Abkhazia's Foreign Relations: An Overview
By: Heidi Koelle
One of the defining characteristics of unrecognized countries and quasi-states is meeting conditions of being a state (Kolsto 2006).
The criteria for statehood according to the Montevideo convention, are;
1) A border.
2) Permanent population.
4) The ability to enter into relations with other states.
Abkhazia, like Transnistria, has met the first three requirements, but not so much of the last one. Although compared to most of the unrecognized countries in the post-Soviet sphere, it has made more progress.
International Recognition of Abkhazia
Presently, Abkhazia has recognition from 6 countries. The main one being the Russian Federation - most of the residents of Abkhazia have a Russian passport.
The material improvement comes thanks to Russia, which recognized it as an independent state in 2008, stations around 4,000 troops there, covers about two-thirds of the government budget, and provides vital tourist revenue.
Russia has a massive embassy in the middle of Sukhumi. This building rivals most of the presidential offices (Dewaal;2018;19).
However, the Abkhaz elite shows no desire to become part of Russia and push back against various Russian efforts to assume more control. The Abkhaz pushed a controversial law that bans Russians from owning property.
There have also been several revisions to the Russian- Abkhaz friendship treaty formed in 2014 because the Abkhaz feared this gave the Russian Federation too much control.
Despite the Abkhaz unwillingness to be absorbed into the Russian Federation, the relationship is beneficial to both sides. The Russian federation benefits by having a hand in the geopolitics direction of the Republic of Georgia by acting as a patron state to Abkhazia.
As long as the Republic of Georgia has both of the conflicts with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, it is becoming increasingly difficult for it to integrate into Western institutions. This has given Georgia the incentive to try to resolve these conflicts.
Abkhazia also benefits by having the Russian Federation as a patron state because, without it, they would not be able to sustain itself economically and militarily. 80% of what is consumed in Abkhazia is imported from the Russian Federation ( Gerrits 2016).
The Abkhaz people publicly supported the Russian intervention in Crimea. They also drew the West's opprobrium when Syria recognized their independence in 2018 ( Dewaal 2018).
While most only think of its recognition from the Russian Federation. Abkhazia also receives recognition from Venezuela, Nicaragua, Vanuatu, Nauru, and, most recently, Syria.
An interesting observation which stemmed from a look at the collection of diplomatic notes on the website of Abkhazia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs reveals that during the period for which the data is available (November 2016 to August 2017), only 30 percent of the diplomatic notes (13 out of 44) were sent to Russia (Pacher 2017).
These notes show that Abkhazia conducts a substantial amount of its diplomatic interaction with other countries – such as Vanuatu or Nauru.
While none of these do give Abkhazia a mere fraction of the economic and military support that Russia gives it, it negates the assumption that the only country involved in its international relations is Russia.
It also shows that Abkhazia is making some effort to assert itself to the International community.
Abkhazia also maintains ties with other unrecognized countries like Transnistria, South Ossetia, and Nagorno Karabakh. Abkhazia has a consulate for each. One can also find an Abkhaz consulate in each of these unrecognized countries as well.
Relations with States that do not Recognize Abkhazia
While Turkey still does not recognize Abkhazia officially and has a slightly positive relationship with the Republic of Georgia, out of the countries which it does not have relations with, Turkey is probably its most important and warmest relation.
Turkey continues to trade with Abkhazia, emerging as its second-largest trading partner with 18 percent of Abkhazia's total trade turnover (Rukhadze 2015).
The foreign ministry also has several "honorary consulates "for countries that do not recognize it.
According to the Abkhaz foreign ministry's website, there are consulates for; China, Germany, Turkey, Greece, Jordan, the United Kingdom, Austria, and Italy (Abkhaz foreign ministry site).
These have nothing to do, though with the official business and diplomacy of these countries. Notably, there is also one for "Bulgaria and the Balkans" without explaining which "Balkan countries" it includes.
Interestingly enough, Abkhazia also receives about 400 North Koreans foreign workers a year. (Ferris-Rotsman 2019) This is a far cry than the number of North Korean foreign workers in Russia.
However, Abkhazia serves as an easy loophole to put some North Korean workers instead of sending them back to North Korea, which was mandated by the UN last December (IBID). There has also been some discussion in increasing trade ties among the two isolated states.
EU engagement is somewhat limited in Abkhazia. A fair amount of it is owing to its bilateral relationship with the Republic of Georgia, which is one of the countries in the Eastern Partnership program set up by the European Union.
Abkhaz decision-makers said in a series of meetings that EU engagement would still be welcome—but only if no conditions about ties with Georgia were attached (Dewaal 2018).
Despite being slightly more successful at asserting itself to the International community than other unrecognized countries, residents in Abkhazia suffers more from isolation than Transnistria and Nagorno-Karabakh.
While 99% of them hold Russian nationality, it is complicated for Russian citizens from Abkhazia to obtain visas. Many foreign embassies in Moscow reject them and tell them they have to go to the embassy in Tbilisi (Gorno 2016).
These types of measures push Abkhazia deeper politically into the Russian political sphere with little hope of interaction among other state actors on the outside.
Abkhazia still has a long way to go. Unless more strides with the world outside of the Russian geopolitical sphere of influence, it will continue to suffer from isolation, and any attempts at gaining further recognition will remain hindered. There are remaining 191 member states of the UN that do not recognize it.
Abkhazia must undergo more strides to gain recognition from the rest of the world outside of the Russian geopolitical sphere if it wants the possibility of international recognition.
Otherwise, it will continue to suffer from isolation and the status quo will remain.