by Ashik KC, Marie Curie Fellow at the Institute of International Relations, University of Warsaw
In pursuit of acceptance and keeping channels for dialogue open, the EU adopted a two-pillar policy for its’ dealings with Georgia’s secessionist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The two-pillar policy commonly known as the non-recognition and engagement policy is not aimed explicitly at solving the conflicts but rather to create conditions for increased EU presence in these regions, which it hopes, will eventually translate into Georgia and EU becoming a viable option for the entities. While the policy has had limited success and is mired by numerous challenges, following any other course of action such as non-engagement or isolation of the secessionist entities would only result in entrenching linkages with Russia and exclusivity of Russian influence in the regions which is detrimental to the settlement of the conflict.
The EU’s non-recognition and engagement policy seems to be the best policy available to achieve the objective of creating greater EU linkages with Abkhazia and South Ossetia. With the help of Tbilisi, EU needs to pursue an engagement model that would incorporate the population and institutions of the secessionist entities to the benefits that population and institutions of rest of Georgia will reap under the EU Georgia Association Agreement such as visa free travel to EU member states and, deep and comprehensive free trade agreement, much like in Moldova’s secessionist region of Transnistria.
The EU’s engagement in managing Georgia’s two secessionist conflicts Abkhazia and South Ossetia has been gradual. Initially just a distant actor contributing symbolic financial support to already present international mechanisms, EU has come a long way to become the only actor present on the ground monitoring the conflicts and has become a key actor in the very international mechanisms.
As a third party monitoring the conflict over contested territories and engaging in creating conditions for eventual settlement of the conflicts, the EU on one hand has the responsibility to generate and exercise leverage with the conflicting parties and on the other needs to be careful of the neutrality of its actions vis-à-vis the parent state’s and the secessionist entities’ interests in order to be an acceptable conflict manager. In order to satisfy exactly both these needs, the Political and Security Committee (PSC) of the Council of EU endorsed a two-pillars policy for EU’s dealings with the two secessionist regions. On one hand “non-recognition” of the de-facto independence of the secessionist entities which would make sure that EU adhered to its commitments of recognizing Georgia’s territorial integrity and on the other “engagement” with the secessionist entities which would ensure that it can interact and engage in dialogue and reconciliation efforts. The two-pillars policy was aimed at portraying the EU’s attempt at delicate balance between “being firm on principle and pragmatic in practice”. By putting the recognition issue to bed from the outright the EU hoped that this policy would help it get involved on the ground to influence conflict dynamics and find durable solutions, without it being seen as providing the secessionist entities legitimacy. The paper first discusses in brief the Non-recognition and Engagement Policy (NREP) and its’ implementation in Georgia’s secessionist conflicts. Then it examines some of the challenges faced in its’ implementation. Further, it examines the policy against the policy of non-engagement or isolation. Based on the examination the paper suggests future implications for the policy.
The policy in action
The non-recognition and engagement policy is not aimed explicitly at solving the conflicts but rather to create conditions for increased EU presence in these regions, which it hopes, will eventually translate into Georgia and EU becoming a viable option for the entities. The policy has had bare minimum success in doing so.
EU engagement in the secessionist entities is starkly different. South Ossetia is in self-isolation and the overt Russian military presence has further helped it resist interaction with other actors than Russia. The only platform of engagement is in the Geneva International Discussions – an international mediation forum and process established in the aftermath of the 2008 Russo-Georgian war. The only organization that is allowed to work within South Ossetia is the ICRC. In Abkhazia, apart from ICRC, UN agencies such as the UNHCR, UNICEF, UNDP and UNWOMEN are allowed to work. In addition, four other NGOs work in Abkhazia – Action Against Hunger, Danish Refugee Council, World Vision and Halo Trust. These organizations implement projects funded by the EU. The EU delegation funds these projects and is endorsed by the Georgian government. According to EU officials in Tbilisi, since 2008 40 million euros has been contributed mostly to projects in Abkhazia. These engagements concern with improving the living conditions of the local population. Particularly the Danish Refugee Council and Action Against Hunger work on livelihood projects. Others projects include depoliticized issues such as environment. Apart from project implemented through NGOs, EU provides funds to civil society organisations for Confidence Building Mechanisms (CBMs). CSOs from both banks along with NGOs from the EU member states can together apply for funding under the EU-UNDP joint initiative Confidence Building Early Response Mechanism (COBERM) to promote people to people contacts.
The non-recognition of the secessionist entities is much more clearer with the EU publicly announcing as well as documenting the clear support for territorial integrity of Georgia. In practice the non-recognition is maintained by avoiding tagging any official recognition to the secessionist authorities. Terms such as participants are used to refer to any authorities that partake in events and it is understood that they are in these events officially on a private capacity.
