Alexander Cooley is the Associate Professor of Political Science at Barnard College. Cooley’s research interests are in international relations theory, centering on comparative semi-sovereign relations and client states, politics of United States’ overseas military bases, and theories of contracting and organization. In addition to his academic writings, Professor Cooley has published policy-related pieces in the “New York Times”, “Wall Street Journal”, “International Herald Tribune”, “Foreign Affairs”, and “Washington Quarterly”.Lincoln Mitchell is an Associate at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute. From 2006-2009, he was the Arnold A. Saltzman Assistant Professor in the Practice of International Politics at Columbia University. Before joining Columbia’s faculty, Lincoln was a practitioner of political development and continues to work in that field now. In addition to serving as Chief of Party for the National Democratic Institute (NDI) in Georgia from 2002-2004, Lincoln has worked on political development issues in the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, the Caribbean, the Middle East, Africa and Asia. Lincoln also worked for years as a political consultant in New York City advising and managing domestic political campaigns.
Caucasus Times.: After the August war, 2008 many American observers began reconsidering their evaluations both of personality of Mikhail Saakashvili and the Georgian policy. But Alexander Cooley and Lincoln Mitchell were the first who definitely and clearly had proposed the policy oriented on engagement Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Your articles published in the American Interest and Washington Quarterly provoked hot discussions in Russia, Georgia and the USA. What reasons did force you to make some conclusions?
A.C.& L.M.: Our view that continuing the isolation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia was a counterproductive policy dates back to well before the war. For example, at the Harriman Institute, we have been holding events and discussions on the dynamics of the “frozen conflicts” for several years and have closely tracked the similarities and differences between developments in the Balkans and in the Caucasus, even before the so-called “Kosovo effect” of early 2008. But you are absolutely right that the August 2008 war also has served as a marker for many analysts and policymakers in the West to think more carefully about Western and Georgian policy towards the breakaway territories, their underlying logics, strategic aims and political contexts. Also, we believe that the changing security situation on the ground- marked by Russia’s recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia’s independence- and their now visible security presence has dramatically changed the ground-level political dynamics. For example, the Abkhaz leadership is not so much concerned now with classic “conflict resolution” or their security, but with pursuing state-building, institutional development and forging outside links.
We believe that Western policy towards Abkhazia in particular should reflect this changing context, while keeping in mind that twenty years of isolating Abkhazia has served neither the interests of Georgia nor the West.
Caucasus Times.: Do you have any outlines of the future status of the two these de facto states?
A.C.& L.M.: At this time, these territories, while no longer part of Georgia in any real way, are also not de facto states. They are too dependent on Russia and enjoy too little recognition by the rest of the world to be considered de facto states. As far as the future is concerned, the exact formula is still unclear, but do have a number of principles that we argue should be adopted.
First, the final status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia should be de-linked. Each territory has its own distinct institutional features, geographic advantages and challenges, and institutional capacity. In addition, the proximity of South Ossetia to Tbilisi makes it a much more direct security threat to Georgia. That may make South Ossetia more susceptible to a “grand bargain” between the Georgia, the West and Russia, where other issues are brought into play. So we need to find different sovereign formulas to address the future status of each of these territories.
Second, in both cases we in the West need to keep in mind, and communicate to both Tbilisi and Sukhumi, the impossibility, at least for the foreseeable future, of one side exerting classical sovereignty- that is maintaining full control of government functions and institutions of a territory as well as enjoying the international recognition of its exclusive right to do so. Despite severe domestic political pressures and full sovereign aspirations, a sovereign solution based on the classical formula is extremely unlikely.
Third, we should recognize that a future status process will have to integrate several of the following elements: shared sovereign functions, split sovereign functions, time-scaled transfers of sovereignty, an internationalization component (UN, EU or 3rd party guarantor) and a wider regional component. Even in the Kosovo case, the Ahtisaari plan called for “supervised independence,” not classical sovereignty and that most contemporary sovereign disputes that have been successfully resolved have featured a strong international element. Finally, we would note that even in current Georgia-Abkhaz relations, there are elements of sovereign sharing already in place, most notably the governance of the Inguri hydroelectric power plant. This hybrid sovereignty formula could serve as a guide for governing other assets and functions.
