Thematic Comparison in:

Anna Steiner

Enhanced Relations - Protracted Conflict(s)?, page 105 - 114

The EU's Non-Recognition and Engagement Policy (NREP) towards Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia

1. Edition 2019, ISBN print: 978-3-8288-4304-2, ISBN online: 978-3-8288-7236-3,

Series: Wissenschaftliche Beiträge aus dem Tectum Verlag: Politikwissenschaften, vol. 82

Tectum, Baden-Baden
Bibliographic information
105 out democratic, social and economic reforms to make Georgia a welfare state attractive for its citizens, including the residents of the occupied territories. Russia’s Role and Influence Expert E thinks that the policy of Russification would not have backing in the population, who simply would like to live in a social welfare state. She says that Russia, as the occupation regime, would not allow the population to make contacts with the rest of Georgia. This would not only hamper people-to-people relations but also destroy the chance for reintegration. In her view, the Georgian Government would nonetheless try its best by showing people at the ABL that Georgia was a democratic and, above all, social welfare state. EU Engagement in Abkhazia Expert E interprets the financial and technical assistance in Abkhazia as support to reintegrate Abkhazians into Georgia. She especially highlights the importance of the EU working on humanitarian issues in Abkhazia. EU and Conflict Transformation Expert E sees the EU’s as well as the US’ role in conflict resolution particularly in their support for Georgia to build a democratic welfare state that is based on the rule of law as well as in their support for Georgia’s policy of reintegration. Conflict resolution would above all depend on Russia. Assessing the NREP and Recommendations Expert E answers the question of what the NREP should look like in the future in a less concrete manner. While she highlights that the NREP, meaning EU’s support for Georgia’s policy of reintegration, was highly appreciated by Georgia, she repeats that a peaceful settlement would depend on geopolitical interests and Russia’s global position. Therefore, she argues the conflict could only be solved on an international level. By the time the interests of global politics would meet Georgian interests, a peaceful reunification could happen. Thematic Comparison In this part, individual statements of the experts on the subject areas will be compared. Given the fact that the selection of experts was based on the attempt to portray a wide range of opinions, similarities and differences can be found. Main challenges in Abkhazia and South Ossetia The Experts agree that the economic and physical isolation is the main challenge for people living in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, leading to a wide range of other problems that are connected to it, for example in the education and healthcare 106 sector, and to increasing dependence on Russia. Experts C and D underline the specifically difficult situation of ethnic Georgians in both breakaway territories, while expert E only speaks about challenges for ethnic Georgians. Each Expert stresses human rights violations as a challenge, but the roots of the problem are defined differently. While Expert A blames Georgia for deliberately isolating the de facto States and convinced the international community to follow its example – which the EU, according to her, does – Expert C is concerned as the European Convention of Human Rights does not spread on Abkhazia and South Ossetia since neither the EU, nor other parties of the Council of Europe can assess the human rights situation on the ground. With respect to human rights, Expert E solely concentrates on ethnic Georgians suppressed by the de facto states. Such a focus on ethnic Georgians, that was prevalent among international organizations, is criticised by Experts A and B, who believe the (similar) needs of Abkhazians and people living in other regions are frequently overlooked. Except for Expert E, who equates the territories as the same as both were occupied by Russia, the other Experts highlight the need to separate the conflict situations in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. They stress that Abkhazia and South Ossetia are very different in terms of their historical context and current situation. Abkhazia has a limited international presence and is, therefore, less isolated. Expert A and D describe that discussions – both independent from and with Russia – took place. South Ossetia is much more isolated and borders are closed. The entities also differed in terms of their ultimate aim, which is in Abkhazia’s case – independence and in South Ossetia’s – unification with North Ossetia. Expert E, however, thinks they would choose reunification with Georgia if they had the chance to get in contact with Georgians (a view that corresponds with