Eastern Europe and Russia Simon Miles

NATO’s Future Role in the Abkhazia Dispute

By: Simon A. Miles

Following the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia, President Dmitry Medvedev of Russia declared the Georgian breakaway republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and even Georgia itself, to be within Russia’s sphere of influence.  Though Russia has deescalated to a war of words, the dispute over Abkhazia remains an important concern for the Atlantic community in three key ways. Firstly, the volatility of the conflict poses a considerable threat to regional security, with clear implications to both NATO and the European Union (EU).  Incidents occur regularly along the disputed boundary between Georgia and Abkhazia – most recently the wounding of two Georgian civilians on 18 May 2011.  Secondly, the Abkhazian question has broader policy implications, raising questions of how the international community should respond to such bids for independence. While Kosovo and South Sudan were successful, unresolved disputes surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan, the Republika Srpska in Bosnia-Herzegovina, along with Abkhazia and South Ossetia continue to destabilize already turbulent regions.  Thirdly, this dispute between Russia and Georgia impacts two key international institutions: the EU and NATO.  This article will first present the historical background to the current situation.  Then, NATO and EU engagement with both Georgia and Russia since the 2008 conflict will be analyzed; the international response to the recent Abkhazian elections will be discussed; and finally, several policy options for NATO, both unilateral and in concert with the EU, will be presented.

Abkhazia emerged as an independent kingdom in 756, was subsumed into Georgia in 985, and eventually annexed by Russia in 1863.  Soviet authorities incorporated Abkhazia into the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1931; and following the dissolution of the USSR, Georgia sent troops to maintain possession of Abkhazia.  Russian involvement continued thereafter as the principal contributor to United Nations (UN) peacekeeping forces in the region.  The critical turning-point for the purposes of this article, however, was the 2008 conflict which precipitated active international participation in the issue.  First and foremost, it was the EU which brokered the ceasefire agreements of 12 August and 8 September 2008.  Thereafter, on 15 September 2008, the Council of Europe initiated the European Monitoring Mission in Georgia and appointed an EU Special Representative for the Georgian crisis.  NATO, too, escalated its cooperation with Georgia, the full details of which are examined below.  In retaliation, Russia formally recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states, joined only by Nicaragua, Venezuela, and the island nation of Nauru – all persuaded by bilateral deals promising Russian aid or broader investment in their respective energy sectors.

A regional hegemon?

At present, Russia finances over 50% of Abkhazia’s budget (which does pale in comparison to providing some 99% of the South Ossetian government’s funds).  Between 7,000 and 9,000 Russian troops are currently in Abkhazia under a bilateral agreement in place until 2059, with the possibility of extension until 2074.  Their facilities are being actively upgraded by the Russian Ministry of Defense, which is providing considerable quantities of materiel to the “peacekeepers” stationed in both secessionist republics, including rocket artillery capable of striking the capital of Tbilisi, as well as major military installations at Senaki and Gori.  Not surprisingly, relations between Russia and Georgia are acrimonious to say the least, with both sides exchanging insults and accusations of backing terrorists.  Georgia continues to insist that Russia is not complying with the terms of the EU-brokered cease fire, most recently accusing Russian of overflying Georgian territory illegally.  Georgia is currently blocking Russia’s bid to join the WTO, demanding that the border between the two states – as Georgia defines it – be respected and properly demarcated.  Nevertheless, the two countries have reached agreements on transportation and energy since the war ended, mediated by the Swiss, so there is a basis for increased cooperation.  A renewal of diplomatic relations, however, is yet to come.

Georgia’s relations with NATO, on the other hand, are far more positive.  At the Bucharest Summit in April 2008, the Allied Heads of State and Government agreed that Georgia will become a member of NATO, a pronouncement reaffirmed following the conflict with Russia at the Strasbourg-Kehl and Lisbon Summits in 2009 and 2010, respectively.  The NATO-Georgia Commission, founded in the immediate aftermath of the Russo-Georgian conflict established a framework for cooperation between NATO and Georgia; and serves as a forum for political consultations and practical cooperation.  Thereafter, a NATO Liaison Office in Tbilisi was established.  NATO and Georgia primarily cooperate on security and defense reform.  In terms of security, Georgian troops worked alongside NATO in Kosovo from 1999 to 2008 and at present 937 Georgian troops participate in the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan  – the highest per-capita rate of participation in the mission.

