The breakaway territory should seek legitimacy through supporting native Georgian rights, not playing dominoes

by Hugh Williamsonm, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
Published in: The Guardian
November 19, 2011

They like playing dominoes in Abkhazia. As dusk falls, young men unpack their pieces on the promenade by the Black Sea in Sukhumi, the picturesque capital of this breakaway territory bidding for independence from Georgia.

The fact that Abkhazia is a largely unrecognised state does not diminish the duty on the authorities, as the territory’s controlling power, to meet their human rights obligations under international law.

Yet like playing ping pong in China, shuffling the dominoes in Abkhazia can also resonate with wider diplomatic meaning. In October, Sukhumi was proud to host the domino world championship (yes, it exists). Abkhazia didn’t win – the Dominican Republic had that honour – but it achieved its goal of gaining some international attention. More than 200 players from two dozen countries attended, including a team from the US.

We spent 90 minutes putting these points to Alexander Ankvab, Abkhazia’s de facto president – a can-do politician who takes visitors’ calls on his mobile.

He disagreed with most of our findings, though, and talked about the “new realities” he was building in Abkhazia – realities that the largely hostile international community would have to get used to, he noted.

We said his “new realities” need to be grounded in the rights of the territory’s long-established population.

Abkhazia is only recognised by Russia, Venezuela and two other tiny states, and its status is part of the bitter tensions between Russia and Georgia that peaked in their short war in August 2008.

The two countries’ breakthrough agreement on 9 November on customs arrangements is a sign that compromises are possible. Yet the annoyance in Washington and Tbilisi, and the pride in Sukhumi and Moscow, over such a seemingly harmless domino match (media reports told of intense, ultimately futile pressure on the US domino players, for instance, to withdraw) underline how politicised any dealings with Abkhazia really are.

This atmosphere does not make independent human rights work in Abkhazia very easy. In our meetings with Abkhaz officials on this visit, that came as no surprise, and Human Rights Watch rarely opts for the easy ride. But it means that, as in other territorial conflicts, a different, more creative approach is needed to protect the rights of ordinary people by the key players involved. In this case, those players include Russia, with its strong military and financial backing for the territory.

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If World War I and II Were Bar Fights

Yet anther amusing interpretation of world history. What if World war I and II were bar fights and France, Germany, Austria, Britain  and others were drunk participant fellows. Here is the original source of this story, though author is unknown (source).

. . .

Germany, Austria and Italy are standing together in the middle of a pub when Serbia bumps into Austria and spills Austria’s pint. Austria demands Serbia buy it a complete new suit because there are splashes on its trouser leg. Germany expresses its support for Austria’s point of view. Britain recommends that everyone calm down a bit.

Serbia points out that it can’t afford a whole suit, but offers to pay for the cleaning of Austria’s trousers. Russia and Serbia look at Austria. Austria asks Serbia who it’s looking at. Russia suggests that Austria should leave its little brother alone. Austria inquires as to whose army will assist Russia in compelling it to do so. Germany appeals to Britain that France has been looking at it, and that this is sufficiently out of order that Britain should not intervene. Britain replies that France can look at who it wants to, that Britain is looking at Germany too, and what is Germany going to do about it?

Germany tells Russia to stop looking at Austria, or Germany will render Russia incapable of such action. Britain and France ask Germany whether it’s looking at Belgium. Turkey and Germany go off into a corner and whisper.

When they come back, Turkey makes a show of not looking at anyone. Germany rolls up its sleeves, looks at France, and punches Belgium. France and Britain punch Germany. Austria punches Russia. Germany punches Britain and France with one hand and Russia with the other. Russia throws a punch at Germany, but misses and nearly falls over. Japan calls over from the other side of the room that it’s on Britain’s side, but stays there. Italy surprises everyone by punching Austria.

