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Abkhazia- Syria relations: Towards a Domino Effect with Belarus and North Korea?

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Source: sputnik-abkhazia.ru

Following Syria’s diplomatic recognition of Abkhazia in 2018, Abkhazia opened its embassy in Damascus in October 2020, attesting to the strengthening of relations between the two sides. For Abkhazia, a territory partially recognized by the international community and diplomatically supported by Russia, this recognition opens new perspectives for enhancing its military and economic relations with the Middle East. Furthermore, it attests to a progressive opening up of the territory, as it is now recognized by a growing number of countries, in contrast to others that are struggling to achieve the same results, such as Transnistria and Nagorno-Karabakh.

The future of Abkhazia remains questionable, and the Abkhazia-Syria relations are more of a diplomatic victory for Moscow than for Sukhum (the de facto capital of Abkhazia). Nevertheless, this diplomatic advance marks a turning point and raises new challenges, notably that of a domino effect and the recognition of Abkhazia by other countries allied to the Kremlin, notably by Belarus and by North Korea.

Foreign policy of Abkhazia

At the time of the break-up of the Soviet Union, the Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic of Abkhazia, part of Soviet Georgia, became de facto independent and benefited from Moscow’s support to survive in a fast-changing post-Soviet space. Although reluctant to acknowledge this new country from 1992 to 2008, Moscow proclaimed the recognition of Abkhazia as a full-fledged country in 2008, in retaliation to the U.S. and some EU member states decision to recognize Kosovo.

As a result, the recognition of Abkhazia is rooted in the interests of the Kremlin rather than in respect for the Montevideo Convention, and the subsequent countries that recognize Abkhazia seem to do the same, wishing to show their support for Moscow rather than out of interest in Abkhazia.

Recognition by Nauru, Nicaragua, Venezuela, as well as unrecognized countries such as Transnistria followed, but all these states are of minor interest to the authorities in Sukhum, who, due to the location of Abkhazia, must continue to rely on neighboring Russia.

In this context, Syria’s recognition in 2018 marks a turning point as it ends an absence of recognition by new states since 2009 (Venezuela) and pushes Abkhaz authorities to consider the re-opening of the Sukhum International Airport.

The consequences of the Syrian recognition in 2018 are significant, and two other countries have begun a rapprochement with Abkhazia—North Korea and Belarus—in part because of the Syrian initiative.

North Korea

Although Abkhazia does not necessarily wish to be recognized by North Korea, which would hamper its chances of gaining recognition by the Western world, relations between the two countries are growing, paralleling the Syria-North Korea relations.

In December 2017, the North Korean Chamber of Commerce contacted the then Abkhazian Prime Minister Gennadi Gagulia to discuss the possible settlement of North Korean workers in Abkhazia. Subsequently, an Abkhazian delegation visited Pyongyang (August 2018) and a North Korean delegation visited Sukhum (November 2018), thus strengthening the relationship between the two nations. According to the director of international affairs of the North Korean Chamber of Commerce, enterprises in the construction sector, food and textile industry, and logistics companies are interested in working with Abkhazia. In 2019, about 400 North Korean workers have settled in Abkhazia. This rapprochement suggests that recognition is increasingly likely.

Belarus

Belarus has consistently refrained from recognizing the territory, claiming that it is of little economic interest. But recent tensions between the West and Lukashenko suggest that Minsk may recognize Abkhazia to satisfy the Kremlin’s demands and to allow Belarusian citizens to travel to Abkhazia more easily if they have limited travel options in the future. As such, a train connection between Minsk and Sukhum is possible, providing an alternative to international flights.

Recognition of Belarus is an option to consider, and it would follow a similar pattern to Syria, a few years after Damascus.

