Last Friday, voters in the Georgian breakaway territory of Abkhazia went to the polls in a presidential election that was broadly ignored by the United States and its European allies.
There were no international observers, no stern warnings to Abkhaz leaders about the rule of law, no Western congratulations to the winner — Alexander Ankvab, who had been acting president since Sergei Bagapsh, the twice-elected Abkhaz president, died suddenly in May.
In fact, many Western organizations, urged by Tbilisi, condemned the polling. Catherine Ashton, the European Union foreign policy chief, said the E.U. “does not recognize the constitutional and legal framework within which these elections have taken place,” while NATO declared that the alliance “does not recognize the elections.”
The main reason for these reactions is that while the people of Abkhazia view themselves as an independent state, the world’s governments, with only a very few exceptions, consider the territory as an integral part of Georgia. Only a few weeks ago the U.S. Senate passed a resolution describing Abkhazia as “occupied” by Russia.
Still, condemning political processes in the breakaway territory damages Western credibility and influence in the South Caucasus in a number of ways.
First, by the standards of the South Caucasus, the elections seemed reasonably competitive. Ankvab, with 54 percent of the vote, bested two other candidates — the former prime minister and one-time Moscow favorite Raoul Kadjimba and the current prime minister, Sergei Shamba.
Though the election was probably far from perfect, all three candidates openly courted voters during the campaign and all were granted equal time by state television. The same cannot be said of national elections in Georgia, which is regarded by Western governments as a model democracy that Abkhazia should aspire to join, which for years now has been dominated by the United National Movement of President Mikheil Saakashvili.
Second, there was little evidence to suggest that Moscow predetermined the Abkhazia result. Yet the West’s open hostility to the polling unintentionally reinforced Russia’s growing influence.
Since recognizing Abkhazia’s independence in 2008, after the brief Georgia-Russia war, Russia has effectively taken over a number of Abkhazia’s critical functions and economic sectors under the mantra of pursuing “bilateral cooperation.”
Rather than push the Abkhaz government and public to accept reintegration into Georgia, the West’s policy of isolation has driven Sukhumi even further into Russia’s embrace and reinforced the local notion that the West acts as a proxy for Georgia.
Third, by showing no interest in this election, the West further entrenches the counterproductive position that nothing that happens in Abkhazia, or even the views of the people there, have any bearing on any potential resolution to the conflict.
Right after the election, NATO Secretary General Anders Rasmussen said that “the holding of such elections does not contribute to a peaceful and lasting settlement of the situation in Georgia.”
Yet by openly dismissing Abkhazia’s democratic aspirations and blindly supporting Tbilisi’s hard-line isolationism, the West denies itself the very levers of influence that could be wielded to nudge the Abkhaz leadership on status issues and related negotiations.
The Western position to not recognize Abkhaz independence is the right one. But the policy of isolating Sukhumi has been uncreative, inconsistent and counterproductive.
The West selectively engages with a number of unrecognized states and disputed territories. It promotes a variety of economic links and projects in the Moldovan breakaway territory of Transnistria, and both the United States and Britain accept passports from residents of the unrecognized Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.
In an effort to play a more constructive role in the Caucasus, the E.U. last year adopted a more forward-looking strategy of “non-recognition and engagement” toward Abkhazia intended to promote more contacts. But the strategy remains stalled in E.U. bureaucratic reshuffling and aggressive Georgian lobbying.
Ultimately, the West’s stance has no immediate consequences for the newly elected Abkhaz president, who must somehow bolster Abkhazia’s weak economy, court investors to upgrade its decimated infrastructure and carefully navigate its dependence on Russia.
But it does keep the West marginalized in that part of the Caucasus precisely at a time when Washington and Brussels should be promoting alternatives to the all-too-familiar system of great-power clientele-ism and competition.
By Alexander Cooley, Tow Professor of Political Science at Barnard College, Columbia University and Lincoln Mitchell, an associate research scholar at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute. They are coauthors of After the August War: A New Strategy for U.S. Engagement with Georgia.