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Their Eastern Approaches

I systematically follow Edward Lucas’s blog “Eastern Approaches” at The Economist. Yestarday I read an interesting post about EU-Russia visa liberalization. Lucas published this particular article at The Economist’s sister publication in Brussels, European Voice, that carries a weekly column called “Wil(d)er Europe”. Excerpt from article:

Leaving rhetoric aside, the issue is really about two things. One is fairness. Should Russia get a deal that is better (perhaps dramatically better) than what is on offer to the countries of the ‘Eastern Partnership’, such as Ukraine, Georgia or Moldova? The EU has repeatedly criticised the Russian policy of “passportisation” in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two breakaway regions of Georgia where ties with Moscow have been bolstered by the generous provision of Russian passports. If visa liberalisation now made it easier for such Russian passport-holders to get to the EU, it would be outrageously unfair. It would also undermine the attractiveness (and thus sovereignty) of the countries that we are trying to help.

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Kyrgyzstan: Stalin’s Central Asian Harvest

Story in photos and short comments:

NY Times photo

By June 17th nearly 200 people, both Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, had been confirmed dead. Other estimates are far higher.

NY Times photo

Some 45,000 Uzbeks have registered as refugees in neighbouring Uzbek-majority Uzbekistan. According to the United Nations’ children’s agency, a total of 100,000 people, mostly women and children, have crossed the frontier. On June 15th Uzbekistan closed its borders, saying it could take no more. Perhaps a further 200,000 people have been displaced within Kyrgyzstan itself. (The Economist)NY Times Photo

Until the Soviet Union started to define its Central Asian territories in 1924, the region never had precise borders. Before Russian colonisation in the late 19th century, the boundaries of the different khanates shifted back and forth. The nomadic Kyrgyz and Kazakhs largely ignored the concepts of states and boundaries anyway.

After the October revolution of 1917, new autonomous republics were created. In 1924 Stalin divided the region into different Soviet republics. The borders were drawn up rather arbitrarily without following strict ethnic lines or even the guidelines of geography. The main aim was to counter the growing popularity of pan-Turkism in the region, and to avoid potential friction. Hence, the fertile Fergana Valley (formerly ruled by the Khanate of Kokand) was divided between Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

Some of these borders were redrawn several times until 1936. After 1991, this led to lively demarcation disputes among the newly independent countries. In addition, some small pockets of territory are nominally part of one country but geographically isolated from it. Kyrgyzstan, for example, has seven enclaves, two belonging to Tajikistan and five to Uzbekistan.

This has been only one cause of prickly relations between the “stans”, which are linked by Soviet-era roads, gas pipelines, electricity grids and other infrastructure. (Read The Economist)

copyright: The Economist map

In its report in April, the International Crisis Group warned that the collapse of the Bakiyev regime was a case study of the risks facing authoritarianism in central Asia, where Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan have been governed by strongmen in the old Soviet mould. “What happened in Kyrgyzstan in terms of corruption and repression is already taking place in several other countries,” said the ICG. “What happened in Bishkek in April 2010 could happen in most of its neighbours. It could indeed be much worse.”

But outside powers, particularly Russia and China, who covet the region’s extensive natural resources of natural gas and hydro power, and the US, with its base in Kyrgyzstan, show little interest in fostering more responsible rule, says The Guardian.

Friends like these (from The Economist article)

All three big external powers in Central Asia—America, China and Russia—have a big interest in the region’s stability. China sees it as an important source of gas and other energy supplies. It is also, more alarmingly as seen from Beijing, a possible inspiration for Islamist nationalists in what was once “East Turkestan” and is now China’s region of Xinjiang.

Both America and Russia, for their parts, maintain military bases in Kyrgyzstan, both near Bishkek. The American Manas air base, or “transit centre”, as it is now called, is used for supporting American and NATO troops in Afghanistan. It is an important part of a northern supply route developed because of the vulnerability of convoys coming through the Khyber Pass from Pakistan. Russia’s base in Kant is part of an agreement by the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, which groups together seven members of the former Soviet Union, to set up a counter-terrorism base in the region. But the former imperial power still sees Central Asia as very much its own stamping-ground.

