From Russia with love: an unwanted anniversary gift for Georgia
The recent Syrian recogntion of Abkhazia and South Ossetia represents a serious challenge for Georgia’s foreign policy. Even if it is just the result of Moscow’s hold on Damascus, it could have negative repercussions not only for Georgia, but for Syria as well.
Three days after its centennial anniversary of independence, on May 29th, Georgia received a belated and quite unwelcome gift from Russia – Syria became the fifth UN member state and the first Arab country to recognize independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two Georgian breakaway territories. Tbilisi immediately rebuked Russia for exerting pressure on Bashar Al-Assad and promptly commenced procedures to cut diplomatic ties with Damascus. At the same time, Georgian authorities received a fair deal of internal criticism themselves for failing to prevent a situation where yet another country recognises Georgian occupied territories. This event triggered discussions about the effectiveness of the country’s non-recognition policy, which implies establishing and strengthening the diplomatic ties with other countries with an aim to prevent new recognitions of the two separatist regimes. Significantly, Syria has always been considered as a high-risk country in terms of the likelihood to recognize Georgian breakaway territories. Nevertheless, given the extent to which Syrian regime is subdued by Moscow, whether preventing Syria’s move was within the realm of possibility at all, is a legitimate – if problematic – question.
“We come in Peace”
Russia recognized independence of Abkhazia and the South Ossetia shortly after the 2008 Russo-Georgian war. The then president of the country, Dmitry Medvedev, vindicated Russia’s decision arguing that after Georgian-led “genocide” against the Ossetian people, Abkhazians and Ossetians could no longer live in the Georgian state. Therefore, recognition of these territories was the only way to save them from further aggression.
Needless to say, Georgia dismisses Moscow’s arguments and believes that the real reason was the intention to keep Russian troops deployed in both breakaway regions. After signing a ceasefire agreement with Russia in 2008, Georgia’s former President Mikheil Saakashvili announced that Georgia would soon leave the Russian-led Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). This statement turned out to be an alarming signal for the Kremlin as it would lose mediator’s status in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, consequently, the legitimacy to maintain its “peacekeeping” troops in these two regions. Having recognised their independence from Georgia, Russia argued that Russian troops must remain in breakaway regions to protect them from Georgian aggression. Subsequently, the Kremlin signed military treaties with the de-facto states and so could “lawfully” not only station its troops but even increase its military presence. Indeed, in South Ossetia, Russia has one soldier per every eight residents and in total between 9,000 and 10,000 Russian soldiers are stationed in both territories. This military presence is crucial, as the Kremlin is perfectly aware of the fact that maintaining Georgian occupied territories under its political and military dominance grants it an informal veto over Georgia’s NATO membership. Recognising Abkhazia and South Ossetia is also Russia’s revenge against the West for recognising Kosovo’s independence. From Russia’s point of view, Moscow deprived the West of the right to unilaterally interpret international law when it comes to the recognition of new states.
It is therefore of great importance to Russia to convince as many states as possible to recognise the two de-facto states. Thus far, this has not been successful. Apart from Syria, only Nicaragua, Venezuela, Nauru, Vanuatu, and Tuvalu followed suit, and the two latter ones bent to international pressure and retracted their recognition. Accordingly, Moscow is more than sure to use every trick in the book to compel Syria to stick to the decision it was pushed to make (Russia has been advocating this idea with Syrian officials for a long time and previously there have been a number of meetings between Abkhazian and Syrian official delegations both in Syria and in Russia).
After obtaining recognition from Russia in 2008, Abkhazia and the South Ossetia expected more countries would do the same. However, the last recognition they received was 7 years ago. More than that, none of those subsequent recognitions (except recognition granted by Moscow) came from strong international players. That reinforced the disappointment of both de-facto states – also towards their patron, Russia, which failed to improve their international positions and mitigate their international isolation. Syria’s recognition was used by the Kremlin to at least temporarily address Abkhazia’s and South Ossetia’s grievances and assuage their skepticism. Remarkably, Georgia and Syria have never had troubles in bilateral relations that could potentially trigger this recognition. Even though Georgia joined Western sanctions against Syria in 2012, it categorically ruled out participation of Georgian soldiers in the Syrian war. Thus, recognition was ultimately seen in Tbilisi as Mr. Assad’s paying back to Russia for its military and political support to his regime.
