Latin America and the Pacific is an interesting one and deserves further study. Most of the ‘fence-sitters’ come from here too.

[4] Many Georgians would not like the term ‘neighbour’ to be applied to them, saying you cannot be a neighbour to what is a part of yourself. I can only say that there is a frontier; there are international agents patrolling it; it has been so for many years; they are, de facto at least, neighbours.

[5] A language widely advertised by a certain language school on the Paris metro.

Robert Crabtree
PhD Candidate at the University of Adelaide, AUSTRALIA

The Stalin-Beria Terror in Abkhazia, 1936-1953