Expert D’s explanation of the Georgian narrative), which was successfully prevented by their occupant Russia. NREP and Georgian Policies Expert A critically notes that the Georgian engagement policy misused engagement as “means to reintegration”, thereby discrediting the NREP that she finds had initially been an attractive approach. Ever since, reintegration would stand behind each engagement in Abkhazia and was perceived as a “hidden agenda” of EU engagement by many Abkhazians. Accordingly, Expert B describes that Abkhazians found engagement without recognition upsetting, as they believed the EU was representing Georgia’s interest rather than those of Abkhazians. Expert E backs this view as she sees the NREP as support for Georgia’s intent to reintegrate Abkhazians and South Ossetians into Georgian society. Expert C, however, explains the EU’s approach clearly differed from Georgian policies, as Georgia and the EU were “not exactly on the same page” when it comes to political issues. While Georgia had intended to have a coordinated approach 107 with the EU, the EU has not taken over Georgia’s thesis on the Russian occupation of the territories, which means the NREP to a limited extent considers the authorities in Abkhazia and South Ossetia as potential counterparts in their framework of non-recognition. Nonetheless, he would see a huge potential area in which the policies would not contradict each other but work complementarily, given the EU’s engagement would perform better. Expert D marks Georgia’s emphasis on non-recognition and the EU’s emphasis on engagement, sets apart the EU’s and Georgia’s approaches. The Georgian Strategy on Occupied Territories and the LoOT were “very much disliked” by the entities Expert B describes, which Expert A confirms. Expert D mentions that the LoOT also hinders the EU to support projects on a track-one-and-a-half level, for example, trade facilitation. Expert E confirms that Georgia is preparing a package of proposals that amends the LoOT in certain areas related to trade and education, but a change to the LoOT or the Strategy on Occupied Territories as such is not up for discussion. This means international actors will also in future need to ask Georgian authorities for permission to establish contacts with the territories or realise projects there. A differentiated approach towards the entities is unthinkable to Expert E since Russia was the occupying power in each territory. Enhanced Relations: Visa Liberalisation and DCFTA Expert E sees the enhanced relations with the EU as one of the most important features of Georgia’s policy of reunification. She is certain that democratic, social and economic reforms will make Georgia a welfare state that is attractive for its citizens, including the residents of the occupied territories. Expert A, however, rules out the idea that Abkhazians would be willing to accept Georgian jurisdiction and “sacrifice [...] what they have fought for in a very, very bloody war” in order to profit from either Visa Liberalisation or trade benefits. In between these polarised views, Experts B and D think Visa Liberalisation could be attractive for Abkhazians and South Ossetians under certain preconditions. Expert B believes it would be necessary that Abkhaz and Russian authorities “turn a blind eye to their citizens”, since Abkhazians would fear intimidation from authorities and fellow community members if they obtained Georgian passports. Expert D underlines the idea that Visa Liberalisation would have to be promoted without a nationalistic undertone and without patronising people. Even if it has not delivered results and the freedoms will not be used immediately, it could play a positive role in the future, he thinks. With regards to opening the DCFTA to Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Expert C recalls the EU – against Georgia’s initial will – had insisted on the territorial clause in the negotiations. Expert B criticises the clause but observes that even 108 within Georgia the DCFTA was not fully implemented since many people, especially in rural areas, were not aware of it. The package of proposals by the Georgian Government aims at opening DCFTA to both territories. Expert E is sure the EU would support Georgia in its plans to let people who live in the “occupied territories” benefit from DCFTA. Expert C in this context reiterates the above mentioned negative perceptions among residents of the breakaway territories, who would see these measures promoted by Georgian officials as steps towards reunification. The Experts A, C and D agree that Transnistria, to which the application of the EU-Moldova DCFTA was extended, could not be compared to Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Expert A says that being presented as part of Georgia was a “red line” for Abkhazians, which apparently was different in Transnistria, where