This support was evident during the 2008 conflict, in which NATO publically and unequivocally backed Georgia.  Most recently, the USS Monterey (a guided-missile cruiser) visited Batumi in June 2011, to considerable Russian outrage – which compounded Moscow’s anger in general at the “Sea Breeze” exercises she was participating in.  Militarily, Georgia requires any assistance NATO can offer, with its defense budget at only 50% of 2008 levels and only three working aircraft.  Georgia’s economy, too, has slowed its growth since the 2008 war as foreign investment has fallen by some 75%.  However, NATO members are only willing to assist Georgia to a point, for two reasons.  First is a pervasive fear of irking Russia, which, for example, prevented the US from selling Georgia anti-tank weapons.  Second is a series of blunders on Georgia’s part, including the misplacing of a considerable quantity of US-donated equipment.  In terms of NATO’s policy towards Georgia, it is clear that modernization assistance is of the essence. Not only will Georgia benefit in general from external expertise, but also as a future member of NATO this will greatly boost the interoperability and combat effectiveness of Georgia’s future contributions to NATO operations – building on the already strong foundation lain in Afghanistan.  NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen and members of the North NATO Council will visit Georgia from November 9 to 10 to observe firsthand what progress Georgia has made, what remains to be done, and what role NATO can play in facilitating this.

More than platitudes

The sum total of this amounts to, regrettably, little more than platitudes.  While NATO, the EU, and much of the international community insist that Abkhazia is a part of sovereign Georgia, practically speaking this is not the case.  Russian troops are officially above local laws and immune from prosecution.  The local currency is the Ruble, not the Lari.  The rail network and airport are operated by Russian firms.  Finally, the region uses Russian, not Georgian, telephone codes.  The argument that Abkhazia is a part of Georgia rests, therefore, on tenets of international law which no state is defending with more than rhetoric.  The member states of the EU, declarations of support for Georgia notwithstanding, have made it clear that ultimately they prioritize economic ties with Russia and the profit that brings over taking a principled stand over Georgian territorial integrity.

Just as international laws on sovereignty are being challenged, so too are internationally-accepted norms on human rights being flaunted, with equally minimal concrete response from the international community.  The conflicts of the 1990s displaced thousands of ethnic Georgians living in Abkhazia, who are at present beginning to return to their homes.  A recent report by Human Rights Watch, however, illustrates that they face considerable violations of their civil and political rights, driving some to leave yet again and creating a serious obstacle to the restoration of normalcy in the region.  At the root of this is a 2008 decision by Abkhaz leaders to required all residents to obtain Abkhaz passports in order to exercise rights such as, seeking public employment, voting, earning a secondary school diploma, buying and selling property, or travelling freely across the administrative boundary with Georgia.  For ethnic Georgians, however, obtaining an Abkhaz passport is, according to Human Rights Watch, frequently hampered by discrimination.  The impact of these policies and the general harassment meted out by Russian peacekeepers against ethnic Georgians is clear from the statistics.  According to census data collected in 1989, ethnic Abkhaz comprised 18% of the 525,000 residents of Abkhazia, while ethnic Georgians accounted for 46%. By 2003, the ethnic Georgian population had decreased by 81%, Armenians by 41%, Russians by 69%, Greeks by 87%, and others (such as Ukrainians, Belarusians, Estonians, and Jews) by 81%.  The Abkhaz, on the other hand, was the only ethnic group to increase in numbers and at present constitutes some 50% of the population through a process denounced as “ethnic cleansing” by the UN and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

NATO, the EU, and the rest of the Euro-Atlantic community are therefore faced with a choice.  One option is to continue the present pattern of minimal action which has failed to achieve any great progress over the course of three years.  This article, however, will demonstrate that there is another option open to NATO and its members – one which supports the rule of law, states’ sovereignty, and human rights with more than just platitudes.  This approach borrows heavily from Cooley and Mitchell’s concept of “engagement without recognition” and applies it not only to the US, but to NATO and the EU as well.  As they define it, the US “must engage with Abkhazia while making it clear that they will not recognize its independence.”  This is one part of a three-track approach NATO, the EU, and the rest of the international community should embark on to facilitate a return to normalcy in Abkhazia.

The first track is to insist that all parties honor the 2008 EU-brokered ceasefire agreement, whose chief tenet is the withdrawal of all Russian troops from what is legally Georgia’s territory.  US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, visiting Tbilisi in the summer of 2010, described Russia’s military action in August 2008 as an “invasion” and an “occupation.” She announced in a briefing with top-level Georgian officials: “I want to say publicly what I have said privately. I came to Georgia with a clear message from President Obama and myself. The United States is steadfast in its commitment to Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. The United States does not recognize spheres of influence.”  Lip-service to the rule of international law will not suffice – what is needed is a considered diplomatic effort to ensure compliance with the cease-fire.  NATO is uniquely poised to take the lead in this matter, as the Alliance has a strong framework for dialogue with both Russia and Georgia – internally and through its members’ participation in other international institutions.  Furthermore, it (or rather the sum total of its membership) has the required clout to bring the required diplomatic pressure to bear on an intransigent Russia.  This is by no means to suggest that the conflict of August 2008 should be resurrected, but rather the opposite: it should be finally laid to rest.  Once Georgian President Saakashvili is out of power following the 2013 elections in which he is constitutionally barred from running, Russia will hopefully be open to ameliorating relations with his successor.  The new Georgian President will hopefully echo Mr. Saakashvili’s pro-NATO and Atlanticist outlook, but also be willing to make the compromises needed to achieve stability.  At this point, NATO and EU diplomatic efforts will position both organizations and their members to play a key role as mediators between the two parties.

