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Abkhazia’s cold relationship with Central Asia

The para-state of Abkhazia has made a concerted effort over the years to increase its international recognition. Despite this, nearby Central Asia has failed to respond in any meaningful way to this campaign. Overall, the region’s approach to Sukhumi continues to be rather arbitrary in nature.

August 29, 2022 - David X. Noack - Articles and Commentary

View from the railway station in Sukhumi, Abkhazia. Photo: Vvicca1 / Shutterstock

When violence erupted in Kazakhstan in January 2022, the current Abkhaz President Aslan Bzhania published a statement in which he expressed support for both the Kazakh government and CSTO intervention. A leading Abkhaz politician commenting on the situation in a Central Asian state naturally came as a surprise to many in the region and beyond.

Abkhazia and the post-Soviet Central Asian states share many similarities. Both areas were part of the Soviet Union and were largely reluctant to accept the state’s dissolution. Today, Abkhazia and several Central Asian states are often considered Russia’s backyard. Moscow has troops stationed in Abkhazia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. While the three Central Asian states are members of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, Abkhazia is bound to Russia by the 2014 Treaty of Alliance and Strategic Partnership. Whereas Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are members of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), the Russo-Abkhaz Alliance Treaty binds the largely unrecognised state’s trade laws to those of the EAEU. Thus, Abkhazia is de facto associated with the organisation. Even though there exists a foundation for cooperation, both Abkhazia and Central Asia still seem reluctant to collaborate.

Abkhazia declared independence in 1992. The first UN member state that recognised it was Russia in 2008. Nicaragua, Venezuela and the Pacific island states of Nauru, Vanuatu and Tuvalu soon followed suit. Sukhumi experienced some setbacks when the last two states withdrew recognition in 2013 and 2014. The Russian government seemed embarrassed by this development as it had invested a large amount of aid in its campaign to promote recognition of Abkhazia. However, western pressure on Caribbean and Pacific states has curbed wider recognition of Abkhazia. As a result, Moscow seems to have stopped investing any more resources in this recognition project. One reason for this might be the financial situation in Russia, which turned dire following the growing war in Ukraine that started in 2014. The sanctions of many western states against Russia plunged the country into an economic crisis.

Interestingly, the weakening of the Russian economy as a result of western sanctions led to a rapprochement between Abkhazia and the European Union. Due to the weaker Russian rouble (Abkhazia’s official currency), Abkhaz trade with the EU grew stronger. In 2017, Abkhaz and EU officials even began talking about trade issues. After a decade of not being on speaking terms, Brussels and Sukhumi started to somewhat open up to each other.

A new Abkhaz diplomatic campaign subsequently started to strengthen relations with the outside world. Abkhaz ministers and vice-ministers have travelled to all the countries that have offered recognition – even the tiny republic of Nauru in the Pacific. They also visited a wide range of countries that do not recognise the small state, including China, Italy, Turkey and Israel. Furthermore, Abkhaz politicians have met with officials from South Africa, Jordan and El Salvador. Additionally, the Abkhaz foreign ministry has substantially increased the sending of diplomatic notes to other countries, such as Egypt, France, Guatemala and Sri Lanka. These notes serve the purpose of showing the world that Abkhazia is an independent actor in the international arena. All these activities reached their peak in 2017 and decreased significantly in subsequent years. The beginning of the pandemic also put a halt to most of the trips made by Abkhaz diplomats, ministers and the head of state.

A strange absence

While all these diplomatic activities cover regions from all over the world, Central Asia is completely overlooked. No Abkhaz member of government travelled to Central Asia, or met any diplomat or officials from the region. There were some opportunities as representatives regularly travel to Moscow. For example, when several heads of state met for the 2020 Moscow Victory Day Parade, the President of Abkhazia Aslan Bzhania could be seen standing next to the presidents of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Despite this, Bzhania did not meet with any of the Central Asian presidents or ministers for political talks. Since the beginning of the surge in diplomatic activities in 2014, no diplomatic notes have been sent from Sukhumi to any of the Central Asian states.

This absence or even avoidance of any diplomatic interaction seems strange since there are economic relations between Abkhazia and several of the Central Asian states. In the first half of the last decade, about 10,000 guest workers received working visas for Abkhazia – most of them from CIS countries. These guest workers originated mostly from Central Asia. When Russia tightened its border crossing rules in 2013, several hundred Central Asian workers were stranded in Abkhazia. After the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020, many governments tried to repatriate their citizens from all over the world and Uzbekistan was no exception. The Uzbek consulate in Rostov-on-Don and the embassy in Moscow received appeals from around 400 Uzbek guest workers in Abkhazia, who wanted to travel home. Since the government in Tashkent does not recognise Sukhumi, the Uzbek representatives negotiated with Russian government officials, who then spoke with their Abkhaz counterparts. After Uzbekistan Airways charter flights repatriated several hundred guest workers from Sochi (close to the Abkhaz-Russian border), Tashkent’s foreign ministry issued a press statement. This was the first and last time that the foreign ministry has ever mentioned Abkhazia. While there were about 400 Uzbek guest workers in Abkhazia only two years ago, it is not publicly known how many Kyrgyz and Tajik workers regularly resided and worked in the de facto state before the pandemic. While several hundred guest workers regularly travel back and forth between Abkhazia and Central Asia, trade remains minimal. According to statistics from the Abkhaz Chamber of Commerce, the area’s largest import partners include Russia, Turkey, Italy, China and Japan.