The Sukhum Babushara Airport

The growing number of countries recognizing Abkhazia is pushing for the reopening of the international airport to welcome more tourists and strengthen trade relations. Since 1992, the airport has been dedicated to military activities but most of these are now at the Gudauta military airport, which has undergone significant changes since the 2008 recognition by Russia, and therefore Sukhum airport could re-open to international flights. Such initiative would allow tourists from countries with no direct border, such as Venezuela, Nicaragua, Nauru and Syria, to come to Abkhazia, considering the territory is a well-known tourist destination.

This could be a tremendous advantage for Abkhazia, as it would also mean that tourists from all over the world could come and have a stopover in a country that recognizes Abkhazia, like Russia. In effect, Chinese, Americans and French could now travel to Abkhazia via the countries that recognize the territory.

In July 2019, the leadership of Abkhazia issued a decree to open the “Vladislav Ardzinba Sukhum International Airport” for international flights.

Inside Syria’s relations with Abkhazia

Although Syria only recognized Abkhazia in 2018, relations between the two entities stretch back centuries, but have increased in 2008 when Syrian president Bashar al-Assad said that Damascus agrees “with the essence of the Russian position” regarding the Abkhaz conflict. In 2013, Abkhazia appointed a Representative of the Abkhaz Foreign Ministry in Syria, then in 2015, the Abkhaz Foreign Minister met the Syrian Ambassador to Russia, Riad Haddad, in Moscow to say that his government believes Syria will recognize Abkhazia as a sovereign country in the future.

The entente between the two sides was reinforced during the refugee crisis, when some Syrians of Abkhaz origin were allowed to travel to Abkhazia (500 Syrians remigrated to Abkhazia). This decision was in the interest of both Damascus and Sukhum, as Damascus was not able to ensure the safety of some Syrian citizens, and for Abkhazia as newcomers are welcome to compensate for the demographic decline in Abkhazia which has had a weak birth rate for several decades.

As a symbol of this rapprochement, in December 2016, the first match in freestyle wrestling between Abkhazia and Syria was held in Sukhum, and Abkhazia provided humanitarian assistance to Syria in August 2017.

This rapprochement culminated in November 2017 with a free trade agreement between Damascus and Sukhum, which led to the possibility of recognition the following year. Unlike other countries, the Syria-Abkhazia relations are more profound, with a physical proximity. Indeed, despite being recognized by Venezuela, for example, almost nobody from that part of the world have visited Abkhazia, while more than 500 people of Syrian origin are present in the territory. Moreover, there are numerous exchanges and bilateral meetings. In May 2021, the Abkhaz president Aslan Bzhania visited Syria on a state visit and met with Bashar al-Assad.

This friendly atmosphere can be explained by several factors, other than Moscow’s wish, and notably by the fact that Abkhazia is a country at the intersection of the Muslim and Christian worlds. As such, the Abkhaz flag symbolizes this union with white for Christianity and green for Islam, and the Abkhaz society integrates Muslims and their practices, which makes it a bridge between the Orthodox and Muslim worlds, allowing for the rapid integration of Syrians.

Russia’s involvement in the Syria-Abkhazia relations

The Kremlin was the main actor to support the recognition of Abkhazia by Syria, since this served its diplomatic interests, and continues to do so in many respects. In this respect, Russia’s military presence remains strong in Abkhazia, notably with the two bases of Ochamchire which provides for the activities of the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB) and the Gudauta base for the operations of the 7th Military Base.

While the Ochamchire facility is not of interest in the context of the Abkhazia-Syria relations, the Gudauta facility is different in that, due to the non-recognition of Abkhazia by Western countries, limited international supervision is possible on equipment coming from abroad or leaving the Gudauta airport. Therefore, if Moscow wishes, it can receive and send as much as it wants from this strategic point without having to justify it but to the Abkhaz authorities.

