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Abkhazia & South Ossetia in the World

A closer look at the diplomatic practices of unrecognised states.

July 3, 2019 - Andreas Pacher - Articles and Commentary

Byzantine church from the 11-10th century in Likhni, Abkhazia. Photo: Igor M (cc) flickr.com

Abkhazia’s and South Ossetia’s Foreign Ministries have been signalling a particular message in the past years: “We are not alone in this world. Nor are we alone with Russia. We have each other, and many more – for example, Nauru and Venezuela are two of our best friends. We have a greater range of external ties, a much wider audience of diplomatic partners than you may believe. Russia is an important reference point, sure, but only one among many.”

This, at least, seems to be the main message embodied in their diplomatic engagements. The two contested entities have been constantly investing resources into relationship-management not only with each other and other de facto states such as Donetsk, Lugansk, Transnistria or Nagorno-Karabakh, but also with the handful of remote countries that have officially recognised them (the Pacific micro-islands Nauru, Vanuatu, Tuvalu; the Latin American republics Nicaragua and Venezuela; and Syria), and – a particularly interesting observation – even with a wide range of countries beyond. Abkhazia and South Ossetia regularly send diplomatic notes to UN member states that have not recognised them. Just in 2019 so far, countries like Luxemburg, Belgium, Sri Lanka, Finland, Turkey, Japan, and Syria have received polite diplomatic engagements from the unrecognised states.

The diplomatic engagements are operationally inconsequential: There are no practical steps involved other than the sending of a polite message, such as a congratulatory note on the addressee country’s Independence Day, or expressions of condolences after salient events. For instance, when Sri Lanka was shattered by terrorist attacks in April 2019, Abkhazia officially reassured Sri Lanka of its ‘feeling of deep empathy’, and when Nelson Mandela passed away in December 2013, South Ossetia did not forget to express its condolences to the people of South Africa. These diplomatic notes are monologic; there is no follow-up to such telegrams, and no response seems to be expected. And yet, the unrecognised states’ Foreign Ministries are filled with such notes, suggesting that they play a central role in their diplomatic strategies.

While diplomatic notes are cheap talk, other enactments of diplomatic relations consume many more resources. Abkhazia opened an embassy in Venezuela in 2009, and South Ossetia’s Foreign Minister travelled to Nauru for a 10-day-long official visit in the beginning of 2018. Abkhazia’s foreign network of lower-level representative offices even extend to Bulgaria, Germany, Turkey, Syria, Greece, Italy, Tunisia, Jordan and Austria, and it has several honorary consuls in China, the UK and San Marino (not to mention numerous representatives across Russia, of course). Many other such diplomatic engagements to the outside world can be observed, ranging from city partnerships, international sport events, lobbying activities for aid, to the development of solid ties to their diasporas abroad. The assertion of such ‘actorness’ on the world stage shatters “the often-presumed ‘patron only’ dimension”, as Eiki Berg and Kristel Vits, two researchers at the University of Tartu in Estonia, write. Some of these activities consume substantial resources, whose sustainability may be questionable for polities who rely on a great amount of external support.

In this regard, Abkhazia and South Ossetia are not anomalies. Other post-Soviet de facto states similarly exhibit this conspicuous consumption of external relations, ostentatiously demonstrating that they regularly communicate with a wide array of recognised states. Nagorno-Karabakh’s President has a website with an own section reporting on meetings with foreign delegations, and Transnistria never fails to signal how many foreign organizations and state representatives seek to engage with them. Just in the past weeks (as of June 2019), the news section from Transnistria’s Foreign Ministry reported to have held talks with representatives from the U.S. State Department, the EU Delegation to Moldova, the German War Graves Commission, from Abkhazia’s Plenipotentiary Representative Office, a UN Delegation, the OECD, and many others.

All this may seem utterly irrelevant. For who would assert that global politics could be shaped by a heap of diplomatic notes inconspicuously sent by post-Soviet de facto states to random countries? And yet, the centrality of such diplomatic practices invites an explanation to this puzzle, especially given that many of their addressees are so remote that no meaningful flows of resources can exist between them and the de facto states.

Irrelevant – or rather vital?

More and more political scientists are starting to pay attention to these seemingly irrelevant diplomatic activities. They have begun discussing whether such ties are indeed as insignificant as was usually assumed (if they were noticed at all), or whether one can identify a certain importance in, say, Abkhazia-Vanuatu, South Ossetia-Nicaragua, or Nagorno Karabakh-Lugansk relations. Many still claim that such ties are largely symbolic and impractical.

However, if such diplomatic ties were truly irrelevant, why do de facto states’ Foreign Ministries invest a majority of their diplomatic capital into far-away countries (or to any country beyond Russia)? According to a quantitative research involving the automated processing of word frequency undertaken by Giorgio Comai, an expert on post-Soviet de facto states formerly based at Dublin City University, Abkhazia’s Foreign Ministry’s press releases between 2012 and 2016 (totalling 742 official publications) most often and unsurprisingly mention Russia and Georgia, but these are soon followed by South Ossetia (more than 400 mentions), Turkey (more than 300), Venezuela (more than 250), while Italy, Syria and Nicaragua all gained 100 mentions each. Nauru and Vanuatu occupy the ranks behind them, followed by Ukraine, China, San Marino and Tuvalu.

Some researchers have cursorily argued that by ostentatiously touting foreign relations, the de facto states’ governments signal to their populations that they enjoy external support. This induces a sense of security to the domestic constituencies, which, in turn, bolsters the governments’ legitimacy. Others simply see such relations as a compensation to balance Russia’s disproportional influence and to widen breadth of international interactions, in what is often called a ‘multi-vector’ foreign policy.

A new paper in the academic journal International Relations, whose analysis found that (depending on the de facto state) up to 80 per cent of the de facto states’ diplomatic engagements primarily address entities other than Russia, puts forth a broader theoretical discussion to shed light on this enigmatic diplomacy. It argues that the terms of network theory may best illustrate the assumed rationale behind that practice: De facto states are outsiders, but they want to join the network of the international society. By engaging in relations with insiders, i.e. by enacting ties to the nodes from that network, they slowly draw themselves closer to that network, while attracting at least a few nodes from the network closer to themselves. With endurance, this will blur the clear boundary separating insiders from outsiders, thus leading to tensions over the de facto states’ status, which may prompt the international society to seek an ‘exit’ strategy to restore clarity.

The stigma imposed upon the de facto states thus erodes gradually through such minuscule, inconspicuous practices. If this is true, we can expect to see more diplomatic activities by de facto states such as Abkhazia, Donetsk, Lugansk, Nagorno-Karabakh, South Ossetia, and Transnistria across the world. It may seem bizarre, but perhaps this low-level strategy may contribute to a political solution amenable to the de facto states. In the end, Abkhazia-Nauru relations could turn out to be vital.

Andreas Pacher is an independent researcher based in Vienna, Austria. He created and runs the Observatory of International Research (OOIR), a free platform which lists the latest academic papers in Political Science and related disciplines. His research on diplomatic theory appeared in peer-reviewed journals such as International Relations and The British Journal of Politics and International Relations. He received his higher education in Vienna (University of Vienna), Paris (SciencesPo), and Shanghai (Fudan University).

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