The Southern Caucasus region has consistently been infamous for its endless territorial disputes throughout history. The age-old conflict between the state of Georgia and its breakaway nation of Abkhazia remains a crucial issue that has pressured world powers to take sides in order to exert influence. The European Union is no different in this regard; it has clearly demonstrated its support for Georgia’s territorial integrity while trying to promote peacekeeping efforts in Abkhazia, but simultaneously refuses to actually recognize Abkhazia as a sovereign state in solidarity with Georgia. The EU has implemented a few policies, including the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP), and the Non-recognition and Engagement Policy (NREP), in order to meet its goals in EU-Georgia relations and in preventing Abkhazia’s worst fear of becoming completely isolated on the world stage. This paper will serve to analyze the impacts and effectiveness of two recent policies that the European Union has put into place in attempt to help remedy the pressing territorial conflict between Georgia and Abkhazia.
Before delving into an analysis of the EU’s efforts in Abkhazia it is necessary to understand the history of the conflict in order to accurately assess the situation. Situated in the northwest corner of Georgia proper, the nation of Abkhazia has been subject to territorial strife for centuries in its quest to gain independence from Georgia. The conflict is a difficult one to remedy because while the two nations have different cultures, ethnicities and languages, Abkhaz and Georgian histories are closely intertwined; In the ninth century AD, Abkhazia was officially considered a part of Georgia, but not long after became an independent state. For centuries the two nations struggled to determine who would control which territories. In 1931 the entire region came under Soviet control, but Abkhazia was made an autonomous republic. Despite the title, Abkhazia received very little actual autonomy, and Abkhaz ethnic culture was suppressed in favor of Georgian culture.1 In 1989 about five-hundred thousand people were living in Abkhazia, with only 18% ethnic Abkhaz, 14% Russian, and 45% ethnic Georgian. In August of 1990 the Abkhaz Supreme Soviet declared sovereignty, but two years later detachments of the Georgian National Guard were sent in to occupy Sukhumi, the Abkhaz capital. Ethnic Georgians were then, in retaliation, driven out of Abkhaz territory in 1993.2 Russian troops fought alongside the Abkhaz, and in 1994 three-thousand Russian peacekeepers were sent in.3 Previously a popular vacation spot for Soviet elites, the territory of Abkhazia again became known for being unsettled and conflict-ridden. Today Georgia and Abkhazia maintain a fragile ceasefire.4 The conflict has left Abkhazia in shambles economically, and very dependent on Russia, who is currently the only world power to formally recognize the nation as a sovereign state.5
The EU’s Goals and Motivations
Georgia has typically been perceived by Europe as being “too far from the EU to be very important, while being too close to ignore,”6 a thought that has certainly shaped the motivations of the EU toward the Southern Caucasus. The EU became involved with the Georgia-Abkhazia conflict primarily because of its own agenda. Not being particularly geographically close to Georgia, the conflict has not been seen as an immediate threat to the EU. However, Georgia has repeatedly expressed its desire to one day join the European Union, rendering its treatment of the conflict areas in the vicinity as somewhat of an interest to the EU. Regarding its own potential desired gains, the EU wants to strengthen and intensify the engagement component of its policy in order to increase influence. The Southern Caucasus has in fact proven to be an important part of the Eastern Neighborhood; despite not being very geographically close, the EU has close political, societal, and economic interdependence in the region, and unsolved conflicts would threaten the region’s peaceful and sustainable development.7 Moreover, an EU official argued that the EU’s objectives for helping out Abkhazia are as follows: 1.) to decrease financial dependence on Russia, 2.) create links between Abkhazia and Tbilisi and promote reconciliation, and 3.) to promote knowledge about Europe and its values.8
Actions and Policies Implemented by the EU
In order to meet its objectives with the conflict in the Southern Caucasus, the EU has had to take action in the form of policy implementation. While the EU will likely never match the level of Russian economic involvement in Abkhazia, it still has much to offer in its modernization strategies,9 and is in fact the largest international donor to the region.10 The European Neighborhood Policy (ENP) was a European Council-adopted resolution on the inclusion of Southern Caucasian states,11 under which an increasingly close relationship with Georgia by the EU is being fostered.12 The primary task of the ENP is for the EU to influence the ENP member countries’ internal and external policies in several ways.13 For one, by promoting “a ring of well-governed countries to the East of the European Union…with whom [Europe] can enjoy close cooperative relations.” Other tasks of the ENP include developing a special relationship with neighboring countries and aiming to establish an area of prosperity and good neighborliness. It has been said that the ENP is a “strategy for relating to European neighbors without letting them in,” with regard to the EU and the neighbors that may not have the credentials to actually join the EU.14