Challenges in engagement
The aim at delicate balance has faced constant challenges and opposition from both the secessionist entities as well as Tbilisi. The EU does not have on the ground access to South Ossetia, while some progress in Abkhazia has gone hand in hand with the secessionist entity branding the EU as pro-Georgian for the outright insistence on Georgia’s territorial integrity. This has diminished the core apolitical character the policy intends to portray. Efforts from EU are carried out on the ground by implementing partners. Primarily the UN agencies, ICRC and the four NGOs mentioned above. According to an EU official a combination of EU’s low-key publicity of its projects and the tendency among the secessionist authorities to publicize the projects among the local population as the authorities’ success in securing UN funds and projects, has meant that the EU engagement efforts through different projects have gone unnoticed.
On the other hand Tbilisi while acknowledging the inevitable fact that any resolution of the conflict needs engagement with the secessionist entities, is still reluctant to heartily accept international engagements in the territories out of fear that international presence could trigger “creeping recognition” or way forward for legitimate claims for recognition. Tbilisi fear that increased international engagement will lead to strengthening of the capacity of the de-facto authorities and the territories, which may form the basis for eventual recognition. Tbilisi brands the territories as occupied and through the Georgian Law on Occupied Territories restricts the channels of engagement by international actors in the secessionist entities. Economic activities with the secessionist territories regardless of the motives (profit making or otherwise) and conducting projects in the territories requires close coordination with the Georgian authorities as well as written authorization from the Georgian government.
Finally, EU’s aim to abide by its endorsed policy of engagement when dealing with these entities, makes for the option of harsher policy measures such as restrictive measures mute. The EU has time and again refrained from using restrictive measures on Abkhazia and South Ossetia, even after the secessionist entities signing of “treaties” with Russia and handing over control of their security services to Russia.
Non-engagement or isolation as an option?
Considering the challenges that the policy of non-recognition and engagement faces, there are often arguments made for isolation and non-engagement as a policy towards the secessionist entities. It is argued that greater engagement from international bodies may lead to greater possibility for survival of the de-facto state through the support of the international community and hence would have less incentive to settle the conflict. Despite non-recognition if the entities get all the possible engagement that a recognized sovereign state gets then the authorities would have less incentive to negotiate. So, compelling the entities to dialogue and compromise through isolation is suggested.
In the case of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the policy of non-engagement or isolation does not look very promising for two reasons. First, it can be argued that the EU has no political or economic presence or leverage in these entities and hence non-engagement or isolation from EU would not hurt the entities as much. Second, Russia enjoys an exclusive access to both the secessionist entities. Russia clearly maintains a near monopoly with the two territories in terms of security, socio-economic and institutional linkages. This translates into Russia having considerable leverage over the territories and if need be Russia utilizes this leverage to influence the decision making within the territories including in matters of resolution of the status as well as the conflict with Georgia. Pursuing non-engagement or isolation will only lead to the exclusive linkages to further entrench.
Propositions for future engagement
Change in linkage structure impacts on what comes next in the conflict cycle and the current change in the linkage structure that has facilitated the near exclusivity of Russia in the secessionist entities is counter productive to settlement of these conflicts. As long as the exclusive linkages of the secessionist entities to Russia are entrenched the EU and other international actors will be forced to remains in the margins. Unless EU is able to offer the entities something better or at the very least offer anything equivalent to what Russia has to offer, the engagement efforts from EU regardless of the motivations will not have desired result. Hence, EU needs to changes its’ own and Georgia’s linkages with these entities as to create conditions that will facilitate settlement.
The EU’s non-recognition and engagement policy seems to be the best policy available to achieve this objective. With the help of Tbilisi, the EU needs to find an engagement model or action plan that incorporates the population and institutions of the secessionist entities to the benefits such as visa free travel to EU member states, deep and comprehensive free trade agreement bestowed upon Georgians under the EU Georgia Association Agreement, much like in Moldova’s secessionist region of Transnistria.
Education is one sector that EU can look to improve in its engagement. Much like in Transnistria, connecting Abkhazian educational institutions with European ones for exchange of students and staffs would provide much needed social contacts with the outside world. Furthermore, greater role for NGOs in conducting project on the ground in the secessionist entities is the best way for the EU to pursue a policy of non-recognition and engagement, but plans must be devised for promotion of EU as the source of funds and that the EU concerns for protecting and promoting norms and values such as democracy, human rights and rule of law are also applicable even in secessionist and unrecognized territories.
 S. Fischer, The EU’s Non- Recognition and Engagement Policy towards Abkhazia and South Ossetia [Seminar Report], Seminar Co-Hosted by the EUSR for the South Caucasus and the EU Institute for Security Studies, Brussels, 1-2 December 2010, p. 3.
 Ibid., p.3.
 Based on the six-point peace plan that included US, UN, OSCE and the EU as international participants. The negotiation platform was created with cooperation of OSCE and in design was the ideal makeup since it included also Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
 S. Fischer, op. cit., p. 4; see also: I. Kirova, Public Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution: Russia, Georgia and the EU in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Los Angeles: Figueroa Press, 2012, pp 46-54.