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Europe must engage Abkhazia on its own terms [Opinion]

27 March 2017

Foreign allies and international organisation piled on support for Georgia’s sovereignty and said Abkhazia’s ‘so called parliamentary elections’ do not stand up to international scrutiny. These statements are a token of crucial diplomatic support to Georgia. But they also mask the absence of a policy fit to overcome the current impasse.

The European Union follows its non-recognition and engagement policy (NREP), which was adopted in December 2009 after Russia’s recognition of Abkhaz independence. Based on a 2007 blueprint by then EU Special Representative, Peter Semneby, the NREP allows the EU to walk a fine line between backing Georgia and trying to work in Abkhazia. Albeit tactically justified, this policy is failing to change the prevailing reality — Russia holds the ground with its troops and has Abkhazia in its economic, military and political chokehold. The EU’s financial contribution and political impact have been feeble.

The time is ripe a change in the locus of Georgian and European policy towards Abkhazia. The European point about Georgia’s territorial integrity is clearly made, and it should undoubtedly remain a guiding priority — especially in decrying Russia’s growing encroachment. But with Sokhumi, the recognition that the common European normative space binds both Tbilisi and Sokhumi should come to the forefront. Simply put, there is no reason why European capitals should hold Sokhumi’s politicians and institutions to lower standards than their counterparts in Tbilisi.

As any diplomat knows, the true value of any diplomatic position is in its potential reversal. In other words, refusing to recognise the Abkhaz elections implies, that under certain conditions, such recognition is possible.

So far, the EU has implicitly adopted Tbilisi’s position that reversal can only come after restoration of Georgia’s territorial integrity. Both Tbilisi and Brussels might want to nuance that position and form a realistic and clear roadmap of criteria for achieving real progress in engaging Sokhumi, while bracketing out the sovereignty issues.

Residents of Abkhazia elected their last common, uncontested legislature in 1991. A product of painstaking ethnic power-sharing, the Supreme Council has failed to prevent the conflict. It broke down alongside the conflagration which drove hundreds of thousands out of Abkhazia, and left the once-prosperous province broken. Since 1996, these were the fifth legislative elections administered from Sokhumi that Georgia — and Western institutions — say are invalid, since they are held in violation of Georgia’s territorial integrity.

But because of these politically pluralistic elections, and much to the chagrin of officials in Tbilisi, Sokhumi is often singled out by experts as the most democratic of the post-Soviet breakaway provinces. Consequently, voices that seek various formulas for enhanced engagement with the Abkhaz authorities sound reasonable.


But the relative pluralism of the Abkhaz elections is a bad reason for validating the Abkhaz political elite as Europe’s partner, because these elections are based on deliberate and consistent ethnic exclusion.

According to the 2011 Abkhaz census, close to 46,000 ethnic Georgians live in Abkhazia, making up 19% of its population. Most of them — 44,000–45,000 — permanently reside in its easternmost, Gali District. In this populous area, the Abkhaz Central Election Commission listed just 603 total voters on its rolls for 17 January 2017. Georgians are excluded from the political process.

Partly, this is because Tbilisi has aggressively discouraged their participation after the conflict. But mostly, because some 22,000 that were eligible to vote were disenfranchised by the authorities in Sokhumi as late as 2014. Since 1994, the Abkhaz claim to statehood is based on the rejection of basic human rights on the basis of ethnicity. Gerrymandering and manipulation of the election system are consistently used to exclude other minorities too. Only three MPs in the previous parliament were non-Abkhaz ethnically — two Armenians (11 ran for office) and one Georgian (two ran).

The glaring gaps in the political system and the protection of rights — not contested sovereignty — should be the main reason for Europe to hold off engagement with officials in Abkhazia. Conversely, the gradual reversal of these practices must emerge as the main avenue for envisaging closer engagement.

Such an approach has the advantage of dovetailing with the ‘more for more’ approach that the EU applies in its neighbourhood. It would also de-link the rights issues from matters of sovereignty, thus providing the Abkhaz leadership and public with a transparent set of criteria under which Europe would consider a tangible upgrade in relations.

So, how could this new approach be put to use to engage the locally elected leaders as partners in Abkhazia?

First, as a pilot initiative, local elections in Gali must be held transparently and competitively, involving all permanent residents and observed internationally. Elected local authorities and municipalities should benefit from EU infrastructural programmes, receive travel waivers to Europe, and other real benefits.

Second, parliamentary elections should be held based on similar principles, and provide representation to Gali District in the Abkhaz legislature proportional to its population. Compliance with this provision should trigger a second upgrade of EU engagement, this time involving select agencies and officials in Sokhumi.

Third, and in a more distant perspective, formal Abkhaz recognition of the right to property of the displaced population must pave the way for internationally observed parliamentary elections on the whole territory (without sovereignty implications), and a fuller level of governance cooperation with the Sokhumi authorities.

Gradual and genuine democratisation of Abkhazia, based on recognition and respect of its residents’ rights, irrespective of their ethnic background, can provide a status-neutral framework for European engagement as well as for tangible improvement of residents of Abkhazia’s lives.

Since Georgia is committed to these principles both through the Council of Europe human rights framework, and the European Union Association Agreement, it can also serve as a natural bridge between the EU’s policies towards Sokhumi and Tbilisi.

Jaba Devdariani

Author edits The Clarion, internet magazine that brings Georgia and Europe closer to each other. He has served ten years in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia with OSCE.

All place names and terminology used in this article are the words of the author alone, and may not necessarily reflect the views of OC Media’s editorial board.

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