In 2009, the EU endorsed the Non-recognition and Engagement Policy (NREP), which essentially meant that the EU stood at a point in the conflict where they would 1.) exercise the view of non-recognition regarding Abkhazia’s self-proclaimed independence, while 2.) encouraging Abkhazia’s engagement with other entities. This two-pillar policy meant that the EU could interact with Abkhazia without compromising its support for Georgia’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. The EU stressed its support for Georgian territorial integrity while promoting long-lasting peace and stability in the region as its foremost strategic goal. Specific goals within the NREP for the EU include increasing the EU’s leverage and footprint in Abkhazia and establishing a base on the EU’s interest in sustainable conflict resolution. In other words, the EU desires to leave its territorial mark on Abkhazia. It is evident that the EU desires to steer clear from Russian involvement in the conflict by the text of the NREP: “contacts with Russian diplomats should be avoided and should be limited to the conflict resolution framework.”15
Now that the specific policies implemented by the EU in the conflict have been defined, it is possible and necessary to examine which areas of policy were successful and which proved to be unsuccessful. The ENP Action Plan reported on the year 2011. The report stated that Georgia took several steps to implement strategies of de-isolation and engagement with Abkhazia. According to the report, healthcare services and “status-neutral travel documents” were issued for inhabitants. And again, as the report stated, the “EU remains committed to respecting Georgia’s territorial integrity and sovereignty” which goes to show that the EU’s relationship with Georgia is more important than with the small disputed breakaway territory.16
The NREP has come to be known as arguably the most visible of the EU’s policies. The results of the 2009 Non-recognition and Engagement Policy began to stagnate over half a year or so, but then observed some positive developments. Russian troops withdrew from an area they were violating, as it had been declared ceasefire. With the NREP the EU’s policy can directly address Abkhazia, which holds the potential for EU assistance, taking into account local conditions in Abkhazia. This policy evidently echoes the EU’s “bias towards an ultimate resolution of the conflicts which favors the Georgian standpoint,” however the policy seems to also be concerned with countering Russia’s growing influence on the matter. The EU must learn to work with Russia in the conflict instead of attempting to replace its efforts in Abkhazia when Russia is seen by the Abkhaz as the primary supporter of their independence.
Other EU support for the rehabilitation of the conflict zones was effective in easing at least some of the difficulties that people in Abkhazia faced.17 EU involvement has been “gradual and shy, but still increasing,”18 indicating improvements and that there is still hope. The EU has intended to help Georgia build a “functioning, democratic and prosperous state which would facilitate in itself the resolution of the conflicts. However, the EU’s current and past assistance in Abkhazia has not been enough to radically alter the conflict. For example, the EU did not promote significant degrees of cooperation, dialogue and reconciliation between Georgia and Abkhazia, and the existing and past policies have been slow to develop. It is evident that the EU has not developed a clear vision of how exactly to deal with the conflict.19 As a result of the EU’s repeated calls for the full restoration of Georgia’s territorial integrity, Abkhaz citizens have begun to resent the West.20
Criticisms and Suggestions
The EU’s pro-Georgia bias in the conflict has left the Abkhaz people feeling weary of the West, leaving room for improvement in the EU’s efforts. This proves problematic when the effects of EU policies on the conflicts depends on how the EU itself is perceived.21 The Abkhaz Deputy Prime Minister recently stated, “Europe and the world are arming Georgia. Against whom? Certainly not against Russia or Turkey. It is against us.”22 Another Abkhaz de facto official spoke about the lack of European opportunities for Abkhaz people and the fact that Russia is Abkhazia’s primary supporter: “Today we can only go to Moscow for research and education. If we had other possibilities we would have benefited. People have to see how things are done in Europe as well.”23 There is a broad consensus in the EU that the South Ossetian conflict, currently happening in the northeast region of Georgia, should be more of a focus of EU actions in Georgia than the Abkhaz conflict.24 Because of this, the EU is not the most visible actor in Abkhazia.25 The NREP renders it as a more neutral actor than Russia or the United States with the NREP.26