people were willing to register their companies in Moldova in order to benefit from DCFTA. The Experts C and D see the main difference on another level: Abkhazia and South Ossetia produce mainly agricultural, perishable goods and the agricultural sector is in bad condition. Their economies are therefore not export-oriented, so neither they nor the EU would benefit from such an arrangement. Transnistria, however, is a much more attractive, as they have industries and the EU is their main trading partner. If the EU’s enhanced relations could even have the potential to separate the entities even more “is not the first concern for any party”, Expert C thinks, while Expert B states this was a very interesting question. Similar to what Expert D mentions, Expert B describes that in Abkhazia and even stronger in South Ossetia a simplistic view on the EU’s agenda was predominant, actively propagated by Russia. According to this view, the EU’s promotion of human freedoms and liberties was reduced to promoting homosexuality. As a result, the very traditional communities could, in fact, be deterred from engaging with the EU, Expert B fears. Expert D explains that the EU is already working on a better promotion of what it stands for – and adds that counteracting disinformation was easier in Abkhazia where the EU is present and people do have at least some insights into the West. Russia’s Role and Influence All Experts agree there is a huge dependence on Russia in Abkhazia and, even greater, in South Ossetia. Expert C explains that Abkhazia was more a part of Russia (that finances about 85 per cent of its budget) than of Georgia, especially after 2008, as since then its legal and social system has been integrated into Russian structures. In South Ossetia, Russians financed between 92-95 per cent of the national budget and had even more presence, especially in proportion to the population, and most South Ossetians were employed in a Russian military base or 109 local administration, he adds. Expert A calls the huge dependence “natural”, given Abkhazia’s isolation. Expert D makes clear that while the dependence on Russia was increasing, he does not agree with the Georgian narrative of the entities being Russian puppets. At least Abkhazians would manage to have independent discourse on local issues, he believes. Expert A, who also reports that in cases where Russian demands were not acceptable to Abkhazians, they had discussions about these issues – which were “sometimes” successful, backs this belief. However, Expert A underlined the fact that it was clear that Russia “expects loyalty” from Abkhazia. While Experts A-D indicates that Abkhazia strives for independence, they also state this was not that clear for (Expert A) or not applicable to South Ossetia. Expert B specifies that apart from some activists, an independence discourse was not prominent in South Ossetia, where the majority of South Ossetians and certainly the politics were moving towards more unification, with the ultimate aim of joining North Ossetia/Russia. Expert C thinks that both entities profited from Russia as a security guarantor since 2008 in a sense that they “cannot be concerned about any Georgian military or security encouragement”, which Expert A confirms. Expert A also reiterates that Abkhazians “really appreciate what Russians did to defend Abkhazia in 2008”. Because of their prevalent fear of Georgia, Abkazians have turned to Russia, and at the same time, Russia’s military presence and political influence have made “Abkhazia a captive of its own alliance”, as Expert B metaphorically describes. Expert C explains that for Abkhazia, Russian interference in the field of politics was new after 2008, and this increased prevalence was perceived as a serious downside. In Tskhinval/i, however, Russian officials had been appointed political leaders even before 2008. Due to the powerful Russian presence, Abkhazia could not turn to the EU, even if they wanted to, Expert B assumes. This would only be possible if Russia would step back for any reason, which she does not expect in the near future. The Russian reaction to Georgia’s Association Agreement with the EU was nervous, Expert A describes. She thinks that the EU should better have involved Russia in preparing the document, as the EU, in general, should consider the Russian interests when interfering in the common neighbourhood. Expert D tells that it had not been clear how Russia would react to enhanced EU-Georgian relations, but when the Association Agreement was signed, it did not result in problems with Russia. Thus, he concludes that NATO was always a more emotional element for Russia than the EU. Expert D is the only one that expands on the deteriorated relations between Russia and the West and their implications on Abkhazia and South Ossetia. He thinks that the Russian annexation of the