Both Abkhaz President Sergei Bagapsh and Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba have said over the past week that they see little point in trying to accelerate artificially the formal recognition by European states of Abkhaz independence. Shamba made clear at the same time that he nonetheless hopes to sustain, and if possible build on, the intensive contacts established between the Abkhaz leadership and the European Union in 2007-08.
Speaking at a press conference in Moscow on April 17, Bagapsh said the Abkhaz leadership will not seek to impel other countries to extend formal recognition of Abkhazia as an independent state, "Novy region" reported on April 18. Bagapsh said negotiations with unspecified countries are continuing to that end, and predicted that "they will recognize us sooner or later."
Shamba for his part told a roundtable discussion on security issues on April 21 that he believes talks on the formal recognition of Abkhaz independence by European states could be possible in 10 years' time, and that Abkhazia should work doggedly and systematically toward that goal. He argued that Abkhazia should not turn its back on Europe, even though European states decline to recognize it. "We need a huge amount of patience, and to keep moving forward," Shamba said.
Formal contacts between Abkhazia and the EU date to mid-2007. In the first six months of 2008, three separate EU delegations travelled to Sukhumi, and discussed in some detail the prospects for establishing low-level relations, according to an essay by Neal Acherson published in the December 4, 2008, issue of the "London Review of Books." In what was either a demonstration of flexibility or a deliberate departure from diplomatic protocol, visiting EU High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana even addressed Bagapsh as "Mr. President," the weekly "Chegemskaya pravda" reported on June 10, 2008.
Those bilateral contacts were suspended following the August war in South Ossetia that served as the catalyst for Russia to formally recognize the independence of both Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but resumed in late November 2008. The EU's South Caucasus envoy, Ambassador Peter Semneby, has visited Sukhumi twice so far this year, in February and March.
On both occasions, Bagapsh categorically refused to agree to the deployment in Abkhazia of EU observers, as envisaged in the August 12 EU-mediated cease-fire agreement that ended hostilities in South Ossetia, and he accused the EU of being biased in Georgia's favor. Semneby for his part was quoted as telling Shamba in mid-March that while the EU will not retreat on the issue of recognizing Abkhaz independence, "possibilities exist for improving cooperation with European structures in various fields," including providing humanitarian aid.
It is too early to say whether and to what extent the issue of formal recognition of Abkhaz independence will figure in the presidential election campaign this fall. The Russian daily "Vremya novostei" suggested on April 20 that Shamba, whose popularity rating has risen since the August war, might emerge as the most serious challenger to Bagapsh, who announced on April 17 in Moscow that he intends to run for a second term.