Russia’s New Foreign Policy Concept and the Occupied Regions of Georgia
Author: Mamuka Komakhia, Analyst
On March 31, 2023, Russian President Vladimir Putin, approved a new foreign policy concept for the Russian Federation. The concept also refers to the Russian-occupied regions of Georgia. This article discusses changes observed in the new concept in the direction of Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region.
Russian Foreign Policy Concepts
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has adopted a total of six concepts on the country’s foreign policy. References to Georgia’s occupied regions first appeared in 2013.
During the presidency of Boris Yeltsin, a concept was adopted only once, on April 23, 1993, when in the early years of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the development of partnership relations with the USA appeared among Russia's foreign policy priorities.
On June 28, 2000, in the first year of Vladimir Putin’s presidency, a new concept was adopted which reflected disappointment with the form of relations established with the West in the 1990s. The formation of a multipolar system of international relations was named the new priority of Russia's foreign policy, and all subsequent concepts adopted in the Putin era ideologically resonate with the spirit of this concept, seeing the confrontation with the West and the prominent role of Russia in world politics being ever more pronounced.
The next concept was adopted during the presidency of Dmitry Medvedev, on July 15, 2008, before the Russia-Georgia war. Despite the strained relations between Russia and Georgia in this period, Russia supports the peaceful resolution of conflicts in the CIS space and presents itself as a mediator in the negotiation process and peacekeeping. At this time, Georgia is still a CIS member.
The Occupied Regions in these Foreign Policy Concepts
A record about the Russian-occupied regions of Georgia appears in concepts adopted during the presidency of Vladimir Putin (February 12, 2013, November 30, 2016, March 31, 2023) following on from the 2008 Russian-Georgian war, when the Kremlin declared the independence of the de facto republics of Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region (August 26, 2008).
Concept of 2013
A record on the occupied regions (Chapter IV, Regional Priorities, Article 51) appears for the first time in the concept adopted in 2013. According to the article, “assistance to the establishment of the Republic of Abkhazia and the Republic of South Ossetia as modern democratic states, the strengthening of their international positions, the provision of reliable security and socio-economic recovery, remains among Russia's priorities.” Article 52 also reads that Russia is interested in normalizing relations with Georgia only in those areas in which the Georgian side is ready, taking into account the political realities prevailing in the South Caucasus. In Moscow’s view, this meant that Georgia would accept Russia’s recognition of the independence of the occupied regions.
Concept of 2016
The 2016 concept contains a record similar to that of 2013 on the occupied regions (Chapter IV, Regional Priorities of the Foreign Policy of the Russian Federation, Article 57).
Concept of 2023
The new concept of 2023 contains an amendment to the record on the occupied regions. This time, Russia attaches priority importance to providing “comprehensive support to the republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and assistance in the implementation of the voluntary choice of the peoples of these states, based on international law, in favor of deepening integration with Russia.” (Chapter V, Regional Directions of External Politics of the Russian Federation, the Near Abroad, Article 49, Paragraph 8).
The occupied regions are also mentioned in Chapter IV, Priority Directions of the Foreign Policy of the Russian Federation, International Economic Cooperation and International Development Assistance, Article 40, where priority is given to the socio-economic development of allied states, including Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region.
The document, unlike the older concepts, does not directly mention Georgia, although it states that Moscow intends to maintain relations with countries which “pursue a constructive policy towards the Russian Federation.” The concept also indicates that Moscow will ensure stability “in the near abroad,” as well as prevent attempts to “inspire color revolutions.” In addition to Georgia, the concept also avoids directly mentioning other post-Soviet countries, among them Ukraine and Russia's allies Kazakhstan, Armenia and Kyrgyzstan.
Concept for Humanitarian Policy
The occupied regions are mentioned in another Russian concept - the Concept for Russia’s Humanitarian Policy Abroad, which was approved on September 5, 2022. Page 26 of the document also refers to the issue of deepening cooperation with Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region. According to the concept, the priority task remains the deepening of cooperation with Abkhazia, the Tskhinvali region, the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics and CIS countries, in the field of culture, education, science, sports, youth policy and tourism (Article 94).
Assessments from the Occupied Regions
The publication of the concept did not elicit any special response in the occupied regions. Statements were made mainly by representatives of the de facto foreign ministry agencies.
According to the de facto Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Tskhinvali region, Akhsar Jioev, Tskhinvali is satisfied that the issue of strategic planning of relations with the Tskhinvali region and Abkhazia is reflected in the concept. “Russia's support in the international and socio-economic development of our republic and the strengthening of security and integration processes is undoubtedly important, stemming from the existing dual contractual and legal base,” Jioev said.
Alan Alborov, the Speaker of the de facto parliament, noted that the thesis formulated in Article 49 on integration processes fully coincides with the Tskhinvali region’s concept of development.
Head of the Information and Analytical Department of the de facto Presidential Administration, expert Yuri Vazagov, expressed his opinion, saying that the concept reflects the most important aspects which concern the de facto republic: issues related to security, deepening of integration processes and socio-economic support.
There is less enthusiasm in Abkhazia than in the Tskhinvali region. Of the members of de facto government of Abkhazia, only the de facto Minister of Foreign Affairs, Inal Ardzinba, gave a general assessment, claiming that Abkhazia welcomes the fact that the updated concept attaches special importance to the activation of relations with Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region. Ardzinba expressed his readiness to further deepen the fraternal relations with Russia.
The concept was also evaluated by the de facto Ambassador-at-Large of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Kan Tania. “If we look at the chronology, we see that interstate relations between Russia and Abkhazia are rising to a new level,” he said. According to Tanya, “this document will be an additional impetus for the development and strengthening of our relations due to its broader agenda.”
The issue did not elicit any particular response from Abkhaz society, the de facto government or the media, which may be due to the fact that the concept mentions the word “integration.” In occupied Abkhazia, Russia is considered a strategic partner and the only reliable guarantor of security; however, unlike the Tskhinvali region, further integration into Russia's political, economic or legal space is perceived by Abkhazia as a loss of “independence.”
- At this stage, it is difficult to talk about the impact of the visions reflected in the concept on Russia's real foreign policy steps; however, unlike the 2013 and 2016 concepts, the integration of the occupied regions, set as a priority in the 2023 concept, indicates that Moscow is more interested in integrating the occupied regions into the political, economic and legal space of Russia than in supporting the development of these regions into independent states.
- Recently, especially against the backdrop of Russia's full-scale military aggression in Ukraine, Moscow has intensified its pressure on the de facto government of Abkhazia to take action on a number of issues (transfer of the Bichvinta state country house to Russia, adoption of the law on “foreign agents,” giving Russian citizens the right to purchase real estate, transfer of energy facilities to Russia, etc.), and to make decisions in favor of Russia. Russia's demands do not enjoy special support among Abkhaz society or the political elite there, since concessions in such matters are perceived as an attempt to undermine “Abkhaz sovereignty.” That is why the mention of the word “integration” in the concept caused some concern, and why, so far, this part of the concept has not become a subject of wide discussion in Abkhazia. In the Tskhinvali region, however, the integration process is demanded by both local society and the de facto political elite and does not see any kind of opposition.
- The term “near abroad” used in the new concept was not mentioned in the 2013 and 2016 concepts. The term was actively used in the 1990s and reflected Russia's special interests in the former Soviet republics. The return of the term to the official document may be a reminder from the Russian side that Moscow still has a special interest in the post-Soviet countries and does not intend to share its influence with other actors in the region.
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