Crimea had had negative effects on the situation in both territories. First of all, the situation in Ukraine was often equated 110 with the situation in Georgia, which he criticises as the contexts differed. However, Abkhazians and South Ossetians themselves contributed to this view when they initially welcomed the annexation in public statements. This had adverse effects, as it had become harder for Abkhazians to get visas with Russian passports. Expert D also believes the annexation of the Crimea might have led to more scepticism among Abkhazians regarding their own relations with Russia. Expert E in this section expresses a view contrary to the other Experts. According to her, the Russification did not have a backing in the population, who would simply like to live in a social welfare state. Russia as the occupation regime would however not allow the population to make contacts with the rest of Georgia. EU Engagement in Abkhazia The Experts indicate many reasons why the limited presence of international actors and organisations in Abkhazia was appreciated by the outside world and Abkhazians themselves: it ensures limited exchange between Abkhazians and the rest of the world, better information access and easier actions against disinformation (compared to South Ossetia), a (small) counterbalance against the Russian prevalence and support for civil society. At the same time, Abkhaz scepticism against international assistance has increased under Russian control, Expert C says and thinks to a large extent that Abkhazians were also not allowed to take up projects funded by international actors like the EU. Track-One and Track-Two initiatives were very limited – mostly the EU funds practical programmes that tackle emergency needs, which used to focus on housing and now focus on agriculture, he adds. However, structural needs could not be dealt with, as they could only be addressed together with the authorities, Experts A and C are certain. Expert A criticises that the human rights situation could not be changed by NGOs alone, but would need the involvement of the law enforcement and judicial system and police reform. Expert E interprets the EU’s financial and technical assistance in Abkhazia as support to reintegrate Abkhazians into Georgia and especially highlights in this respect the importance of the EU working on humanitarian issues in Abkhazia. In contrast, the linkage between EU engagement and the idea of Abkhazia or South Ossetia turning to Georgia is Expert A’s key criticism. She thinks the EU should be motivated by the conviction the needs of Abkhazians and South Ossetians were important per se and not weighted against reintegration. In between those views, Expert C indicates that he did not find it very clear what the EU actually wanted to achieve in Abkhazia. He thinks the EU did not have stakes in Abkhazia other than preventing renewed conflict as to keep Georgia as associated country stable. Confidence-building between Georgians and Abkhazians, “even the sound of it” (Expert B), was disliked by Abkhazians, as Experts A and D confirm. Especially 111 in the beginning, the EU focussed on confidence-building measures, which “was of little value” (Expert A), as Abkhazians would think confidence was completely lost between the two people, Expert B adds. At the suggestion of Abkhazian NGO’s, the focus had shifted from confidence building across borders to confidence building between ethnic Georgians, Abkhazians and other groups within Abkhazia, Expert A explains. She, however, criticises the EU’s approach in the first place to make confidence-building a precondition for investment, as “this is a huge help for Georgia”. Having been directly affected by the war, the post-war sanction period and the years of non-recognition, Expert A argues it was unfair that the needs of Abkhazians, that “have a value of their own”, were always weighted against the level of confidence built with Georgians. The Experts indicate that EU actions in Abkhazia are low profile and have low visibility. They individually give reasons for the low visibility: Expert A thinks this was “mainly because the EU doesn’t want to upset Georgia”. Expert B also holds Abkhaz authorities accountable for the low visibility of EU actions, as they “rather take credits themselves” instead of promoting the EU as a benefactor. Expert C assumes the EU did “either [...] not really try, or the lack of personal resources make further efforts impossible”. Another reason, mentioned by Experts B and D, is that the EU does not fund infrastructure projects that could contribute to more literal visibility. Furthermore, the EU Information Office in Sukhum/i, planned under the NREP, has never been realised. Expert C thinks that both Sukhum/i and Tbilisi authorities prevented its opening for different reasons. Expert C indicates he “does not even know what to talk