Policies towards the Non-Recognised States in:

Anna Steiner

Enhanced Relations - Protracted Conflict(s)?, page 36 - 40

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
36 Policies towards the Non-Recognised States After the Russian recognition, the EU and the U.S. by drawing up engagement policies reaffirmed the continuity position (cf. Coppieters 2018: 1000). To gain strategic leverage over the de facto states and reduce their dependence on Moscow, the West sought to separate the international legal dimension – the commitment to Georgia’s territorial integrity – from its governance aspects (cf. Mitchell/Cooley 2010: 60). The EU and U.S. approaches to different degrees mirror the Georgian policy towards Abkhazia and South Ossetia/Tskhinvali region. The EU’s Non-Recognition and Engagement Policy In December 2009, the Political and Security Committee of the Council of the European Union adopted the Non-Recognition and Engagement Policy (NREP) towards Abkhazia and South Ossetia – a strategy based on the idea of the Swedish diplomat and EU Special Representative for the South Caucasus (EUSR), Peter Semneby (cf. Fischer 2010b: 3; de Waal 2017). Built on the two pillars of non-recognition and engagement, the NREP is a strategic approach that can be used within a variety of political and economic tools in the EU’s interaction with the de facto states without compromising the EU’s adherence to Georgia’s territorial integrity (cf. Fischer 2010b: 1). While the NREP is based on a non-paper which means the vision behind it has never been published (cf. de Waal 2017), its basic idea has been reaffirmed by EU officials and institutions on various occasions and in various documents, for example in the EU-Georgian relations factsheet published in 2017: “The EU remains firmly committed to its policy of supporting Georgia’s territorial integrity within its internationally recognised borders, as well as engagement with the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in support of longer-term conflict resolution” (EEAS 2017a: 6). The fact that the NREP is no fixed policy but functions as a guideline allows the actors involved – which are in particular the European External Action Service (EEAS), the EU Special Representative (EUSR) and the EU Delegation in Georgia – great flexibility in jointly defining and applying the NREP in practice. The policy is mainly reflected by the maintenance of contacts with the entities and implementation of projects (cf. Fischer 2010b: 5). While designed for both Abkhazia and South Ossetia/Tskhinvali region, the policy could not be implemented in the latter (cf. de Waal 2017; cf. Fischer 2010b: 5). Resistance from the de facto authorities to interact with the outside world resulting in closed borders as well as greater Russian military presence have made EU engagement (or any other external engagement except for Russian) impossible (cf. ibidem). 37 Also with regards to Abkhazia, where projects have been realised, these efforts have remained limited in scope (cf. ibidem). Still, a success story in Abkhazia might “turn it [the NREP] into a showcase for South Ossetia” (Fischer 2010b: 2), which makes a strong focus on Abkhazia even more important. While in 2010 it was suggested that the EU should increase visibility (cf. Fischer 2010b:6), de Waal (2017) mentions that despite the fact that the EU has provided almost €40 million of funding between 2008-2017, the visibility of and awareness about EU actions in Abkhazia has remained low (cf. ibidem). Projects have mainly been carried out by other partners, such as the United Nations Development Programme or the International Red Cross, which has contributed to the EU’s low profile (cf. ibidem). Russia at the same time has increased its support to Abkhazia, financing half of its budget, investing in infrastructure projects and paying “almost all of its pensions and social benefits” (de Waal 2017). The EUISS Report (cf. Fischer 2010b: 7) found that it was “impossible for the EU to match Russia’s increasing economic involvement and financial support to Abkhazia and South Ossetia” (ibidem), but pragmatically suggested to focus on quality instead of quantity – a category in which the EU “has much more to offer” (cf. ibidem), thinking about modernisation, technology and know-how transfer (cf. ibidem). Waal (cf. 2017) adds that growing Russian control should be counteracted by firstly enhancing the NREP implementation in a broader and more creative way, and secondly by reminding the Member States of their commitment “to a policy that some of them may have forgotten” (ibidem) 24. Probably the most important difference between the EU’s NREP, Georgian as well as U.S. policies is the choice of words: the EU does not use the expression “occupation” in official documents when describing Abkhazia’s and South Ossetia’s present status (cf. de Waal 2017). The terms “occupation” and “occupied territories” are not regarded helpful by EU officials, since such a wording implies that Russia has taken full control over both territories “and therefore denies any useful role for the Abkhaz and South Ossetians” (ibidem). By avoiding the concept of Russian occupation when talking about Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the EU avoids lumping together two realities that – besides the obvious similarity of being partially-recognised states – differ greatly in terms of history, current situation and desired future status. 24 De Waal (cf. 2017) for example mentions that the proposed focus on education (cf. Fischer 2010b: 7) with regard to HEI mobility has proved difficult to implement. An obstacle to this is that it either requires Abkhaz students to hold a foreign passport or Member States to grant visa to Abkhaz holders of Russian passports, which most governments are not willing to do (cf. de Waal 2017). 