The EU’s persistent stance for the full restoration of Georgia’s territorial integrity “ignores Abkhaz desire to have a state of their own, questions their rich historical past, and devalues the sacrifices made by the people of Abkhazia during the war unleashed by Georgia.”27 In 2011 de facto presidential elections were held in Abkhazia, for which the EU did not recognize the constitutional framework.”28 The EU’s imposition of restrictions on Abkhaz people entering the European Union does not help feelings of skepticism towards the West.29
An important potential EU contribution to regional stabilization could be support for the drafting and signing of a non-use of force agreement between Georgia and Abkhazia. The situation could also be benefited from better EU-Russian cooperation to strengthen peace in the region, as Russia is the largest actor in the conflict. Currently the EU does not desire to cooperate with Russia at all on the matter.30 In fact, “improving relations between Brussels…and Moscow provide for a more favorable international context for conflict management in Georgia.”31
What might the future hold for Abkhazia and the EU given the current state of affairs? There have been various proposals to set up an EU information office in Sukhumi. This would function to increase knowledge and understanding of the EU amongst the local population. In addition, an EU information office could “organize events which would spark debates between officials, experts, civil society representatives from the EU and an Abkhaz audience.”32 Perhaps the EU should also consider increasing the number of student scholarships for Abkhaz students in order for them to take part in cultural exchanges. In order for scholarship programs to be successful they must be accompanied by flexible travel and visa arrangements.33 Given the distrust of the EU among the Abkhaz people, there is a general belief that “it will be the US, not the EU who will solve conflicts here.” But despite the distrust of the EU’s intentions, Abkhazia still desires to one day be more integrated with Europe and its countless opportunities, as former Abkhaz President Sergei Bagapsh stated: “We have one aspiration…to be in Europe. We want to live in a European house. And we want openness and dialogue from the EU.”34 While being a part of Europe may not happen for quite some time, Europe could certainly start to open its door to the East more with opportunities for Abkhaz students as well as more education about the EU and its intentions and institutions. The EU could also in the future focus more on de-isolation and transformation. It has yet to begin any sort of de-isolation implementation. De-isolation would imply more systematic contacts with civil society and the populations at large, whereas transformation would address the root causes of the conflict and set the stage for conflict resolution.35
With regard to the future of Georgia, its prevalent desire to one day join the EU may override its persistence in agressively obtaining its breakaway territories. Former President Mikhail Saakashvili even stated, “we will unite our country and return our lands by all means.”36 If Georgia plans to be a part of the EU within the next five to ten years , which it has clearly stated,37 it will need to make some massive reforms in its treatment of the breakaway nations, as the EU has criteria for the accession of new member states that says that nations who wish to join the EU must have good neighborly relations and no territorial disputes. It is imperative that the Georgia-Abkhazia conflict be remedied before they attempt to actively pursue accession to the European Union.
The territorial conflict between Abkhazia and Georgia is certainly an arduous task to remedy. There is no one right answer which would solve this centuries-long conflict that has been embedded in both nations’ histories. The EU was in no doubt put into a difficult position as a major world power, having to decide where to allocate its resources and dedication. As a part of the world that is seen as too far to really invest in and too close to be ignored, the breakaway nations of Georgia essentially received the back end of the EU’s help, and the conflict has somewhat harvested feelings of apathy among Europeans. While the EU policies examined in this paper have proven to be somewhat effective, the EU has not proved to be a big enough player in the conflict, leaving Russia as the only major committed world power. It is clear that the EU is more concerned with garnering good relations with Georgia, an extremely pro-Europe and potential EU accession candidate in the distant future. It is important that in the future the EU tries to relate more with the Abkhaz people, eliminating any feelings of distrust between the two. The EU must clearly demonstrate its intentions, and perhaps one day work towards recognizing Abkhazia as the sovereign state it desires to be.
Natella Akaba & Iraklii Khintba, Transformation of the Georgian-Abkhaz Conflict.
BBC News, Abkhazia Election: Breakaway Georgia Region Votes, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-17313353 (March 10, 2012).
BBC News, Abkhazia Profile, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-18175030 (May 23, 2012).
European Commission, Joint Staff Working Document (Brussels, 2012).
