In a disturbing sign that Syria is increasingly a Russian client state, the war-torn country recently recognized two Kremlin-backed breakaway republics: Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
A major diplomatic coup for the Georgian enclaves, Abkhazia and South Ossetia were previously only recognized by Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Nauru, the Moldovan breakaway pseudo-state Transdniestria, and each other.
Puppets recognizing puppets
Abkhazia and South Ossetia have enjoyed de facto independence (of a sort) since the breakup of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. Both territories were part of the Georgian SSR in Soviet times, and, in line with other post-Soviet moves to independence, should really belong to Republic of Georgia.
But thanks to the continued presence of Russian troops and regular economic support, the two pseudo-states have managed to maintain a semblance of independence in the face of near-universal condemnation.
Broadening the very limited international recognition the enclaves enjoy has been a key foreign policy objective for the Kremlin for years. The more legitimate Abkhazia’s and South Ossetia’s independence becomes the harder it will be for Georgia to regain its rightful territory and rid itself of Russian soldiers.
For the most part, recognition of the breakaway states has mostly been a matter of cold, hard cash. Nauru, a tiny Pacific nation with no international influence other than its membership of the United Nations, recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2009 for $50 million in Russian development aid. It was not the first time Nauru has leveraged its UN membership for advantage: it has accepted aid from both the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan (aka the Republic of China) as it flipped its recognition from one to the other, and from Morocco in exchange for dropping recognition of Western Sahara.
Nicaragua, like Nauru, has previously parlayed its UN standing into cash. Venezuela recognized the pair in 2009 in exchange for a $2 billion loan.
Why did Syria recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia?
Speaking to the US government-funded Echo of the Caucuses, Russian political scientist Alesey Malashenko thinks the move is an obvious exercise of Kremlin pressure. He also thinks the move makes Moscow look silly.
“Look who recognizes them, that’s Nauru, Nicaragua, and now also Syria. Russian planes fly there. Somehow it looks very pathetic. This is only a blow to Russian prestige.
“The Syrians do not care about these places. Nobody recognizes them. Bashar Assad, he did not lose anything from this. It just once again stresses that he is a Russian puppet. “
The diplomatic manoeuvres may have been blatantly opportunistic, but there is a surprising (perhaps coincidental) historical connection between Abkhazia and Syria. Following the original conquest of Abkhazia by the Russian Empire in the 19th Century, the Sunni Muslim minority of Abkhazians fled to the Ottoman Empire. Although today most of the Muslim Abkhazian diaspora live in Turkey, some moved to other Ottoman territories, including Syria. Roughly 10,000 ethnic Abkhaz live in Syria today. A much smaller group of Ossentians made a similar journey.
Thanks to this historic tie, and the small groups of ethnic Abkhaz who have returned to their ancient homeland since its de facto independence, the Abkahzian foreign minister Daur Kove was able to claim that more than just realpolitik lay behind the diplomatic triumph.
“It must be recalled that since the beginning of the armed conflict in Syria in 2011, the Republic of Abkhazia has openly supported the actions of the Syrian leadership aimed at combating international terrorism and establishing peace and stability in region.
“Despite the absence of common borders, our countries have long historical ties that arose as a result of the resettlement of our compatriots to the territory of Syria, where they had the opportunity to live and develop. It is well known that the foreign Abkhaz diaspora is widely represented in Syria.”
What it all means
Ultimately, Syrian recognition of two states hardly anyone else recognizes will have no noticeable impact on world affairs – at least not on its own.
The move does signal Moscow’s intention to hang onto its control of Georgian territory, however, and could be a sign that similar moves will be made someday in support of the Ukrainian breakaway republics it props up (the self-styled Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic).
So far, Russia itself has not even dared to recognize the two Ukranian enclaves (although interestingly, South Ossetia does recognize the Donetsk People’s Republic). If its diplomatic efforts in favor of Abkhazia and South Ossetia continue unchallenged, however, Russia may grow bolder over time.