about in terms of engagement”, therefore he did not see interconnections between the engagement with the non-recognised entities and the EU’s enhanced relations with Georgia. Given the EU’s engagement was rather small and had little visibility, Experts B and D agree that the main benefit for the EU was that they have limited access to Abkhazia which allows them to maintain contacts – or as Expert A expresses: “They draw very small things here, just to be present and to monitor the situation”. Expert B even goes as far as to claim she did not even see a benefit for the local population. Instead, NGOs were benefitting most, as they could travel and have meetings, she thinks. Expert A presents a different analysis, as she says by focussing on NGOs and refusing to work with authorities, the EU’s engagement “marginalised” Abkhazian NGOs, as they were viewed as traitors within Abkhazia. EU and Conflict Transformation The GID is appreciated by the Experts, who at the same time indicate that little has been reached. Expert C criticises that the focus had shifted towards secondary issues to ensure continuation of the talks rather than moving forward with regards to conflict resolution. Since the institutional set-up of the GID was hard to 112 change, Experts A, B and D suggest creating additional platforms – “the more, the better”, as Expert D states. With regard to political dialogue, Expert D explains that there were tendencies toward creating alternative channels or to be more creative within the Geneva framework, but this was against Russia’s will. Russia would tolerate talks with Abkhazians and South Ossetians only on an official and formal level. Expert A suggests creating other frameworks with UN and EU involvement or at least side events around Geneva where Abkhazian and South Ossetian politicians could talk to their counterparts. Expert B however indicates that there was little declared interest in political dialogue by Abkhazians and South Ossetians, which shows that they could probably not push forward what they actually wanted. Expert C would like to see a more practical approach from the EU in Geneva. He thinks the EU should engage more actively and articulate expectations towards Georgia, Russia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia more clearly. Expert A suggests that regional platforms in the South Caucasus should include Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh. Even if dialogue on an official level were not possible, (more) dialogue on a civil society or expert level or on a level of common issues would contribute positively to conflict transformation. With regards to common issues, actions against pests have been taken for example. With regards to civil society, Expert D says that the Georgian Ministry for Reconciliation had already facilitated projects on a track-one-and-a-half level, but still there were few contacts between ordinary people. There is no consensus among the Experts with regards to the conflict parties and the conflict(s) being mediated. Expert E without discussion sees Russia as Georgia’s sole counterpart. Involving the de facto entities or approaching them in a differentiated manner would be of little value, as the occupying power would be the same, she explains. Expert B however believes addressing Abkhazia and South Ossetia as conflict parties might be a “game changer”. She is certain the EU’s limited leverage on conflict transformation could be best used by convincing Georgia to recognise Abkhazia and South Ossetia as parties of the conflict, which had also been demanded by Georgian Civil Society Organisations. Expert A is certain the “real causes of the war and conflict”, which lay in what happened in 1992/93, should be addressed. If this was not done, Georgia would further attempt to “rewrite history”, which it would also do with regard to the 2008 events. Expert C however thinks there was no space for the EU to address Sukhum/i and Tskhinval/i as parties to the pre-existing conflicts. As the EU had not been present in conflict mediation before 2008 – unlike the UN and OSCE – Georgia would not welcome its engagement in the previous conflicts, he states. The Experts agree that the EUMM’s leverage was significantly limited due to the fact that they could not fulfil their mandate on both sides of the ABL. Nonetheless, they consider EUMM – and the IPRMs in particular – important as they 113 contribute to stabilisation, prevention of new hostilities, keeping the borderline and facilitation of contacts. Expert B explains that especially the informal conversations between parties attending the IPRM meetings, for example during dinner, were crucial. Expert B also indicates that while civil society – to her regret – was not represented at the IPRMs, the collaboration between civil society and the EUMM has increased since 2013. Since then, information