Sabine Fischer, Institute for Security Studies: The EU’s Non-recognition and Engagement Policy Towards Abkhazia and South Ossetia (Brussels, December 2010).
Sabine Fischer, Institute for Security Studies: How to Engage with Abkhazia? (November 2010).
EUBusiness, Georgia Aims to Join EU Within Ten Years, http://www.eubusiness.com/news-eu/poland-eeurope.cjt (September 29, 2011).
Heinrich Boll Stiftung, Georgia and its Future in the EU, http://www.ge.boell.org/web/115-1191.html.
Ted Hopf, “Review of International Studies,” Identity, Legitimacy, and the Use of Military Force: Russia’s Great Power Identities and Military Intervention in Abkhazia (Cambridge University Press, 2005).
International Alert, The Politics of Non-recognition in the Context of the Georgian-Abkhaz Conflict (International Alert, March 2011).
KyivPost, Saakashvili: Georgia Will Enter NATO and EU and Return ‘Occupied’ Lands http://www.kyivpost.com/content/world/saakashvili-georgia-will-enter-nato-and-eu-and-return-occupied-lands- 311144.html (August 7, 2012).
Nicu Popescu, Europe’s Unrecognized Neighbours: The EU in Abkhazia and South Ossetia (Nicu Popescu, 2007).
Karen Smith, “International Affairs,” The Outsiders: The European Neighbourhood Policy (Royal Institute of International Affairs, 2005).
Franziska Smolnik, Lessons Learned? The EU and the South Caucasus De Facto States, http://www.isn.ethz.ch/isn/Digital- Library/Articles/Special-Feature/Detail/ ng=en&id=160454&tabid=1454180080&contextid774=160454&contextid775=160429 (March, 2013).
1BBC News, Abkhazia Profile.
2BBC News, Abkhazia Profile.
3Hopf, Review of International Studies.
4BBC News, Abkhazia Election: Breakaway Georgia Region Votes.
5BBC News, Abkhazia Profile.
6Popescu, Europe’s Unrecognized Neighbours.
7Fischer, The EU’s Non-recognition and Engagement Policy Towards Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
8Popescu, Europe’s Unrecognized Neighbours.
9Fischer, The EU’s Non-recognition and Engagement Policy Towards Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
10Popescu, Europe’s Unrecognized Neighbours.
11Heinrich Boll Stiftung, Georgia and its Future in Europe.
12European Commission, Joint Staff Working Document.
13Smith, The Outsiders: The European Neighbourhood Policy.
14Smith, The Outsiders: The European Neighbourhood Policy.
15Fischer, The EU’s Non-recognition and Engagement Policy Towards Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
16European Commission, Joint Staff Working Document.
17European Commission, Joint Staff Working Document, 18.
18European Commission, Joint Staff Working Document, 18.
19Popescu, Europe’s Unrecognized Neighbours, 21.
20International Alert, The Politics of Non-recognition in the Context of the Georgian-Abkhaz Conflict.
21International Alert, The Politics of Non-recognition in the Context of the Georgian-Abkhaz Conflict, 17.
22International Alert, The Politics of Non-recognition in the Context of the Georgian-Abhkaz Conflict, 17.
23International Alert, The Politics of Non-recognition in the Context of the Georgian-Abkhaz Conflict, 17.
24International Alert, The Politics of Non-recognition in the Context of the Georgian-Abkhaz Conflict, 18.
25Popescu, Europe’s Unrecognized Neighbours.
26Smolnik, The EU and the South Caucasus De Facto States.
27European Commission, Joint Staff Working Document, 10.
28European Commission, Joint Staff Working Document.
29International Alert, The Politics of Non-recognition in the Context of the Georgian-Abkhaz Conflict, 11.
30Akaba & Khintba, Transformation of the Georgian-Abkhaz Conflict.
31Fischer, How to Engage with Abkhazia?
32Fischer, The EU’s Non-recognition and Engagement Policy Towards Abkhazia and South Ossetia, 8.
33Fischer, The EU’s Non-recognition and Engagement Policy Towards Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
34Popescu, Europe’s Unrecognized Neighbours.
35Fischer, The EU’s Non-recognition and Engagement Policy Towards Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
36KyivPost, Saakashvili:Georgia Will Enter NATO and EU and Return ‘Occupied’ Lands.
37EUBusiness.com, Georgia Aims to Join EU Within Ten Years.