38 Georgia’s Policy towards the “Occupied Territories” Shortly after the launch of the NREP, the Georgian Government (GoG) proposed its own strategy towards Abkhazia and South Ossetia/Tskhinvali called “Strategy on Occupied Territories: Engagement Through Cooperation” as well as an “Action Plan for Engagement” (cf. Fischer 2010b: 4). While similarities with the NREP exist (for instance the stress on the importance of de-escalation), the wording alone, using the term “occupied territories”, implies that Abkhazia and South Ossetia have been fully taken over by Russia and “therefore denies any useful role [for them]” (de Waal 2017). The Strategy reflects Georgia’s refusal to interact with the de facto authorities in Sukhum/i and Tskhinval/i (cf. ibidem; cf. Fischer 2010b: 4). While the Action Plan for Engagement contains innovative ideas, it has restrained actions, as the GoG has feared international engagement could lead to “creeping recognition” or “de facto sovereignty” (cf. ibidem). This explains the restrictive nature of both the Strategy on Occupied Territories and the Law on Occupied Territories (LoOT) – that had already been adopted in October 2009 – when it comes to activities of international organisations or NGOs in the de facto states (cf. Fischer 2010b: 4). The LoOT goes as far as to forbid any economic activity with the entities without the written authorisation of the GoG and requires international organisations such as NGOs to coordinate their activities with Georgian authorities (cf. de Waal 2017). Thereby, the LoOT and Strategy on Occupied Territories to a certain extent limited the NREP, in that the EU must ask for permission and coordinate any engagement with the GoG. The issue of “creeping recognition” was particularly persistent during Saakashvili’s rule (cf. de Waal 2017). Since the Georgian Dream government replaced Saakashvili’s Georgia’s United National Movement administration in 2012, greater trust has developed between Sukhum/i and Tbilisi (cf. ibidem). As an important symbolic step, the Ministry responsible for relations with the de facto states was changed from “Ministry of Reintegration” to “Ministry of Reconciliation” (cf. ibidem). Since Georgian Dream won an even stronger mandate in 2016, de Waal (cf. ibidem) estimated this might mean a more proactive engagement strategy. Indeed, in April 2018 the GoG adopted the policy initiative “A Step to A Better Future” that aims at encouraging contacts, movement and relations with people in Abkhazia and South Ossetia (cf. OC Media 2018). The plan includes simplification of trade by allowing Abkhaz and South Ossetian goods to be exported to the EU with a Georgian certificate of origin (cf. ibidem). Furthermore, 39 the mobility of students shall be enhanced (cf. ibidem). Changes to the LoOT were announced as part of the initiative (cf. ibidem) 25. While the outcome of the initiative is pending, it was welcomed by the EU’s Spokesperson for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Maja Kocijančić, who expressed the Union’s support for the initiative’s aim of “building bridges across the dividing lines and addressing humanitarian challenges” (EEAS 2018c). She also confirmed that the initiatives were in line with the EU’s engagement policy (cf. ibidem). The reason why formalising trade is under discussion at all can also be explained by the fact that informal trade between Georgia and the breakaway territories has been increasing (cf. International Crisis Group, 2018). The incentives for Abkhazia and South Ossetia for such trade with Georgia is strong, since Russian aid “has plummeted” (ibidem) after sanctions imposed on Moscow in reaction to its 2014 annexation of the Crimea and failing oil prices (cf. ibidem). The Georgian policy initiative “A step to a better future” at hand was however rejected by both Abkhaz and South Ossetian de facto Ministers of Foreign Affairs, however in public statements (cf. Menabde 2018). Nevertheless, the fact that the GoG discusses facilitating access to the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) and amendments to the LoOT indicates that Georgia is finally ready to seriously deal with the challenges the two entities face. Once implemented, the initiative could step by step open new possibilities for engagement and contribute to confidence building, both being important factors to conflict resolution. Thomas de Waal (2018) acknowledges that “Tbilisi has fashioned more progressive ideas toward Abkhazia in recent years than at any time since the conflict ended in 1993”, while, however, its leverage on and connections with Abkhazia have decreased within years of isolation (cf. ibidem). The International Crisis Group (cf. 2018) published recommendations on how trade could be formalised using a status-neutral approach and called on all sides to “keep the door open”, since trade talks could contribute to improved relations across the dividing lines as well as improved conditions in the breakaway territories (cf. ibidem). United States’ Policy: Non-Recognition of “Occupied Territories” After the 2008 hostilities, the United States signed a Strategic Partnership Charter with Georgia on 9 January 2009 (cf. U.S. Department of State 2009). Territorial integrity and inviolability of borders are among the principles of this Charter. In 25 This initiative was also highlighted by a Georgian Member of Parliament (Expert E) that indicated the amendments to the LoOT would only affect specific provisions related to trade, but not change the system as such: external actors would in future still need to ask for permission at the Ministry of Reconciliation if they planned to engage in Abkhazia/South Ossetia (cf. chapter “Expert Interviews”). 40 the Section “Defence and Security Cooperation”, increased interoperability and coordination between NATO and Georgia are foreseen, also regarding the observance of the ceasefire agreement of 12 August 2008. The document includes the sections “Economic, Trade and Energy Cooperation”, “Strengthening Democracy” and “Increasing People-to-People and Cultural Exchanges” (cf. ibidem). Designed by the Bush administration, the Strategic Partnership Charter was institutionalised by the Obama administration (cf. Kutelia et al. 2017). The Trump administration reinforced the US-Georgian Partnership by legislative acts and the visit of Vice President Mike Pence to Georgia in August 2017 (cf. Kutelia et al. 2017). In May 2017, President Trump enacted a document added to the “Consolidated Appropriations Act” that for the first time takes up the Georgian narrative and wording of Russian occupation (cf. ibidem; cf. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Georgia, 06.05.2017). Under the “Chapter of Russian Aggression,” it contains a passage on the “Occupation of the Georgian territories of Abkhazia and Tskhinvali Region/South Ossetia” and speaks of the Russian Federation as occupants (cf. ibidem). Furthermore, the bill bans financial support for any country that recognises Abkhazia’s or South Ossetia’s independence, which is “a clear endorsement of Georgia’s nonrecognition policy” (cf. Kutelia et al. 2017).

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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.