Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 75

Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs tried hard to help the Abkhaz “foreign minister,” Sergei Shamba, crash the doors of the U.N. Security Council’s April 9-13 deliberations on the conflict in Abkhazia. However, Moscow was unable to obtain a U.S. visa for Shamba, who is a citizen of Russia.

When the effort failed, Russia’s Mission distributed to all 192 missions at U.N. headquarters a 14-minute videotape of Shamba’s would-be speech to the UNSC, recorded in Russian with English subtitles. In the speech, Shamba went far beyond the issue at hand, speaking instead for the three secessionist leaderships from Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Transnistria. Urging the UN to accept “realistically” that conflict-resolution negotiations in the three cases are going nowhere, Shamba called for international diplomatic recognition of the three territories’ “independence.”

Shamba summed up the arguments of these three leaderships and their Moscow protectors. Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Transnistria are “building independent and democratic states;” they are exercising the “right of peoples to self-determination;” and are not violating any internationally recognized borders, but merely challenging the former Soviet internal borders “drawn by Stalin.” Thus, international recognition of Abkhazia’s, South Ossetia’s, and Transnistria’s “independence” would help complete the process of dissolution of the Soviet Union, according to Shamba (Tiraspol Times, April 13).

These assertions are designed to obscure the fact of Moscow’s appointment of those leaderships (often through special-service and military chains of command) and the goal of merging those territories de facto with Russia, rather than actual independence. They also attempt to present these conflicts as civil or inter-communal ones, rather than inter-state conflicts to which Russia is a party. Apparently they also count on Western sympathy for the professed goal of bringing the collapse of the Soviet Union to a final conclusion. However, someone in the Kremlin might later discover that such conclusion would not be complete until applied also to Ukraine’s Crimea or to northern Kazakhstan, among the possible examples.

Arguments such as those on Shamba’s videotape at the U.N. have been developed recently by Modest Kolerov’s Department for Interregional and Cultural Ties within the Russian Presidential Administration. They form part of Moscow’s intensifying campaign for international acceptance and legitimization of these secessions. The operative goal is not outright recognition, but rather international treatment of these territories and their leaderships as co-equal with the recognized states from which they have seceded. Such treatment would deepen the freeze on the negotiating processes and provide an open-ended period of time for the gradual absorption of these areas by the Russian Federation.

During the UNSC session, Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs as well as the three unrecognized “foreign ministers” issued a series of parallel statements, urging the UNSC to receive Shamba and then protesting against the refusal to receive him. One of their common arguments was in this case — and will undoubtedly be repeated in the future — that Abkhazia is an “internationally recognized party to the conflict,” hence must be heard on a par with Georgia at the UNSC and in other international forums. The UNSC itself inadvertently helped Moscow regarding this argument when UNSC resolutions redefined the issue as a “Georgian-Abkhaz conflict,” rather than “the conflict in Abkhazia, Georgia.”

Russia’s Permanent Representative to the U.N., Vitaly Churkin, termed the refusal to receive Shamba at the UNSC a “serious diplomatic and political mistake” and indicated that Russia would raise the issue again, later this year. In Moscow, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Alexander Yakovenko termed the refusal “outrageous,” and MFA spokesman Mikhail Kamynin demanded access for Abkhazia next time around. For the time being, Moscow and Sukhumi would be content with using the “Aria procedure” — an informal method whereby UNSC members can hear a non-state or unrecognized state’s representative address them in person during a UNSC session.

Moreover, Churkin argued, Russia should not have to speak for Abkhazia at the U.N., but rather let the Abkhaz speak for themselves. This assertion also reflects Moscow’s tactics to avoid responsibility as party to the conflict, even as it deepens its involvement through de facto absorption of Abkhazia into Russia.

Churkin and the MFA in Moscow tried to draw a parallel between Abkhazia and Kosovo, claiming that an Abkhaz representative was entitled to a hearing at the UNSC after Kosovo’s representatives had been heard. Such an analogy, however, ignores the many differences between the two cases, including the problem of ethnic cleansing, which is a root of either conflict as well as a contrasting factor between the two. In the Abkhaz case, the Russia-assisted minority ethnically cleansed the majority, resists (again with Moscow’s support) a reversal of that process, and now seeks acceptance at the UNSC and elsewhere. In Kosovo’s case, by contrast, the U.N. and the West deal with representatives of the Albanian population that was targeted for ethnic cleansing by a Serbian government (enjoying Moscow’s sympathy then and now), until Western intervention reversed that process.

Abkhaz representatives do participate in the U.N.-led Geneva process of negotiations on this conflict (Russia as “facilitator,” the United States, Britain, France, Germany, as well as Georgia and the de facto Abkhaz authorities), with full opportunities to air their view in the negotiations. But their acceptance at the UNSC could only serve to lend them a degree of acceptance, for which they would not qualify until accepting at the very least the need to reverse the ethnic cleansing on the ground.

(Interfax, Civil Georgia, April 9-16; Federal News Service, April 10, 13; see EDM, April 12)