Even while trade is minimal, formal or even informal contacts between Abkhazia and Central Asia could prove to be important for Sukhumi. Back in 2008-09, when Abkhazia experienced its diplomatic breakthrough, the Central Asian states initially took different approaches. Government officials from Kazakhstan voiced support for Russia as a matter of principle but outright rejected the idea of recognising the de facto Caucasus republic, comparing Abkhazia with the former Serbian region of Kosovo. The Tajik president, Emomali Rahmon, expressed his support for Russia’s recognition of Abkhazia on national TV. However, his country subsequently did not recognise Abkhazia. Uzbek and Kyrgyz representatives adopted a “wait and see” approach but did not grant diplomatic recognition in the long run. It is not known if there have been any public statements by Turkmen officials concerning the Abkhazia question. While there were some initial sympathies for Abkhazia among Central Asia’s leading politicians, no interaction followed.

Obscured relations

The reason for this does not lie in their general aversion to de facto states, as the positions of Central Asian governments vary widely from case to case. By the early 1990s, all of these countries had recognised the State of Palestine. This country has limited territory but is still accepted by two-thirds of global states and is even an observer at the UN General Assembly. Similarly, the Vatican City is recognised by all Central Asian states. Three of the post-Soviet states additionally recognised the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, a unique sovereign entity with nearly no territory that is currently led by a Canadian lawyer. Another example is offered by Northern Cyprus. Kazakh officials declined to recognise the Turkish para-state as early as 1992. However, the Economic Cooperation Organisation, which has included all of the Central Asian states since 1992, granted Northern Cyprus observer status in 2012. The so-called Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus even has a representative office in Kyrgyzstan’s capital Bishkek. Another example can be seen regarding Kosovo. When this para-state declared independence in 2008, officials from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan outright rejected the idea of recognition. Representatives from Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan waited to make their move, but their countries ultimately did not recognise the former Serbian province either. Similarly, Western Sahara, which is recognised by many states in Africa and Latin America, was also not granted recognition by any Central Asian state. The Republic of China or Taiwan also had no chance. In 1990, the country allowed trade with the Soviet Union for the first time. Despite this, Taipei decided to concentrate its foreign policy efforts on the European republics. In 1993, Taipei opened an office in Moscow but none in Central Asia. All in all, there is no uniform Central Asian approach when it comes to de facto states. In the case of Abkhazia, the motivation behind this lack of recognition, or even any official connections, seems arbitrary.

One reason for the cold relationship between Abkhazia and Central Asia is China’s influence in the region. In 2008, the Russian government lobbied for Abkhazia’s recognition at the summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in Dushanbe. Despite this, then Chinese President Hu Jintao played a pivotal role in resisting wider recognition among the member states. Beijing vehemently opposes separatism and the SCO served as an adequate forum to reject Abkhazia’s recognition, since this international organisation is directed against separatism. Another reason for the absence of relations between Abkhazia and the Central Asian states is the strong influence of the West in the region. With Switzerland Tajikistan’s main export partner, the United Kingdom as Kyrgyzstan’s and Italy as one of Kazakhstan’s two main export partners, Central Asia hardly can be considered “Russia’s backyard” in economic terms. Quite the contrary, western economic influence in the region is still very robust. Western states, especially NATO nations, are known to threaten small states from Belarus to the Dominican Republic should they think about recognising Abkhazia. Given the strong economic and political influence of western states in Central Asia, any recognition by those states remains highly unlikely.

The situation is aggravated by the fact that Abkhazia’s economy is separated from its large Russian partner. While Tatarstan’s government serves as a bridge for Russian enterprises and influence in the region, few Russian companies would profit from possible Abkhaz trade with the Central Asian states. Since Russia would gain little from a strengthening of Abkhaz-Central Asian relations, Moscow does not seem very keen on supporting Abkhazia’s role in the region.

It can be concluded that Abkhazia suffers from a rare convergence of western and Chinese interests in Central Asia. Furthermore, Russia – the country’s patron state – has lost interest in promoting possible recognition among the Central Asian states. Additionally, Moscow cannot profit from Abkhaz diplomatic relations or trade with the Central Asian states and regional politicians themselves have shown little interest in furthering relations with Abkhazia. Thus, despite having many things in common, Abkhazia and the Central Asian states have only minimal relations with each other. Meanwhile, Abkhaz diplomats travel regularly to the Middle East, Western Europe and Latin America. The cold relations with Central Asia look set to last.

David X. Noack is a PhD candidate of Mannheim University and lecturer at the University of Bremen. His research focuses on Eastern Europe, Central Asia and the British Empire.

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