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Analysis & Opinion
17.12.09 From The South Pacific To The South Caucasus
By Roland Oliphant

Nauru, a Pacific island nation of just 11,000 people, this week became the fourth country to recognize the independence of the break-away Georgian provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. While Russia was accused of buying Nauru’s loyalty with $50 million in aid, South Ossetian President Eduard Kokoity predicted some 10 other states would soon follow Nauru’s example. So who else is prepared to take the Russian shilling, and is Russia willing to pay?

A delegation headed by Nauruan Foreign Minister Kieren Kekehas has spent the past week on an eventful tour of South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and the Russian Foreign Ministry in Moscow. On Tuesday in Sukhumi Kekehas signed an agreement formally recognizing Abkhazia. The recognition of South Ossetia had to wait until the Nauruans had returned to Moscow, however, apparently because they had not received the green light from their president before leaving the Caucasus. The agreement on establishing diplomatic relations with Tskhinvali was finally signed by Kekehas and the Dmitry Medoyev, the South Ossetian ambassador to Russia, on Wednesday.

But according to the Kommersant daily the real negotiating had taken place in the Russian Foreign Ministry a week earlier. At a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on December 10, the paper reported, the sides had discussed “the possibility of Russia providing humanitarian assistance to Nauru.” Specifically, $50 million for “urgent social projects.”

Medoyev told the Moscow Times that was just a “rumor,” but the notion that Russia would stoop so low as to buy an impoverished nation’s recognition of its South Caucasus clients is not one that surprises many commentators. Venezuela’s recognition of the two breakaway republics came only after a favorable arms deal with Russia, for example. And Nauru acquired a reputation for mercenary tendencies when it severed ties with Taiwan following a Chinese promise of $130 million in aid. That image was only reinforced after Nauru’s about face in 2005, when it severed ties with China and reestablished its relationship with Taiwan after the Taiwanese agreed to bailout its ailing national airline.

As Kommersant wryly noted, the price Russia paid for Nauru’s recognition was relatively cheap – especially compared to what the Chinese shelled out. But despite the South Ossetian president’s predictions of another ten recognitions, the stunt is unlikely to be repeated any time soon.

“I don’t know who Kokoity’s sources are, but the Russian leadership has no intention of spending a great deal of resources buying recognition for Abkhazia or South Ossetia,” said Alexei Mukhin, the director of the Center for Political Information. “Russia does have plans to take further steps in this direction, but it doesn’t want to falsify the entire business.”

It is possible that Russia is reluctant to sully the process with obvious bribes, but a more immediate problem for Kokoity’s dream is that even Russian allies have been remarkably reluctant to recognize the breakaway states. Russia’s Central Asian CIS and Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) allies have held off; Belarus has made recognition a bargaining chip in its on-going poker game with its larger neighbor and the West; and China, staunchly opposed to recognition of separatist states in principle, was appalled at Russia’s decision to recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia in the first place.

Kokoity’s best bet appears to lie with Latin America. Apart from Nauru and Russia, the only countries to recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia are Nicaragua and Venezuela, and others in the region have sounded cautiously supportive. But despite intensive lobbying, Russia has failed to turn interest into action, even from sympathetic left-leaning governments like Cuba.

“Several countries are studying the question. Ecuador and Peru, for example, are said to be interested,” said Sergei Markedonov, an expert on Caucasian affairs. “But no one is going to do anything unless it is in their interests. It’s not a matter of a country really liking Russia and saying ‘go on then, let’s do it.’ They have to balance it with their relations with the United States and other interests.”

And many nations seem to have decided recognition is simply not worth it. In late October Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa said his country would consider recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia if they asked. Both promptly filed formal requests, but nothing more came of it. “He was given some money when he was in Moscow,” noted Mukhin, “and Venezuela benefitted from a Russian arms contract. These are facts. But the financial authorities in Russia obviously don’t like that, because it is not clear how much all this is going to cost, and it is not always reliable.”

So while recognitions may continue to come in a haphazard and occasional manner, there is unlikely to be any avalanche of new ambassadors into Tskhinvali and Sukhumi.

Nor would further recognitions make much difference to the political and economic reality facing the two would-be capitals. Reliant as they are on Russian economic aid, with a closed and hostile border to the south, both Abkhazia and South Ossetia are effectively Russian dependencies. “At the moment they have no possibility to exist as truly independent states,” said Markedonov, “independence for them really only means independence from Georgia.”

Although South Ossetia and Abkhazia are often put in the same basket – even to the point of being recognized simultaneously by the few who have recognized them – they are likely to follow different paths. South Ossetia, would “logically” be absorbed into the Russian Federation, said Mukhin. “It has no historical, territorial or economic foundations. Joining it with the Russian republic of North Ossetia would be a realistic project,” he said.

With a coastline, a sub-tropical climate and a canny leader like Sergei Bagapsh, Abkhazia is in a better geographic, economic and political position to pursue real sovereignty. Bagapsh has already been busy building business relations elsewhere, especially in Turkey, where there is a large Abkhaz diaspora, in an apparent attempt to dilute the overwhelming dependency on Russia. “That actually worries Russia,” said Mukhin. But the prospect of a viable Abkhaz state is still a long way off.
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