Learning from Crimea

Western governments are right to insist on the territorial integrity of Ukraine and Georgia. But that shouldn't stop them from building ties to contested regions.

Photo by IBRAGIM CHKADUA/AFP/Getty Images
Photo by IBRAGIM CHKADUA/AFP/Getty Images

On May 28, as Western policymakers and pundits lauded Petro Poroshenko’s decisive triumph in Ukraine’s presidential election, thousands of demonstrators poured into the streets of Sukhumi, the capital of the self-declared independent state of Abkhazia in northwest Georgia. The activists demanded the resignation of Abkhazian leader Alexander Ankvab over allegations of corruption within his government as well as the stagnant economy. Within hours, reports surfaced that Ankvab had fled the capital and that the government of Abkhazia was on the verge of collapse. Days later, Ankvab formally resigned. Russia, Abkhazia’s main ally and patron, offered to negotiate an orderly political resolution. The United States and the European Union were unable to do anything at all.

Given recent events in Ukraine (and the ensuing debate over Russia’s involvement in post-Soviet states), this situation might have offered an opportunity for the United States to publicly comment on these governance issues and signal an interest in the political concerns of these contested areas. But due to an ineffective foreign policy, the United States and its Western allies had no relationship with the faction that precipitated the uprising against Ankvab — or, for that matter, Ankvab himself — and now Abkhazia has seemingly moved even closer to Russia than before.

Brussels and Washington have long refused to cultivate any ties to Abkhazia’s de facto government, not to mention the breakaway region’s opposition parties, civil society organizations, and media outlets. That’s because Western governments have been loath to do anything that might imply recognition of the separatist government’s claims to legitimacy — claims that have been thoroughly rejected by Georgia, whose territorial integrity is strongly supported by the European Union and the United States. But this position has effectively left the West without interlocutors or influence in places like Abkhazia.

More deeply, the framework through which Washington has conducted its foreign relations with post-Soviet states — strengthening their "sovereignty and independence" by championing integration into Western institutions and international norms — is now showing its own strategic contradictions and practical flaws. An aggressive and disruptive Moscow has exploited regional and ethnic minorities to dismember both Georgia and Ukraine, turning portions of both countries into Russian dependencies. A new Western approach must recognize the nuances of these long-standing conflicts and embrace a more holistic engagement; that is the first step toward rebuilding Western leverage and influence.

Crimea and Abkhazia both have troubled relationships with the countries they landed in after independence. In general, their populations feel more favorably toward Russia than the rest of the country of which they are nominally part. The 2008 Georgia-Russia war precipitated Moscow’s recognition of the independent statehood of Abkhazia and South Ossetia (another breakaway region), but Georgia had not exercised real sovereignty over its breakaway territories since the early months of its post-Soviet independence. Yet according to most interpretations of international law, as well as the views of all but a handful of countries, Abkhazia was and remains a part of Georgia. After Abkhazia declared its independence at the end of that war, the Georgian government passed a U.S.-backed, highly counterproductive "law on occupied territories" that banned outsiders from any unauthorized dealings with the breakaways. In the meantime, Russia effectively absorbed both Abkhazia and South Ossetia by means of a number of "bilateral treaties" through which Moscow effectively took control over their most important functions and institutions.

Both Abkhazia and South Ossetia are home to ethnic groups that have little in common with Russians but harbor long-standing grievances against the Georgian central government. Most of the population of Crimea, by contrast, consists of ethnic Russians and Russian speakers. (Crimea was part of the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic until 1954, when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev gave it to Ukraine.)

Russia’s security presence in Crimea has remained strong since 1991, not least because of the stationing of thousands of Russian troops (including special forces) as part of the Black Sea Fleet at Sevastopol. When Russian backed-forces annexed the territory for Russia in February, it was a land grab that clearly violated broader international law and a specific 1994 pledge by Moscow to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty. But it worked. This could only have happened in the context of this region’s complicated history. Most residents of Abkhazia and Crimea, when faced with pro-Western central governments with an integration agenda, strongly backed Russian intervention and changes to their sovereign status. The United States happily ignored these histories and aspirations.

Instead, in Abkhazia the United States adopted a policy of strategic patience (StratPat). StratPat consisted of helping Georgia develop into a prosperous and democratic country under the assumption that once this happened the people of Abkhazia would naturally want to rejoin Georgia. In practice, therefore, StratPat meant doing nothing — certainly not building relationships with anyone in Abkhazia. Washington confined itself to issuing highly critical official statements that counterproductively denied the legitimacy of elections carried out in the territory. In Crimea, the approach was less dramatic, but the region was always treated by the United States as mostly just another part of eastern Ukraine.

U.S. policy toward much of the former Soviet Union has been framed by the twin goals of strengthening the sovereignty and independence of the 15 post-Soviet states. Although the West has publicly denied that such a policy was "anti-Russia," the West’s policies have, when possible, promoted the integration of these states into Western institutions such as NATO and the EU. In Baltic and other Eastern European states in the late 1990s and early 2000s, this policy worked, largely because these small states were substantially pro-Western and did not have internal breakaway territories. Equally significantly, Russia was not the global or even regional power in the 1990s that it is today.

