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The Issue of Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali Region in the Context of NATO and European Union Membership

2021 / 06 / 10

Kakha Gogolashvili, Senior Fellow at the Rondeli Foundation
 

Lately, there have been many cases when the following type of populistic and strict statements could be heard on the radio and other media outlets:  “Do not dare enter NATO without Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region! The Georgian nation will not allow this!” Such a rhetoric is characteristic for the representatives of several political forces and movements which are commonly referred to with the cumulative name of “pro-Russian forces.” Unfortunately, a certain part of the population also supports this sentiment, most of whom may not at all be aware of the pro-Russian nature of these slogans.

It must be noted that the idea of entering NATO with respective territorial reservations and the ruckus around this is not limited to the topic of NATO alone. Unfortunately, the state institutions do not explain these issues to the population sufficiently enough. It must be taken into account that a similar approach will also be disseminated with regard to the European Union in the future and, therefore, it is a task for the government and the society at large to fundamentally explain the benefits of this principle (which we will further discuss below).

The idea of membership in NATO “without Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region” is not new. It was first stated several years ago by an American expert, Luke Coffey. The former Secretary General of NATO, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, and the former Commander of US Army in Europe and Africa, General Ben Hodges, openly supported the idea. The proposed approach is, in my opinion, an ideal solution for us while also being a relatively secure way out from the dead end where we ended up as a result of the Russian occupation of a part of Georgia which represents an obstacle for our membership in NATO. In order to prove this, it is enough to remember that the Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel, explained her refusal about giving Georgia the Membership Action Plan for NATO precisely by citing this factor – how can we accept a country in NATO when 20% of it is occupied by a third power?

I believe that this issue has not sufficiently been explained to the population and it is necessary to limit the sphere of the various speculations around it by making clear explanations as quickly as possible. This is especially necessary since the problem may soon also touch upon the membership prospect of the European Union, thereby becoming a topic of even more aggressive speculation.
 

I will attempt to present several vivid arguments.

  • “Entering NATO” does not mean moving somewhere to another state and disregarding the part that we supposedly somehow “abandoned,” cut off and threw away. Membership in NATO means signing a treaty with the states that have decided to collectively defend one another in the case of a possible aggression from third states. In reality, this means signing the Washington Treaty and taking the mutual obligation that if one of the member states of NATO is attacked, it will be protected jointly. Such an act will not demean our legitimate rights towards Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region. No international status-quo will change and both regions will remain internationally recognized Georgian territories that are occupied by a third party.
  • If at this stage the Government of Georgia is unable to control certain Georgian territories, it is understandable that we must not impose our problems, which were created long before our joining NATO, onto other signatories of the treaty, demanding from them to engage in a conflict with a country that is occupying the aforementioned territories. The only way out of this problem is making a certain clause or a reservation in the treaty which will say that until Georgia restores its control over the occupied regions, other NATO member states will not be obligated to consider them as objects of collective defense (the area of Article 5). In such conditions, if we attack Russian military forces in Abkhazia, for example, other NATO member states will not be obligated to fight a war together with us; however, if Russia or any other state attacks the territory of Georgia  (controlled by the central government) through Abkhazia or the Tskhinvali region or from any other direction, this would mean declaring war on 30 (possibly more by that time) NATO member states which will cost the aggressor dearly.
  • A relieved Georgia protected by NATO will become attractive for investments, have its international prestige raised and other large or small states of the region will find it much more difficult to interfere in its domestic affairs. This will bring quick development, stable democracy and many other benefits.

It is interesting that the idea of a possible provision about Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region in the treaty with NATO was followed by such a ruckus while nobody has raised any “alarms” about what will happen to those regions in the case of our membership in the EU. After all, we are planning to submit a membership application to the EU in 2024. Does this populistic community believe that we will not be requested to add  a similar provision to the negotiated draft agreement if our issue is resolved positively and we manage to start membership talks? Do they think that the agreement on membership will not specify the temporary non-coverage of the occupied territories in terms of the consequent obligations of EU membership?

This will certainly happen in the case of membership in the European Union and the example of this is the already existing provision in the Association Agreement between Georgia and the European Union. Namely, Article 429 says:  “The  application  of  this  Agreement,  or  of  Title  IV  (Trade  and  Trade-related  Matters)  thereof,  in  relation  to  Georgia's  regions  of  Abkhazia  and the Tskhinvali  region/South  Ossetia  over  which  the  Government  of  Georgia  does  not  exercise  effective  control,  shall  commence  once  Georgia  ensures  the  full  implementation  and  enforcement  of  this  Agreement… on  its  entire  territory.” According to the logic of the populists (which is, of course, false), we have already recognized the separation of these regions in 2014.

There is also an international precedent that makes it clear that the existence of such provisions is natural and to be expected while signing similar agreements. For example, the 10th protocol of Cyprus’s 2003 membership agreement with the European Union specifies the approach and the application of the tenets of the agreement towards the territories that are internationally recognized as belonging to Cyprus but yet are beyond the control of the central government with the talks under UN auspices about their (meaning the so-called Turkish part of Cyprus) reintegration yielding no sufficient results.  Based on the aforementioned protocol, the agreement on Cyprus’s membership in the European Union temporarily does not include the territories not controlled by the central government of Cyprus under the rights and obligations put forward by the agreement. Nobody tried to “separate” the Turkish part of Cyprus from the remaining part through this provision and nobody in Cyprus has thought to protest the supposed “covert recognition” of the independence of this separatist region. On the contrary, since then the negotiations on the integration of the island have gone much more peacefully and even though a long path remains ahead, progress is tangible and the free movement of citizens throughout the entire country is practically restored.

If we return to the NATO precedents, we can remember that in 1955 only West Germany became part of NATO but that did not mean that any of the NATO member states recognized the independence of East Germany. Also, we are all aware of the history of how the existence of the two German states ultimately ended.

If it comes to the negotiations about the membership agreement in the EU, the same approach will doubtlessly be used towards Georgia as well. In this case, probably a large number of people opposed to our membership in the EU will also appear, trying to speculate vis-à-vis the issue of the possible “loss of Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region” in the case of membership in the European Union. In order to avoid such complications, it is necessary to have a large informational campaign so that the population adequately understands the principle of the temporary removal of certain territories from international agreements as a result of respective provisions.

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