The Manas base has been a source of friction. Last year Mr Bakiyev promised Russia it would be closed and was promised aid. He reneged on the deal when America increased the rent it was paying. That is one reason why Russia was suspected of having a role in his downfall. And though domestic pressures were probably enough to unseat him, Russia was certainly quick to recognise and help Ms Otunbayeva’s government.

Russia did not, however, rush troops to its aid when Ms Otunbayeva asked for them, as the violence in the south span out of control. It limited itself at first to sending paratroopers to secure the base at Kant, and then sending relief supplies. In April Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s president, described Kyrgyzstan as “on the verge of civil war”. Russia presumably has no desire to be sucked in, as it was in Afghanistan in 1979—and certainly not without international backing.

Ms Otunbayeva insists there are no plans to throw the Americans out of Manas. But many of her colleagues accuse America of having pandered to Mr Bakiyev’s corrupt and dictatorial whims in exchange for access to Manas. They allege that Maksim Bakiyev profited from the fuel-supply contracts for the base. This claim is being investigated by America’s Congress. The privately-held company which has the Pentagon contract denies any knowledge of Maksim Bakiyev’s involvement in the firms they deal with. NATO has suspended flights by air-to-air refuelling tankers from Manas.

Even if the world’s big powers share an abiding interest in the stability of Central Asia as a whole, and hence of Kyrgyzstan in particular, they seem to have little idea how to achieve it. So far they have tended to compete for influence. But with an eye on the ethnic and religious tensions in the region, and the vulnerability of brittle authoritarian systems, it may be time to start co-operating.

***

Since my title reads Stalin’s name, I will finish this post with the following joke about him, just for the mood:

Stalin’s ghost appears to Putin in a dream, and Putin asks for his help running the country. Stalin says, “Round up and shoot all the democrats, and then paint the inside of the Kremlin blue.” “Why blue?” Putin asks. “Ha!” says Stalin. “I knew you wouldn’t ask me about the first part.”

NATO: “Enlargement? Georgia? Really?”

On 17 May, the Group of Experts appointed by Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen to lay the groundwork for a new Strategic Concept for NATO presented its analysis and recommendations to the North Atlantic Council (NAC). The draft document says NATO for the first time must be ready for counter-insurgencies outside the territory of its 28 member-states.

NATO must win the war in Afghanistan, expand ties with Russia, counter the threat posed by Iran’s missiles, and assure the security of its 28 members, according to its new mission statement for the next decade. Not much is said about enlargement and Georgia-Ukraine. Although the report reiterates Nato’s “open door” policy, it says only that the allies “should make regular use of the Nato-Ukraine and Nato-Georgia commissions to discuss mutual security concerns and to foster practical co-operation”.

One of the major failures of NATO’s partnership structure was the 2008 conflict between Russia and Georgia, in which two Alliance partners engaged in hostilities over issues that remain unresolved.

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen will use the recommendations from the experts to draft a new Strategic Concept, or mission statement, for approval by leaders of NATO states at a summit in Lisbon in November.

You can download the full report here: nato report

Maintaining the Open Door. Since the end of the Cold War, NATO’s membership has expanded from sixteen members to twenty-eight. This open door policy has been an engine of progress towards a Europe whole and free and has contributed much to the collective security of Alliance members. Further enlargement has been under consideration in the western Balkans and with respect to Georgia and Ukraine. Consistent with Article 10 of the North Atlantic Treaty and the principles for enlargement, the process for states that have expressed their desire for membership should move forward as each state fulfils the requirements for membership. It should go without saying that NATO is an entirely voluntary organisation.

Reccomendations for further cooperation with Georgia and Ukraine:

1.    The Allies should make regular use of the NATO-Ukraine and NATO-Georgia commissions to discuss mutual security concerns and to foster practical cooperation, including on defence reforms. The clearer NATO articulates its position to the partners and the more accurately it can assess their perceptions, the more adept the Allies will be at defusing crises and building trust.

2.    The Allies should also employ NATO’s crisis management mechanisms, in association with the partnership commissions, to assess and monitor security developments affecting these two countries.