The secrecy surrounding the activities of the station in Gudauta and its connection with Syria is reinforced by the fact that a billboard depicting the good relations between Abkhazia and Syria is displayed near the military premises. There is also a significant amount of work carried out on the base, including the modernization of a football stadium, new fences, a well-mown lawn around the base, and careful management of the site, similar to that of the French Navy base at Seine-port in France. It is impossible to visit the base, nor to approach it via the land paths or the beach, the only vantage point is from the tall abandoned Soviet buildings in the nearby town. Unlike Ochamchire, where a conversation with the soldiers is possible in the vicinity of the barracks, the Gudauta site has a higher level of security, with the nearby restaurant being the only place to meet the soldiers who prefer not to talk about their duties.

While it is unclear to what extent the Kremlin interacts with Syria via the Gudauta facility, the presence of posters on the relationship between Abkhazia and Syria suggests that a connection exists.

In conclusion, the Syria-Abkhazia relations are born of Moscow’s determination, but are deeper than those between Venezuela and Abkhazia for instance. Furthermore, the recognition in 2018 opens the door to possible recognition by North Korea and Belarus, but more importantly to a resumption of international flights to Sukhum airport. If such a reopening were to take place, it would mean access to Abkhazia not only for the countries that recognize it, but also for all travelers willing to transit via Moscow, Caracas, Damascus or Managua. The opening-up of Abkhazia thus seems to be becoming a reality and leads to new questions, notably that of the position to be adopted by Western countries if they wish to continue to support Georgia and defend their approach in the South Caucasus.

From our partner RIAC

Ph.D. in History of Europe & International Relations, Sorbonne University - INSEAD Business School, (Geo)political scientist working on Sino-European/Russian relations and soft power in the 21st century

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Middle East

Ukraine crisis could produce an unexpected winner: Iran

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 Iran potentially could emerge as an unintended winner in the escalating crisis over Ukraine. That is, if Russian troops cross the Ukrainian border and talks in Vienna to revive the 2015 Iranian nuclear agreement fail.

An imposition of tough US and European sanctions in response to any Russian incursion in Ukraine could likely make Russia more inclined to ignore the fallout of violating US sanctions n its dealings with Iran.

By the same token, a failure of the talks between Iran and the United States, Russia, China, the European Union, France, Germany, and Britain to revive the accord that curbed the Islamic republic’s nuclear program would drive Iran closer to Russia and China in its effort to offset crippling US sanctions.

US and European officials have warned that time is running out on the possibility of reviving the agreement from which the United States under then-President Donald J. Trump withdrew in 2018.

The officials said Iran was weeks away from acquiring the know-how and capability to produce enough nuclear fuel for a bomb quickly. That, officials suggested, would mean that a new agreement would have to be negotiated, something Iran has rejected.

No doubt, that was in the back of the minds of Russian and Iranian leaders when they met last week during a visit to Moscow by Iran’s president, Ebrahim Raisi. It was the first meeting between the leaders of Russia and Iran in five years.

To be sure, the road to increased Russian trade, energy cooperation, and military sales would open with harsh newly imposed US sanctions against Russia even if restrictions on Iran would remain in place.

That does not mean that the road would be obstacle-free. Mr. Putin would still have to balance relations with Iran with Russia’s ties to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. 

If anything, Russia’s balancing act, like that of China, has become more complicated without the Ukraine and Vienna variables as Iranian-backed Houthis expand the seven-year-long Yemen war with drone and missile strikes against targets in the UAE.

The Houthis struck as the Russian, Chinese and Iranian navies started their third joint exercises since 2019 in the northern Indian Ocean. The two events were not related.

“The purpose of this drill is to strengthen security and its foundations in the region, and to expand multilateral cooperation between the three countries to jointly support world peace, maritime security and create a maritime community with a common future,” Iranian Rear Admiral Mostafa Tajoldini told state tv.

US dithering over its commitments to security in the Gulf has persuaded Gulf states like Saudi Arabia and the UAE to hedge their bets and diversify the nature of their relations with major external powers.

However, a Russia and potentially a China that no longer are worried about the fallout of violating US sanctions against Iran could put Riyadh and Abu Dhabi on notice that the two US rivals may not be more reliable or committed to ensuring security in the Gulf. So far, neither Russia nor China have indicated an interest in stepping into US shoes.

