The European Union follows for the EU’s non-recognition and engagement policy (NREP) adopted in December 2009, already after Russia’s recognition of Abkhaz independence. Based on 2007 blueprint by then EU Special Representative Peter Semneby, the NREP allows the EU to walk a fine line between backing Georgia and trying to work in Abkhazia. Albeit tactically justified, this policy is failing to change the prevailing reality – Russia holds the ground with its troops and has Abkhazia in its economic, military and political chokehold. EU’s financial contribution and political impact have been feeble.
The time is ripe for changing the locus of the Georgian and European policy on Abkhazia. The European point about Georgia’s territorial integrity is clearly made and it should undoubtedly remain a guiding priority – especially in decrying Russia’s growing encroachment. But with Sokhumi, the recognition that the common European normative space bind both Tbilisi and Sokhumi should come to the forefront. Simply put, there is no reason why the European capitals should hold the Sokhumi politicians and institutions to lower standards, than their counterparts in Tbilisi.
As any diplomat knows, the true value of any diplomatic position is in its potential reversal. In other words, refusing to recognize the Abkhaz elections implies, that under certain conditions, such recognition is possible.
So far, the EU implicitly adopted Tbilisi’s position that the reversal can only come after restoration of Georgia’s territorial integrity. Both Tbilisi and Brussels might want to nuance that position and form a realistic and clear roadmap of criteria for achieving real progress in engaging Sokhumi, while bracketing out the sovereignty issues.
Abkhazia residents have elected their last common, uncontested legislature in 1991. A product of painstaking ethnic power-sharing the Supreme Council has failed to prevent the conflict. It broke down alongside the conflagration which drove hundreds of thousands out of Abkhazia and left the once-prosperous province broken. Since 1996, these were the fifth legislative elections administered from Sokhumi that Georgia – and the Western institutions - say are invalid, since they are held in violation of Georgia’s territorial integrity.
But because of these politically pluralistic elections, and much to the chagrin of the official Tbilisi, Sokhumi is often singled out by experts out as the most democratic of the post-Soviet breakaway provinces. Consequently, the voicesthat seek various formulas for enhanced engagement with the Abkhaz authorities sound reasonable.
But the relative pluralism of the Abkhaz elections is a bad reason for validating the Abkhaz political elite as Europe’s partner, because these elections are based on deliberate and consistent ethnic exclusion.
According to the 2011 Abkhaz census, close to 46 thousand ethnic Georgians live in Abkhazia, making up for 19% of its population. Most of them – 44 to 45 thousand - permanently reside in its easternmost, Gali district. In this populous area, the Abkhaz "Central Election Commission” listed just 603 total voters in its rolls for 17 January 2017. Georgians are excluded from the political process.
Partly, this is because Tbilisi has aggressively discouraged their participation after the conflict. But mostly, because some 22 thousand that were eligible to vote were disenfranchised by Sokhumi authorities as late as in 2014. Since 1994 the Abkhaz claim to statehood is based on rejection of basic human rights on the basis of ethnicity. Gerrymandering and election system manipulation are consistently used to exclude other minorities too. Only three MPs in the past parliament were non-Abkhaz ethnically – two Armenians (11 ran for office) and one Georgian (two ran).
The glaring gaps in the political system and rights protection – not the contested sovereignty - should be the main reason for Europe to hold off engagement with officials in Abkhazia. Conversely, the gradual reversal of these practices must emerge as the main avenue for envisaging a closer engagement.
Such approach has an advantage of dovetailing with "more for more” approach the EU applies in its neighborhood. It would also de-links the rights issues from the matters of sovereignty, thus providing Abkhaz leadership and public with a transparent set of criteria, under which Europe would consider a tangible upgrade in relations.
So, how could this new approach be put to use to engage the locally elected leaders as partners in Abkhazia?
First, as a pilot initiative, local elections in Gali must be held transparently and competitively, involving all permanent residents and observed internationally. Elected local authorities and municipalities shall benefit from the EU infrastructural programs, receive travel waivers to Europe and other real benefits.
Second, the Parliamentary elections should be held, based on similar principles, and provide the Gali district in Abkhaz legislature proportional to its population size. The compliance with this provision should trigger the second upgrade of EU of engagement, this time involving select agencies and officials in Sokhumi.
Third, and in a more distant perspective, the formal Abkhaz recognition of the right to property of the displaced population must pave the wave for internationally observed parliamentary elections on the whole territory (without sovereignty implications), and fuller level of governance cooperation with Sokhumi authorities.
Gradual and genuine democratization of Abkhazia, based on recognition and respect of its residents’ rights irrespective of their ethnic belonging can provide a status-neutral framework for the European engagement as well as for tangible improvement of Abkhazia residents’ lives.
Since Georgia is committed to these principles both through the Council of Europe human rights framework, and the European Union Association Agreement, it can also serve as a natural bridge between EU’s policies towards Sokhumi and Tbilisi.