However, this decision does not stem from Syria’s national interest and it only intends to please Russia. For one, acknowledging independence of two separatist regions does not seem like a good strategy for a country that just entered eighth year on a civil war and struggles with grievous territorial problems and extreme fragmentation. For instance, it is not too far-fetched to imagine this decision can easily embolden Kurdish separatists, who already exert control over large territories in northern Syria and incessantly demand establishment of their own autonomous federal region. More than that, the recognition can also be an argument in the hands of Israel, occupying Golan Heights in the southern part of the Syria. It looks utterly self-contradictory that Syria abuses territorial integrity of another sovereign state while the part of the former’s territory is also occupied. Equally importantly, the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia could impede Syria’s chances to attract foreign aid and investments once the war ends. Thanks to Georgian lobbying, last year United States (US) President Donald Trump signed the Consolidated Appropriations Act 2017, according to which “none of the funds appropriated by this Act may be made available for assistance for the central government of a country that (…) has recognised the independence of, or has established diplomatic relations with, the Russian occupied Georgian territories of Abkhazia and Tskhinvali Region/South Ossetia”. Should Syria not revoke its decision, it will be effectively cut off from one of the biggest potential donors to Syrian reconstruction plan, which will most probably be materialised. Significantly, after enforcement of Appropriations Act, Nauru has recently lost US funding for that very reason. Taking all that into consideration, it becomes quite clear to what a great extent Assad is dependent on Moscow.
Georgian Foreign Policy
Regardless, Georgian diplomacy should do its best to change Damascus’s decision. It should work with the Arab League, which Syria is currently suspended from, to make sure that it would not be welcomed back unless its government retracts its recognition of the two Georgian breakaway regions. Thus far, Georgia’s diplomacy has not been proactive with Syria – the last high-level meeting between Georgian and Syrian officials took place in 2012, when Damascus promised Georgia not to recognise its breakaway territories. However, Georgia has failed to underpin Syria’s promise during the following years. While until the end of the Syrian civil war conducting any negotiations with Mr. Assad will need to be conducted in an extremely delicate and cautious way, Tbilisi cannot afford the luxury of waiting until peace treaty is signed. Moscow will definitely not shy away from exerting its influence on weaker countries to secure more recognitions for Abkhazia and South Ossetia and Syria’s move may embolden other “high-risk” states to follow suit.
Recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia by Syria represents a blatant violation of international law and disrespects Georgia’s territorial integrity and inviolability of its borders. Crucially for Georgia, it also nurtures separatist sentiments in these regions and adversely affects reconciliation processes, where international mediators are actively involved. On the top of that, recognition of these territories automatically means an endorsement of ethnic cleansing, committed against Georgians in Abkhazia during 1992-1993 war and in South Ossetia in 2008 (as a result of these two wars, 263,598 Internally Displaced People (IDP) are registered in Georgia). Tbilisi must therefore double its efforts in implementing its non-recognition policy, even in regard to internationally isolated countries such as Syria, no matter how sensitive and complicated such a diplomatic undertaking may be. Moscow is determined to stick to its own recognition policy for Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which is even articulated as one of Russia’s foreign policy priorities in its Foreign Policy Concept. Thus, in the absence of Georgia’s proactive diplomacy and international pressure, it will be easier for the Kremlin to succeed in achieving its neo-imperial goals with other vulnerable regimes.
Givi Gigitashvili was born in Georgia and is currently working as a Consultant for Ecorys Polska, an International Research and Consultancy Company. He holds an MA degree in EU-Russia Studies (EURUS) from the University of Tartu, Estonia. Previously, Givi has been engaged with a number of think tanks in Kyiv (Maidan of Foreign Affairs), Riga (Latvian Institute of International Affairs), Berlin (Institute of European Politics) and Warsaw (Center for Social and Economic Research), where he contributed to a variety of research projects. The main fields of Givi’s interests include post-Soviet politics, EU-Russia relations and Eastern Partnership Program.