This leaves Saudi Arabia and the UAE with few good choices if Russia feels that US sanctions are no longer an obstacle in its dealings with Iran.

Russia is believed to want the Vienna talks to succeed but at the same time has supported Iranian demands for guarantees that the United States would not walk away from a revived deal like it did in 2018.

Against the backdrop of talk about a proposed 20-year cooperation agreement between the two countries, Russia appears to want to negotiate a free trade agreement between Iran and the Eurasian Economic Union that groups Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan, alongside Russia.

Iran has signed a similar 25-year cooperation agreement with China that largely remains a statement of intent at best rather than an action plan that is being implemented.

Like in the case of China, the draft agreement with Russia appears to have been an Iranian rather than a Russian initiative. It would demonstrate that Iran is less isolated than the United States would like it to be and that the impact of US sanctions can be softened.

“We have a document on bilateral strategic cooperation, which may determine our future relations for the next 20 years. At any rate, it can explain our prospects,” Mr. Raisi said as he went into his talks with Mr. Putin.

For now, Mr. Raisi’s discussions in Moscow appear to have produced more lofty prospects than concrete deals.

Media speculation that Russia would be willing to sell Iran up to US10 billion in arms, including Su-35 fighter jets and S-400 anti-missile defense systems, appear to have remained just that, speculation. Saudi Arabia and the UAE would view the sale to Iran of such weapons as particularly troublesome.

By the same token, Iranian officials, including Finance Minister Ehsan Khanduzi and Oil Minister Javad Owji, spoke of agreements signed during the Moscow visit that would revive a US$5 billion Russian credit line that has been in the pipeline for years and produce unspecified energy projects.

It’s unclear if these are new projects or ones that have been previously discussed and even agreed to, such as the one Lukoil stopped working on in 2018 after the US pulled out… Lukoil was concerned about being targeted by US sanctions,” said international affairs scholar Mark N. Katz.

Theoretically, the dynamics of the Ukraine crisis and the prospects of failed Vienna talks could mean that a long-term Russian Iranian cooperation agreement could get legs quicker than its Chinese Iranian counterpart.

Negotiating with a Russia heavily sanctioned by the United States and Europe in an escalated crisis in Ukraine could level the playing field as both parties, rather than just Iran, would be hampered by Western punitive measures.

Tehran-based Iranian scholar and political analyst Sadegh Zibakalam suggested that it was time for the regime to retire the 43-year-old Iranian revolution’s slogan of “neither East nor West.” The slogan is commemorated in a plaque at the Foreign Ministry.

Asserting that Iran has long not adhered to the motto, Mr. Zibakalam suggested that the plaque be removed and stored in the basement of a hardline Tehran newspaper. “It has not been used for a long time and should be taken down,” he tweeted.

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Unified Libya will come only via ballot box, ‘not the gun’-UNSC

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A boy runs in the ruins of the Bab al-Aziziyah compound in Tripoli, Libya. © UNICEF/Giovanni Diffidenti

Libya is at a “delicate and fragile juncture in its path to unity and stability”, the UN Political Affairs chief told the Security Council on Monday, urging the international community to remain united in supporting national elections postponed last month. 

In welcoming positive developments across three different tracks of intra-Libyan dialogue, Rosemary A. DiCarlo, Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, also recognized the challenges that must be overcome.  

“So many Libyans have told us, the way towards a stable and united Libya is through the ballot box, not the gun”, she said. “We must stand with them”. 

Postponed elections 

Growing polarization among political actors, and disputes over key aspects of the electoral process, led to the postponement of long anticipated elections on 24 December.  

The High National Commission for Elections (HNEC) cited shortcomings in the legal framework along with political and security concerns. To address this, the House of Representatives has established a Roadmap Committee to chart a new political path that defines an elections timetable and process. 