NATO states must reverse a steep decline in defense spending despite economic constraints if the alliance is to meet the security threats it faces. Experts said only six of NATO’s 26 European members were meeting their defense spending target of two percent of GDP.

In the coming decade, NATO would not only have to meet its main goal of collective defense of its 28 members, but deploy forces further afield and guard against unconventional threats such as terrorism and cyber attack, the experts said. Secretary Albright explained the report’s two underlying conclusions: “First, the Alliance has an ongoing duty to guarantee the safety and security of its members. Second, it can achieve that objective only if it engages dynamically with countries and organizations that are outside its boundaries.”

The previous strategic concept focused mainly on NATO’s peacekeeping role in places like Bosnia and Kosovo. It was adopted in 1999, soon after the end of the Cold War and before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States forced the alliance to take on missions such as counterinsurgency warfare in Afghanistan.

Reading the following quotation I finally got to believe that NATO isn’t convinced enough and determined enough to confront Russia and not make compromises over the sovereign decisions of independent states that are seeking NATO accession. NATO instead is designing an Alliance equivalent of the EU’s European Neighborhood Policy that will offer close links and assistance but without the prospect of actual membership.

In addition, NATO’s diplomatic efforts with Russia, Ukraine, Georgia and the other countries of the Caucasus, and other nonmember states show that nations do not have to be part of the Alliance to join with NATO on projects that benefit all.

So tired of Wests “open Door” policies…!

“A Little War That Shook The World”

"A Little War That Shook The World: Georgia, Russia and the Future of the West" is a recently released book by Ronald Asmus, executive director of the Brussels-based Transatlantic Center of the German Marshall Fund of the United States. The other day I saw it on the shelf of a book-store in Tbilisi and I am definitely buying t these days. Though I haven’t read it yet, from what I can conclude from articles and interviews dedicated to this book, it is quite an interesting peace of work that tries to look at August war and Georgian-Russian relationship from a different perspective, not popular in Brussels and Washington. Asmus tells RFE/RL’s James Kirchick that leaders in Europe and the United States have yet to grasp the war’s full meaning.
"And I think we need to regroup, debate what we really want, what we really think of the principles we’ve tried to articulate over the last 20 years. Leave EU and NATO enlargement aside as the next set of issues, It’s really now about the independence and sovereignty of these countries and whether they really have any of these rights to align themselves with the West. And there’s a debate about whether they’re ready and whether we want to embrace them.. We’re back to some basic issues. The closer you get to Russia’s borders, the more sensitive it is for Russia. But it tests our commitment to the universality of these values and principles," – quote from the intervew.
Read full Interview HERE.

Can the West trust Viktor Yanukovych?

Joining NATO is clearly not at the top of Yanukovych’s agenda, as it was for his predecessor, however good NATO-Ukraine relations do need to be on the agenda, argues Damon Wilson of Foreign Policy. He goes further and states that though the window has closed on rapid movement toward NATO, both sides should ensure there is substance to underpin NATO-Ukraine cooperation. So far, unfortunately, the signals from Kiev are not promising, as Yanukovych has disbanded the committee intended to coordinate work across all ministries to advance Euro-Atlantic integration and tasked the Foreign Ministry to formulate a new national security law that codifies Ukraine’s "non-bloc" status. There is no need to close doors today to tomorrow’s options, says the author.
"Ukraine should not have to choose between Europe and Russia. As neighbors with intertwined culture and common history, it is only natural to expect Russia and Ukraine to have close, good relations. Over time, a stable Ukraine, tethered firmly to the transatlantic community, can help ensure equal relations between Moscow and Kiev and ensure that history does not repeat itself," – an article reads.
So what can Washington expect from Yanukovych? Foreign Policy asks. As engagement between the United States and Ukraine restarts (relations have been on hold since Obama’s election and pending Ukraine’s election), there are a number of key issues on which the future of the relationship will hinge, argues Wilson. Read the full article that gives a very good analyses of what ectually west can expect from the newly elected Ukrainian President.
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