Latin America may seem an unlikely diplomatic priority for Abkhazia, thousands of miles away from the tiny, breakaway territory on the Black Sea. But Abkhazia's de facto foreign minister, Maxim Gvindjia, on his fifth trip to the region, says Latin America is a key to the territory’s efforts to build diplomatic and trade ties around the world.
Abkhazia declared independence from Georgia in 2008, and has only two embassies in the world: one in Moscow and one in Caracas, about 6,600 miles from the Abkhazian capital Sukhumi. It is recognized by two other countries, Nicaragua and Nauru, but does not maintain a diplomatic presence in those countries.
Recognition for Abkhazia and its fellow breakaway republic, South Ossetia, has become an ongoing diplomatic battle between Russia, which promotes recognition, and the United States, which opposes it. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has strengthened ties with Russia as part of his goal to reduce US influence in his country and in the world, and formally recognized the two republics in 2009. Abkhazia then opened its embassy in Caracas last July, and the de facto Abkhaz president, Sergei Bagapsh, visited shortly thereafter. South Ossetia has yet to open an embassy in Caracas.
Gvindjia spoke to EurasiaNet.org at his hotel in Caracas, the lobby of which was decorated with a large Abkhaz flag; Venezuelan officials also gave him “a very nice reception” at the airport, he said. “Venezuela will be central” to Abkhazia's diplomatic efforts in Latin America, he said. Gvindjia is learning Spanish and has business cards in Spanish, as well.
Abkhazia's ambassador to Caracas, Zaur Gvadzhava, presented his credentials in December. Thus far, the Abkhazian embassy is working out of a temporary office space but has found a building that officials hope to turn into a permanent embassy. There are no plans to open an embassy in Nicaragua, but Gvadzhava will serve concurrently as an accredited ambassador there.
Gaining recognition from more countries is “always” at the top of the agenda in Abkhazian diplomacy and Latin America holds “a lot of potential” for more recognition, Gvindjia said. Two possibilities are Bolivia and Ecuador, two allies of Venezuela, which are next on the itinerary for Gvindia.
Gvindjia said he is not concerned about Chavez's polarizing reputation interfering with Abkhazia's diplomatic efforts. “My perception of Venezuela and its government changed a lot when I came here. International media can make a king an idiot and an idiot a king. From my first contact with President Chavez I found him a very smart, educated, modern man,” he said.
There is evidence that momentum for Abkhazian diplomatic recognition has stalled. No country has recognized Abkhazia since December 2009, when Nauru did so (reportedly as a result of getting $50 million in aid from Russia).
A report from a Washington think tank, the Center for American Progress, said that Moscow has given up trying to convince other countries to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia. “Russia’s effort spectacularly failed. It could not even convince its allies to follow suit. But making matters worse was the fact that the distinctly unimpressive list of countries it could recruit to this cause was an embarrassment for Moscow. Various sources report Russia has largely given up on the sovereign diplomacy project,” the report's authors wrote.
Securing recognition isn't Abkhazia’s sole diplomatic goal, Gvindjia said. “There are countries that are recognized but actually not countries, like Afghanistan or Somalia. So for us, it's more important to improve the quality of life in Abkhazia,” he said.
“We're not just using recognition by Venezuela for the sake of recognition, we're interested in real trade relations,” he added. Abkhazia is interested in importing coffee, rum, cigars and bitumen, a petroleum product used in the production of asphalt, from Latin America, Gundjia said. Visits to Ecuador and Bolivia are also planned for this trip, and in Ecuador he plans to discuss cooperation in the flower-growing industry, which Abkhazia believes it can develop to sell to the southern Russia market. “Dutch businesses would never sell their technology to us, but Ecuador will,” he said.
He acknowledged that Abkhazia has little to export but suggested that wine would be the most likely product to sell abroad.
But instead of exports, Abkhazia can offer a convenient entry point into the lucrative Russian market, Gvindjia said. Abkhazia has a relatively underused port at Sukhumi and favorable customs agreement with Russia that makes it cheaper for countries to ship goods to Russia via Abkhazia than to Russia directly. “Re-export is one of the pillars of our economy and we need to develop it,” Gvindjia said, and Latin American countries “can use Abkhazia as a hub” for trade with southern Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.
But Venezuela might not be particularly interested in substantive relations with Abkhazia, said Elsa Cardozo, an opposition political analyst in Caracas. “This is a way to show solidarity with Russia – I doubt there is any substance to the relationship,” she said.
Asked why it was in Venezuela's interest to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Carlos Escarra, the head of the parliamentary committee on foreign relations, also said it was a matter of principle.
“It's a policy of sovereignty,” he said. “It's the same reason we
recognize that the Malvinas [Falkland] Islands belong to Argentina, as we believe the U.S. took away 50 percent of Mexican territory, as we believe that Puerto Rico should be a soverign and free state, as we think that the blockade of Cuba is genocidal. It's a matter of sovereignty.”
Abkhazia’s recognition aspirations are higher in Latin America than elsewhere because many states in the region maintain their diplomatic distance from the United States, which opposes recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
“We understand that the issue of our statehood is very much reflected through open anti-Russian attitudes in the world. Abkhazia is considered a puppet of Russia, and if we were more oriented toward the United States and Europe attitudes would be different,” Gvindia said.
“Some presidents have told us openly – we can't recognize you because we received a message from the US embassy” pressuring them not to, he added. “So we're looking for countries which are less connected to this common international policy.”
Countries in the Commonwealth of Independent States, including those in Central Asia, have expressed interest in recognizing Abkhazia, but don't want to be the first to do it, Gvindjia said: “They say yes, we'll recognize you after … Belarus and Ukraine.”
Georgia, too, is making an effort to establish diplomatic relations with countries around the world. In 2010, Tbilisi set up relations with 24 additional countries, including Somalia, the Marshall Islands and Equatorial Guinea. “Georgia is fighting more for recognition than we are,” Gvindjia said.
Joshua Kucera is a Washington, DC,-based freelance writer who specializes in security issues. He is the author of EurasiaNet's Bug Pit blog.