provided by the EUMM and especially its humanitarian team (November Team) have allowed CSOs to address a couple of serious issues in this field. The Experts B and D are sure that personalities play an important role when it comes to conflict transformation. Both mention the former Polish EUMM Head Andrzej Tyszkewicz as negative example in this context, as his insensitivity caused a two-year suspension of IPRMs in Abkhazia. His successor Toivo Klaar however proved “great leadership” (Expert B), as he managed to restore the IPRMs and also convened the first EUMM-Civil Society meeting in 2013. Expert D also compliments former EUSR Herbert Salber, who demanded a lot of pragmatism from each side and tried to push forward, for example by commissioning the Hammarberg/Grono (cf. 2017) report assessing the human rights situation in Abkhazia. He thinks the new EUSR Toivo Klaar would continue this path. Another key personality, named by Expert C, is Nikolas Sarkozy. He underlines his important role in 2008 by saying: “I would doubt very much that anyone else than France and Sarkozy at that point as EU Presidency would have engaged at all”. Expert E stresses that conflict resolution would above all depend on Russia. She sees the EU’s (and the US) role in their enhanced relations with Georgia and support for its policy of reintegration. Assessing the NREP and Recommendations Expert C says the NREP even at its launch “was rather describing the realities on the ground than trying to change them”, and thinks that the policy was still in place since nobody had a better idea. Expert B agrees that there has not been a real breakthrough, and Expert A indicates that the steps taken so far by the EU were too small to win over Abkhazians. Several reasons for the rather weak NREP performance on the EU’s side were mentioned by the Experts: its low visibility and the fact that the EU did not work with authorities were mentioned by Experts A and B. Expert C criticises the EU’s “inability [...] to coordinate itself when in the field” and finds the EU’s policy towards Abkhazia as such unclear. Experts B and D reiterate that Abkhazians would fear stigmatisation and therefore did not talk about it even if they used the opportunities offered by Georgia and through its enhanced relations with the EU. Expert B thinks, however, that on a personal level a lot of people have changed their minds about Georgia. The Experts A-D all mention Georgia as a key factor when discussing a future NREP orientation. Expert E interprets the NREP as EU support for Georgia’s 114 policy of reintegration. According to Expert B, the NREP was mostly hindered by Georgia’s unclear policy towards Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which made it difficult for the EU to define a clear and coherent strategy. Expert D in this regard sees progress, as Georgia recently showed will to engage more actively in Abkhazia and South Ossetia and has proven flexible given the situation in which their dependence on Russia was still increasing. He, however, calls on Georgia to focus on the real needs of the societies in the breakaway territories instead of setting symbolic actions. The Experts A-D agree that the EU could use its leverage on Georgia (even) more actively in terms of proposing certain actions or demanding pragmatism. Expert C thinks that before defining a future policy towards Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the EU should formulate a clearer Eastern Neighbourhood Policy. That would require strategic decisions on, firstly, how it wanted to embellish its relations with Georgia and, secondly, whether (and how) it wanted to challenge or tolerate Russian expansion in the neighbourhood. This would contribute to formulating a policy towards conflict that should also include Nagorno Karabakh and conflicts in Ukraine. Viewed from a different angle, also Expert A concludes that any substantial engagement with Abkhazia or in the region should involve Russia.

Chapter Preview



Protracted conflicts with and over de facto independent entities such as the Abkhazia and South Ossetia/Tskhinvali region in Georgia endanger the region’s sustainable and peaceful development. Anna Steiner examines Georgia’s breakaway regions in the context of EU policies – a highly topical, yet unresolved matter.

Relations between Georgia and the EU have significantly deepened within the last ten years (Association Agreement, DCFTA, Visa Liberalisation). The present book closes a scientific gap by reviewing the NREP in the light of these developments. Using a profound literature basis and expert interviews, the authorsheds light on EU-Russian relations, the politico-normative framework of EU-Georgian relations, neighbourhood relations and applicable governance concepts. Realistic proposals for a future EU approach make this book a guideline for diplomatic engage­ment.