New Special Adviser 

Last month, Stephanie Williams was appointed Special Adviser on Libya, having served as acting Special Representative and head of the UN Support Mission, UNSMIL, last year.  

To date, she has undertaken wide-ranging consultations, including with members of the Government of National Unity (GNU), the High National Election Commission, the House of Representatives, and candidates for presidential and parliamentary elections.  

Oil-rich Libya has descended into multiple crises since the overthrow of former rule Muammar Gadaffi in 2011, which in recent years saw the country divided between rival administrations – a UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) based in the capital Tripoli, and that of the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA), led by General Khalifa Haftar.  

Ms. Williams has reiterated that the focus of the political process now, should remain on holding “free, fair, inclusive and credible national elections” in the shortest possible timeframe. 

“In all her meetings, the Special Adviser highlighted the 2.8 million Libyans who have registered to vote”, said Ms. DiCarlo, adding that she also called on everyone to respect the will of the Libyan people and to adhere to the timeline agreed to in the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) roadmap, which was endorsed by the Security Council

Welcomed developments 

The UN political affairs chief said ongoing dialogue among political, security and economic actors from across the country was key. 

“We have seen reports of consultations between the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the President of the High State Council, as well as among presidential candidates from western and eastern Libya”, she said.  

On the security track, there have been meetings among various armed groups, as well as the Chief of General Staff of the Western Military Forces under the GNU and the acting General Commander of the rival LNA, with the participation of military chiefs and heads of military departments from both sides.  

Turning to the economy, further steps have been taken to reunify the Central Bank of Libya.  

Moreover, renewed efforts continue to advance national reconciliation based on the principles of transitional justice.  

Security situation 

While the ceasefire has continued to hold, “political uncertainty in the run up to the elections has negatively impacted the overall security situation”, the political chief informed the Council, including in Tripoli. 

It has resulted in shifting alliances among armed groups affiliated with certain presidential candidates, she added. 

Similarly, unfulfilled demands made to the GNU by the Petroleum Facilities Guards (PFG) in western Libya resulted in the shutdown of oil production, causing the National Oil Corporation to declare in December, force majeure – a clause that removes liability for natural and unavoidable catastrophes. 

Following negotiations between the PFG and the GNU, Oil production was restored on 9 January. 

To implement the ceasefire agreement, last month military representatives from opposing sides, called the 5+5 Libyan Joint Military Commission (JMC), discussed with Turkish and Russian authorities, an Action Plan to gradually withdrawal mercenaries and foreign fighters from the country.     

At the same time, despite serious logistical and security challenges, the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) continued its work to establish a ceasefire monitoring hub in Sirte, pending the GNU’s approval on accommodation and office facilities. 

Human rights concerns 

“The human rights situation in Libya remains very worrying”, said Ms. DiCarlo, noting “documented incidents of elections-related violence and attacks based on political affiliation”, which she described as obstacles toward a conducive environment for free, fair, peaceful and credible elections. 

“We are particularly concerned that women and men working to protect and promote women’s rights continued to be targeted by hate speech, defamation and incitement to violence”, she stated. “Some of the disturbing social media posts that posed a threat to the safety and security of these persons were removed after UNSMIL brought them to the attention of social media platforms”.  

Meanwhile, arbitrary detention by State and non-State actors continued across the country, with many detainees subjected to serious rights abuses. 

Migration management  

The situation of migrants and refugees is also highly concerning.  

“Large numbers of migrants and refugees attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea and returned to Libya continue to be detained in inhumane and degrading conditions with restricted humanitarian assistance. Thousands are unaccounted for”, the UN official said.  

Ms. DiCarlo pointed out that hundreds of foreign nationals were expelled from Libya’s eastern and southern borders without due process, with some “placed in extremely vulnerable situations across remote stretches of the Sahara Desert without sufficient food, water, safety and medical care”. 

“The United Nations remains ready to work with Libyan authorities on a long-term national response to migration and refugee management in line with international law to include addressing human rights concerns”, she assured. 