But the very success in these states promoted misunderstandings and flawed judgments when it came to the more contested regions in Ukraine and the Caucasus. In Georgia, this involved promoting what was always a purely aspirational sovereignty over the breakaway regions, rather than playing the role of a broker or conflict mediator. Efforts to fold these contested territories into Georgia through a pro-Western integration process simply ignored the needs and wants of Abkhazians. According to survey results, 79 percent of ethnic Abkhazians preferred to remain an independent state, with a small minority (19 percent) preferring to be incorporated into the Russian Federation; support for integration
with Georgia was negligible.
Even among ethnic Georgian respondents, only half believed that the economic situation was better in Georgia, while a plurality (48 percent) expressed a preference for remaining a part of an independent Abkhazia, a finding that the authors attribute to "unattractiveness of the other options." Western policy also misjudged the willingness of Moscow to openly meddle and militarily support Russian-speaking constituencies within these breakaway regions. As a result, Georgia and, now, Ukraine have strengthened neither their sovereignty nor their independence.

In the diplomatic arena, the United States has been instrumental in helping Georgia thwart Abkhazia’s aspirations for statehood. Let’s make no mistake: This is the right diplomatic course for the United States to pursue, as Abkhaz independence would legitimize Russian aggression and the breaking apart of sovereign states by force. However, taking this firm diplomatic approach does not preclude a more nuanced approach to engagement with Abkhaz society. Despite the United States’ strong relationship with the governments in Tbilisi and Kiev, few American officials have even been to Abkhazia, while the number of Abkhaz who have had significant contact with the West is minuscule. This is not true of Crimea, but historically the West viewed ethnic Russians in Crimea as an obstacle that needed to be managed. In both cases, the West lacked the knowledge and relationships to craft a timely and effective response.

The West’s failure to take history into account weakened its response in Crimea and has already had ripple effects in the region. Ankvab’s resignation happened less than a month before Georgia is scheduled to sign an association agreement with the EU, and only a few months before an important NATO summit for Tbilisi, where the question of whether Georgia will receive a Membership Action Plan is expected to be discussed. Ukraine is a reminder that these association agreements and NATO aspirations do not sit well with Russia. It is possible that pro-Russian insurgents in Abkhazia chose this moment because it may disrupt, or at least complicate, the EU association agreement. Disrupting Georgia’s association process will not be easy because the small state is relatively far along and enjoys strong support for Europe from its population. Nevertheless, turmoil in Abkhazia and South Ossetia on the eve of Tbilisi’s EU association agreement, scheduled to be signed on June 27, or an announcement regarding South Ossetia’s change of status should surprise nobody.

Meanwhile, de facto authorities in South Ossetia, a much smaller territory, have viewed Russia’s annexation of Crimea as an opportunity to renew their public pleas to be formally absorbed by Russia. The seeming victory of the pro-Russian annexation party United Ossetia in Sunday’s parliamentary elections also has raised the prospect of the de facto authorities in Tskhinvali organizing a Crimea-like referendum on joining Russia this summer.

Predictably, in the West, little is known about Abkhazia’s new president, Valery Bganba. He is, however, believed to be aligned with Raul Khadzhimba, who has strong anti-Georgia feelings, increasing the possibility of more tension between Abkhazia and the rest of Georgia, or between Abkhaz and ethnic Georgian communities in Abkhazia. These events in Abkhazia should lead the United States to rethink its Abkhazia policy and recognize that knowing very little about, and having very few relationships in, a potentially important part of the post-Soviet region can lead to problems. We have already seen that paying no attention to Abkhazia has pushed it closer to Russia and made Georgia’s territorial integrity less likely as time passes.

Gaps in U.S. post-Soviet policy do not excuse Russian aggression, and Moscow is likely to pay a high price for its military actions and support of its political clients. Nonetheless, the demonstrations in Abkhazia — and the West’s inability to do anything about them — should encourage the United States and its NATO allies to rethink some terms of their post-Soviet engagement. Of course, NATO must keep its security commitments to its allies, and Russia should not be allowed to run roughshod over sovereign states. In the future, however, the United States must think far more creatively (as it did in the Balkans) about approaches that will lead to genuine power-sharing and conflict resolution. In Ukraine, this might mean the decentralization or selective federalism promoted by Switzerland and the OSCE. In countries like Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine, the United States must begin to forge civic and educational ties to communities in contested territories that it has long ignored. U.S. officials would do well to realize that failure to promote such ties will ultimately prove counterproductive to the aims that they hope to achieve.

Alexander Cooley is the Director of Columbia University’s Harriman Institute and the Claire Tow Professor of Political Science at Barnard College. 

. Twitter: @CooleyOnEurasia

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