The second track is direct engagement in Abkhazia by NATO.  The Alliance has no small amount of experience dealing with similar matters through its extensive involvement in Kosovo.  The Kosovo situation is certainly a different one, however, and it would be wrong of the international community to treat it as analogous to the situation in Abkhazia.  The extent to which global governance organs were involved in the former is nevertheless something to which the international community should aspire in its efforts at resolving the latter.  Furthermore, the Alliance and its members saw firsthand the destruction which can be wrought when ethnic conflicts are not resolved peacefully, and will hopefully do all it can to prevent further bloodshed in the already unstable region.  The key goal of these efforts should be to demonstrate to the Abkhaz people and their leaders that there are other alternatives to being a Russian client state; ultimately eroding Russian domination of the region.  Introducing Abkhaz policy-makers to international civil society – the Atlantic Treaty Association, for example – through travel abroad would demonstrate that there are others who share their concern outside of Moscow, and who will not demand significant economic concession for their support.  Environmental organizations, for example, can find common cause internationally over the development and deforestation of the region in preparation for the 2014 Olympics in nearby Sochi.  Abkhaz businessmen and entrepreneurs will find new markets for their goods and services and reduce the region’s economic dependence on Russia, whose recent conclusion of a customs agreement with Abkhazia only solidifies its economic dominance.   NATO and EU member states have a history of involvement in the region and in many cases benefit from geographic proximity as well.  Furthermore, both organizations encompass many of the world’s leading economies in which Abkhazia without a doubt would find opportunities for trade.  Reducing the province’s dependence on Russia is both an end in and of itself, and will also facilitate success in the first track, as when Russia negotiates it will do so from a position of diminished strength.

The third track calls for the continuation of NATO’s plans to welcome Georgia into the Alliance.  There are many, such as Germany and France, who are wary of bringing in a new member with so uncertain a future as Georgia.  However, to abandon plans for Georgia’s inclusion would be tantamount to conceding to Russia that they have a de facto veto over who will be included in NATO at a time when the Alliance is focusing its sights to on Eastern Europe for new members.  It is clear that Georgia shares common ideals with the Atlantic community.  This should be publically rewarded and fostered, which inclusion in NATO would certainly achieve.  Both Greece and Turkey had unresolved territorial questions when they were admitted to NATO in 1952 which is a clear precedent for the inclusion of Georgia when it meets other criteria.  Not only will Georgia’s strength be bolstered in negotiations with Russia as a result, but Russia too will certainly behave in a more responsible manner vis-à-vis Abkhazia once the international community’s support for Georgian territorial integrity is no longer an abstract concept.


It has been clearly demonstrated in this article that the time has come for a new policy of engagement vis-à-vis the conflict in Abkhazia.  The pattern of Russia’s behavior as a would-be hegemon needs to be checked, and this article has demonstrated that international organizations such as NATO and the EU are uniquely poised to work together to meet this challenge.  This goal would be best served, it is suggested, by adopting a three-track approach.  First, NATO, the EU, and their allies should intensify what is at present a weak diplomatic effort to ensure compliance with the 2008 ceasefire agreement, which Russia is in clear violation of.  Second, NATO member states – alone and in concert – should engage the people of Abkhazia, their leaders, and local business interests.  This will erode Russian political and economic dominance of the province and open its denizens to interaction with others than Moscow through fruitful collaboration.  Third, NATO should not shy away from Georgia’s accession in the future – not as an abstract concept, but rather by producing a concrete plan for so doing.  Not only will Georgia, a nation which has already made clear its volition and commitment to the Alliance’s ideals, be strengthened, but Russia will be confronted with proof of opposition to its aspirations of regional domination.  In this way, not only will NATO gain a valuable new member; but the international community will make good on its countless iterations of support for human rights and international law.


Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the NATO Council of Canada.

NATO Association of Canada
The NATO Association of Canada (NAOC) strives to educate and engage Canadians about NATO and its goals of peace, prosperity and security. The NAOC ensures Canada has an informed citizenry able to participate in discussions about its role on the world stage.