Abkhazia’s Cold Relationship with Central Asia

When violence erupted in Kazakhstan in January of this year, Abkhaz President Aslan Bzhania published a statement where he supported the Kazakh government and Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) member state intervention in Central Asia. It was rare for any leading Abkhaz politician (President, Prime-Minister, or Foreign Minister) to be involved in the small state’s foreign policy by commenting on ongoing situations taking place in Central Asia.

There are many similarities between Abkhazia and the post-Soviet Central Asian states; both regions have once been part of the Soviet Union. When the USSR dissolved, most people in both regions were reluctant to accept the new circumstances. Today, Abkhazia and several other Central Asian states are often considered to be part of “Russia’s backyard”. Moscow has troops stationed in Abkhazia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. And while the latter three Central Asian states are CSTO members, Abkhazia is bound to Russia by the Treaty of Alliance and Strategic Partnership, signed in 2014. Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are members of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), whereas the Abkhaz-Russo Alliance Treaty binds Abkhazia to adapt the tiny country’s trade laws to those of the EEU. Thus, Abkhazia is de facto associated with the EEU. Even though the foundation for cooperation has been laid, the countries seem reluctant to collaborate.

When Abkhazia declared its independence in 1992, the first United Nations (UN) member state which recognized it was Russia in 2008. Not long after, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and the Pacific Island states of Nauru, Vanuatu and Tuvalu followed suit. Abkhazia experienced some setbacks when the latter two states (Vanuatu and Tuvalu) withdrew recognition in 2013 and 2014. The Russian government seemed embarrassed by this because it had invested in Abkhazia’s development and aided the country in its campaign to further spread its state recognition. Additionally, Western pressure on Caribbean and Pacific states curbed any wider recognition of Abkhazia. Subsequently, Moscow seems to have ceased investing its resources in attempts to promote Abkhazian recognition. One reason for this might be the strained financial situation in Russia, which turned dire following the 2014 Ukrainian Crisis. The West’s anti-Russian sanctions plunged the country into an economic crisis and a stagnating economy which has lasted to this very day.

Interestingly, the weakening Russian economy resulting from Western sanctions led to a rapprochement of Abkhazia and the European Union. The waning Russian ruble —Abkhazia’s official currency— strengthened Abkhaz trade with the European Union. In 2017, after a decade of not being on speaking terms, Abkhaz and EU officials even began discussing their trade issues with one another. Thus, Brussels and Sukhum have both carefully revaluated their previous relations, and are now pursuing a new approach with each other.

Abkhazia started to strengthen its relations with the outside world through a new diplomatic campaign. Ministers and Vice Ministers travelled to countries that recognized the republic in the Caucuses, including the tiny republic of Nauru in the Pacific. They also visited a wide range of countries that do not recognize the small state, such as China, Italy, Turkey, and Israel. Abkhazian politicians also met with officials from South Africa, Jordan, and El Salvador. Additionally, the Abkhaz Foreign Ministry substantially increased their diplomatic note output to other countries, like Guatemala, France, Egypt, and Sri Lanka. These notes show the global public that Abkhazia is an independent actor in the international arena. By 2017, these activities reached its peak , and then significantly diminished in the subsequent years. The beginning of the pandemic also put a halt to most Abkhaz diplomatic, ministerial, and state visits.

While all those diplomatic activities cover regions from all over the world—from South Asia to Southern Africa, Western Europe up to Central America—Central Asia is completely overlooked. No Abkhaz state member has travelled to Central Asia, met a diplomat from Central Asian countries, or anything of the sort. That is not to say there have been no opportunities to do so; Abkhaz officials regularly travel to Moscow where there were many chances to speak with other Central Asian leaders. When several heads of states, for example, met for the 2020 Moscow Victory Day Parade, Abkhazian President Aslan Bzhania could be seen standing next to the Presidents of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, yet he did not meet with any of the Central Asian presidents and ministers for political talks. Not even diplomatic notes were sent from Sukhum to any of the Central Asian states since the beginning of its 2014 surge of diplomatic activities.

This absence or even avoidance of any diplomatic interaction seems strange since there are economic relations between Abkhazia and several of the Central Asian states. In the first half of last decade, about 10,000 guest workers have received working visas for Abkhazia—most of them from CIS countries. Those guest workers originated mostly from Central Asia. When Russia tightened border crossing rules in 2013, several hundred Central Asian workers remained stranded in Abkhazia. After the Covid-19 pandemic began in 2020, many governments tried to repatriate their citizens from all over the world—as did the Uzbek administration. The Uzbek consulate in Rostov-on-Don and the embassy in Moscow received appeals from about 400 Uzbek guest workers in Abkhazia, who wanted to travel home. Since the government in Tashkent does not recognize the one in Sukhum, Uzbek representatives negotiated with Russian government officials, who then spoke with their Abkhaz counterparts. After charter flights from Uzbekistan Airways repatriated several hundred guest workers from Sochi (close to the Abkhaz-Russian border) to Central Asia, the Foreign Ministry in Tashkent issued a press statement. This was the first—and until recently—last time, the Uzbek Foreign Ministry ever mentioned Abkhazia. Two years ago, there were about 400 Uzbek guest workers in Abkhazia, and there is limited information regarding, how many Kyrgyz and Tajik workers regularly resided and worked in there before the pandemic.1 While several hundred guest workers regularly travel back and forth between Abkhazia and Central Asia, trade remains minimal. According to Abkhaz’s Chamber of Commerce statistics, the list of the largest import partners of the country include Russia, Turkey, Italy, China, and Japan—but no country from Central Asia.2

Even while trade is minimal, formal, or even informal contacts between Abkhazia and Central Asia could be important for the country. Back in 2008 and 2009, when Abkhazia first experienced its diplomatic breakthrough, the Central Asian states initially took different approaches. Kazakhstan government officials voiced support for Russia as a matter of principle but rejected the idea of recognizing the Abkhazia outright, comparing it to the former Serbian region of Kosovo. The Tajik president, Emomalii Rahmon, expressed his support for Russia’s recognition of Abkhazia on national TV, but his country subsequently did not recognize Abkhazia either. Uzbek and Kyrgyz representatives waited to see the general attitudes towards Abkhazia but did not grant diplomatic recognition in the long run. There are no known public statements made by Turkmen officials regarding Abkhazian sovereignty. While there were some initial sympathies for Abkhazia from Central Asian leading politicians, no interaction followed.

