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To Recognize Or Not To Recognize Abkhazia? That Is Vanuatu's Question

  • Courtney Brooks

Very few people have heard of Vanuatu. But despite its obscurity, the tiny Pacific island nation has found itself in the middle of a behind-the-scenes struggle between Russia and the West.

Very few people have heard of Vanuatu. But despite its obscurity, the tiny Pacific island nation has found itself in the middle of a behind-the-scenes struggle between Russia and the West.

UNITED NATIONS -- Here's a quick pop quiz: Does Vanuatu recognize Abkhazia?

Wait, what?

You know, Vanuatu. It's a small island nation in the Pacific. Does it recognize Georgia's breakaway region of Abkhazia as an independent country?

Don't know? Well, don't worry. Apparently neither does Vanuatu. The country's foreign minister says "yes," it does. The head of its United Nations division says "no," it doesn't. And its UN ambassador says he can't say for sure.

As obscure as this all seems, it is actually part of a high-stakes geopolitical struggle between Russia and the West.

Four years ago, on August 26, 2008, Russia became the first country to recognize Abkhazia and another pro-Moscow separatist territory, South Ossetia, as independent states. The move followed Russia's brief war with Georgia earlier that month.

The United States and the European Union criticized the move and responded by reaffirming their commitment to Georgia's "territorial integrity."

Since then, the lobbying, coaxing, and cajoling from both sides has only intensified.

"The United States is not backing down from its view that Abkhazia and South Ossetia should be part of Georgia," says Lincoln Mitchell, a professor of international politics at Columbia University and author of the book "Uncertain Democracy: U.S. Foreign Policy and Georgia's Rose Revolution." "And Russia is not backing down from its view that these countries are independent."


Vanuatu stepped into this maelstrom in May 2011 when the country's foreign minister, Alfred Carlot, announced that his country had granted Abkhazia -- but not South Ossetia -- its recognition.

Until, that is, Vanuatu decided it hadn't, or wasn't sure if it had. Shortly after Carlot's announcement, Vanuatu's UN ambassador, Donald Kalpokas, said the country had not, in fact, recognized Abkhazia.

Carlot responded to this by posting a video on YouTube on June 9, 2011, in which he insisted that recognition had, indeed, been granted, saying that the confusion was the result of "miscommunication between our Ministry of Foreign Affairs and our UN representation in New York."

But the confusion -- and miscommunication -- appears to have persisted.

Speaking to RFE/RL in May 2012, Kalpokas admitted that he just didn't know one way or another.

“Well, we here don’t have any position on it -- whether to recognize or not recognize Abkhazia -- it’s somewhere [that] we don’t know,” he said.

Kalpokas hung up the phone when asked why the issue was so controversial.

But in an interview with RFE/RL in July, Johnny George Koanapo, head of the United Nations division of Vanuatu's Foreign Ministry, said the country has definitely not recognized Abkhazia.

"I think what's confused a lot of people in the past was the fact that the government, the head of the government, had expressed the intention to maintain dialogue with Abkhazia," Koanapo said. "And that's different from having an official position in terms of the approval by the Council of Ministers to establish diplomatic relations with Abkhazia. That's not happened."

Koanapo added that he had consulted Carlot, the foreign minister, who made the initial announcement of recognition, before making his comments.

Chaotic Politics

Well, that ought to have cleared things up. Except somebody forgot to tell Abkhazia.

The territory's de facto deputy foreign minister, Irakly Khintba, told RFE/RL that the Abkhaz government has a document signed by the prime minster of Vanuatu establishing diplomatic relations and that Abkhazia has received no indication that it has been revoked.

The parliament of Vanuatu in Port Vila

The parliament of Vanuatu in Port Vila

So just what is going on here?

Part of the confusion can be explained by Vanuatu's chaotic politics. The country has had three prime ministers in the first six months of 2012.

Anny Wong, who wrote Freedom House's 2011 report on Vanuatu, said the island nation's politics are "messy" and riddled with personal feuds that hinder -- and often paralyze -- cohesive policymaking.

"It's personality driven," Wong told RFFE/RL in an e-mail. "And what one side says is right, the other will always say it is wrong."

Carlot and Kalpokas, himself a former prime minister, hail from rival political parties. And Carlot studied at Russia's elite diplomatic academy, the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, which could explain his position on Abkhazia.

Also, Vanuatu has some history of peddling diplomatic recognition to the highest bidder.

In 2004, it briefly severed relations with China and recognized Taiwan, after reportedly being offered $30 million in aid. A month later, Vanuatu switched back, severing relations with Taipei and restoring them with Beijing after the prime minister who orchestrated the deal with Taiwan was forced from office.

'Checkbook Diplomacy'

Georgia's ambassador to the UN, Alexander Lomaia, says Russia is engaging in "checkbook diplomacy" to win recognition for Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Moscow has, indeed, managed to entice a handful of countries -- Nicaragua, Venezuela, and the Pacific Islands of Nauru and Tuvalu -- to recognize both territories, in some cases with the help of large aid packages.

Shortly after Venezuela recognized the regions, it was handed a $2 billion investment aimed at boosting military sales from Russia, according to press reports. Nauru and Nicaragua also received multimillion-dollar aid packages shortly after their recognition. The numbers vary, but the Russian daily "Kommersant" reported that Moscow gave Nauru $50 million.

But despite Russia's efforts at enticement, financial or otherwise, to win recognition for the territories, there are also powerful deterrents.

Washington and Brussels have deployed their considerable diplomatic muscle against recognition. And the Western powers have been joined in their efforts by China, which is reluctant to encourage recognition of any separatist regions lest it set a precedent for Taiwan.

Juris Gulbis, Abkhazia's de facto ambassador to the Pacific and Caribbean, said there has been "constant interference" from the United States in the territory's efforts to win diplomatic recognition from countries in the region.

"There is great pressure on...Vanuatu, Tuvalu, and Nauru to unrecognize Abkhazia," Gulbis said, adding that Washington is "withholding aid" to the countries over the issue.

Support For Georgia's 'Integrity'

A U.S. State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Washington has not withheld aid to any country over recognition of the separatist territories, but has been clear about its position on the issue.

"We strongly support Georgia's sovereignty and territorial integrity within its international recognized borders [and] we have shared our views around the world, including with countries in the Pacific Islands region, on numerous occasions and at the highest levels," the official said.

Likewise, Christopher Matthews, spokesman for the European Union's mission to the UN, told RFE/RL that Brussels regularly “reminds its partners and interlocutors" that the EU supports Georgia's territorial integrity.

As a result, as Columbia University's Mitchell explains, Russia has been unable to convince even close allies like Belarus to recognize the separatist Georgian territories.

"Why would you want to go out and pick a fight with the EU, China, and the U.S.?" Mitchell asks. "it's one thing to say you want to pick a fight with the U.S. -- that's where you get Nicaragua in there. But to throw China in there as well -- that's a powerful group of countries saying, 'You know what? On balance, [we] do not recognize this and we don't want you to.' That's a pretty powerful incentive to just not recognize them."

Abkhaz Ambassador Gulbis is nevertheless upbeat. He says Abkhazia is expecting several more declarations of recognition from the Pacific and Caribbean.

It's not clear if one of them will result from Vanuatu changing its mind yet again.

RFE/RL's Georgian Service contributed to this report

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