Accountability  

To ensure political progress, Elham Saudi, Co-founder and Director of Lawyers for Justice in Libya, said that all who commit abuses must be held accountable, including mercenaries. 

She noted that without law, revenge would be the only winner.  

Ms. Saudi also maintained the importance of an enabling environment for all rights advocates, especially women, and expressed hopes for a human-rights based approach in how Libya is governed, going forward. 

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Embarking on Libya’s Noble Foray Into the Future

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On Saturday the 22nd of January, activists from across the civil society spectrum in Libya gathered over Zoom with one purpose in mind; publicly declaring their support for the 1951 Libyan Independence Constitution. Despite the political turmoil which has engulfed the country since the Arab Spring began in Tunisia in 2011, a strong civil society movement which supports a return to our historical constitution, has always existed in Libya. These supporters, who represent a significant number of Libyans from across the country, see the restoration of the 1951 constitution as the only way to shape their future.

Libya has been through an immeasurable amount of internationally led initiatives, all aimed at providing Libya with long term “solutions”. Only over the course of the past decade, one can count the UN-brokered Skhirat agreement in December of 2015, the 2017 Paris meeting, the 2018 Palermo conference alongside Mohammed bin Zayed’s Abu Dhabi gathering in February 2019. Followed by Putin and Erdogan’s joint call for a ceasefire in 2020, alongside the first (2020) and second (2021) Berlin conferences alongside UN-sponsored talks in Geneva, each and every one of these efforts amounted to nothing.

The main reason behind these, perhaps well-intentioned but failed attempts, was the simple fact that none of these efforts had any grounding in Libyan history or the support of the Libyan people. Reaching consensus in a society as heavily divided as that of Libya, is a significant challenge. However, placing our faith in our history will undoubtedly provide us with a solution that is closer to the hearts of citizens of our nation and which has the potential to assist in competing factions finally putting their differences aside.

This was the catalyst of Saturday’s meeting which sought to once and for all provide an authentically Libyan solution to the issues which have been plaguing the country for over a decade. The first of these is the preservation of our territorial integrity which has for too long been challenged by foreign actors. It is high time that a long term resolution for our country’s ills is found that ensures the exclusion of foreign elements from shaping the future of our great land.

The second issue the gathering sought to underscore was the need to build an inclusive future for all members of Libyan society. For far too long, our country has excluded citizens of certain political persuasions, cultural backgrounds or those who hold different opinions. Every Libyan deserves equal opportunities, protection of basic rights alongside access to justice. This has been impossible in a country which for so long has lacked a cohesive national identity.

These two issues are indeed intertwined with the third issue which the conference sought to highlight, namely, our demand to return to constitutional legitimacy under the leadership of our Crown Prince Mohammed El Hasan el Rida el Senussi. As the sole heir to the throne of King Idris, passed down through the late Crown Prince Hassan, Prince Mohammad is the leader our country has yearned for.

With leadership claims grounded in historical fact that cannot be upended by foreign or domestic elements, from an ideological standpoint, Prince Mohammad serves as an anchor, offsetting challenges to stability posed by foreign elements. This is strengthened by his position as  the scion of a family which has been in Libya for centuries and founded the Senoussia movement, briniging with it Islam, to the country. Furthermore, historical memories of the reign of King Idris, which saw religious tolerance, gender equality and security for its citizens, reflects the future which Libyan’s would like to see for themselves today.

Bringing together journalists, academics, human rights defenders and political activists, Saturday’s gathering was indeed revolutionary. It would have been unimaginable that such a gathering would even have taken place a mere decade ago. Representing not only themselves, but a wide range of segments of Libyan society, those attending over Zoom broadcasted a powerful message; a rejection of foreign attempts top shape the future of the country alongside a return to historical, constitutional, legitimacy under the leadership of the only man who can help Libya exit the current quagmire and begin its noble foray into the future.

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