The reason for this does not lie in their general aversion against non-United Nations states, but rather because the position of Central Asian governments varies widely from case to case. Already in the early 1990s, all of Central Asia recognized the State of Palestine—a country with limited territory, that is recognized by two thirds of the world, and holds an observer status in the UN General Assembly. Similarly, the Holy See is recognized by all Central Asian states. Three of the post-Soviet states additionally recognized the Order of Malta, a Catholic micro-state that practically owns no territory and is currently led by a Portuguese nobleman.3 A more differentiated example is Northern Cyprus; already in 1992, Kazakh officials declined to recognize the Turkish para-state.4 However, the Economic Cooperation Organization, which includes all Central Asian states since 1992, granted Northern Cyprus an observer status in 2012. The so-called Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus has even a Representative Office in Kyrgyzstan’s capital Bishkek. Another example is Kosovo; when this para-state declared independence in 2008, officials from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan outright rejected the idea of recognizing it. Representatives from Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan waited to see the world’s response, but their countries did not recognize the former Serbian province either. Similarly, Western Sahara, which is recognized by many states in Africa and Latin America, was also not granted recognition by any Central Asian state. China’s republic, most commonly known as Taiwan, also had no chance. In 1990, the country allowed trade with the Soviet Union for the first time.5 However, following the collapse of the USSR, Taipei mainly concentrated its foreign policy efforts on Europe. In 1993, Taipei did open an office in Moscow—but none in Central Asia. All in all, there is no uniform Central Asian approach when it comes to non-UN member states. In Abkhazia’s case, the motivation for the lack of recognition and even any official connections seem arbitrary.

One reason for the cold relationship between Abkhazia and Central Asia is because China’s western border neighbours the region, further expanding China’s influence and sway in Central Asia. When in 2008 the Russian government lobbied for Abkhazia’s recognition at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in Dushanbe, Hu Jintao— the then Chinese president—played a pivotal role in slighting Abkhaz recognition efforts in SCO states. The Chinese government vehemently opposes separatism and the SCO served as an adequate forum to reject Abkhazia’s recognition, since this international organization is directed against separatism. Another reason for the absence of relations between Abkhazia and the Central Asian states is the strong influence of the West in the region. With Switzerland as Tajikistan’s main export partner, the United Kingdom as Kyrgyzstan’s top export destination and Italy as one of the two main export partners of Kazakhstan, Central Asia can hardly be considered “Russia’s backyard” in economic terms.6 Quite the contrary, Western economic influence in the region is still very robust. Western states, especially NATO nations, are known to threaten small states from Belarus to the Dominican Republic so that they refrain from recognizing Abkhazia. Due to the strong economic and political influence of Western states in Central Asia, any recognition by those states remains highly unlikely.

The situation is further aggravated by the fact that Abkhazia’s economy is separated from Russia’s. While, for example, Tatarstan’s government serves as a bridge-builder for Russian enterprises and influence, few Russian companies would profit from possible Abkhaz trade with the Central Asian states. Since Russia would gain little from strengthening Abkhaz-Central Asian relations, Moscow seems not to be very keen on supporting Abkhazia’s role in the region.

It can be concluded that Abkhazia suffers from a rare convergence of Western and Chinese interests in Central Asia. Furthermore, Russia—the country’s patron-state—has lost interest in investing resources to promote Abkhazia’s recognition by any Central Asian state. Additionally, Moscow cannot profit from Abkhaz diplomatic relations or trade with the Central Asian states and Central Asian politicians themselves showed little interest in furthering their relations with Abkhazia. Thus, despite having many things in common, Abkhazia and the Central Asian states have only minimal relations with each other. As Abkhaz diplomats regularly pursue new diplomacy strategies and travel regularly to Middle Eastern, Western European, and Latin American states, changes to Abkhazia’s cold relations with Central Asian states seems unlikely in the foreseeable future.

[1] There are definitely Kyrgyz guest workers in Abkhazia in non-pandemic times—the author has met some in 2016. David X. Noack: Rückkehr an die sowjetische Riviera, in: Neues Deutschland, 20 June 2016.

[2] Information provided to the author by the Abkhaz Chamber of Commerce, 18 August 2021.

[3] Kazakhstan recognized the entity in 1998, Tajikistan in 2001 and Turkmenistan in 2007.

[4] Bal, Idris: Turkey’s Relations with the West and the Turkic Republics: The Rise and Fall of the Turkish Model, Milton: Taylor and Francis 2017, S. 88.

[5] Czeslaw Tubilewicz: Breaking the Ice: The Origins of Taiwan’s Economic Diplomacy towards the Soviet Union and Its European Allies, in: Europe-Asia Studies, vol. 56, no. 6 (2004), pp. 891–906 (here: p. 895). https://www.jstor.org/stable/4147371

[6] Data from the Asian Development Bank for the year 2020.

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