Caucasus Times.: In your recent texts regarding Abkhazia and South Ossetia you oppose “engagement without recognition” strategy to the Russian domination strengthening. Why do you see the role of Russia as a challenge to the West? Russian policy stabilized the South Caucasus and after events of 2008 it’s more or less clear that Moscow would not play a role of the revisionist State or competitor of the West (first and foremost of the USA). What’s a motivation of your suspicions?
A.C.& L.M.: When advancing our strategic proposals, we always insist that formal international recognition be taken off of the table, and we believe that Russia’s recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia’s independence has set a very dangerous precedent for the region. Under the framework of over 30 “bilateral” agreements, Moscow is increasing its control over Abkhazia’s institutions. For the same reason, Moscow’s recognition has found very little support from other states in Eurasia, even among Moscow-friendly countries such as Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and post-Yanukovych’s Ukraine. At some point, the Kremlin believed that it could persuade all of these countries to also recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia’s independence. So far, it has failed to do so.
Also, we don’t necessarily agree with the premise of the question that the situation now is stable in the long-run. Part of the danger of the current environment is that we are solidifying a system of “competitive clientelism” in the South Caucasus, whereby Russia exclusively supports Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and the United States aids Georgia, with little prospect for enhancing regional links, economic ties and organic regional integration. And in an environment of competitive clientelism, the security situation could always become precarious very quickly.
Of course, we also acknowledge that the way in which the previous US administration mismanaged the issue of Kosovo’s independence has also contributed to the difficulties of the Georgian government, though few in Tbilisi admit this in public. Rather than establish an affirmative precedent an identify the features that merited the granting of “supervised independence” to Kosovo, Washington insisted on the absurd position that recognizing Pristina’s self-declarations of independence would not constitute an international precedent without ever legally specifying why. As a result, the door to selective independence recognitions by other powers was opened, though we certainly don’t believe that the Kosovo situation in any way justifies or validates Moscow’s recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Caucasus Times.: In the book of Lincoln Mitchell published some time ago Georgia was characterized as “uncertain democracy”. What new uncertainties have you discovered after this work publication?
A.C.& L.M.: At the time the book was written the uncertainty referred to whether or not the promise of the Rose Revolution would be fulfilled and Georgia would evolve into a strong democracy. That question is no longer so pressing as Georgia’s movement away from democracy in the last few years has been reasonably unambiguous. There is, however, still significant uncertainty in Georgian politics. Although clear movement towards democracy in the immediate future is unlikely, there are still some important questions regarding Georgia’s political development.
On the one hand, Saakashvili’s government appears to be firmly in control with little possibility of losing power. The United National Movement, Georgia’s ruling party, soundly drubbed all other parties in the recent local election and according to most research are by far the most popular party in Georgia. This popularity is to some degree built upon a media and associational climate that is not exactly free and open, but the support is nonetheless real.
On the other hand, there are numerous signs of potential instability in Georgia that could throw shakeup the political situation. The looming debt crisis, the ongoing economic problems, the new constitution which may further radicalize the opposition and the increase of political parties with apparent Russian backing are all part of this picture. The possible of future conflict with Russia is, of course, part of this potential instability as well. Interestingly, one of the perhaps unforeseen results of the August 2008 war is that with NATO and EU membership now not something of immediate relevance for Georgia, the primary incentives for further democratization there have been removed. This frees the government to pursue a form of soft or semi-authoritarianism as an alternate model. This seems to be the direction in which the government is moving; the uncertainty lies in how successful they will be.
Caucasus Times.: This question continues the previous one. What prospects/obstacles for democratization of the Caucasus region do you foresee in mid-term and long-term period?
A.C.& L.M.: In the US, we have looked at the Caucasus, as well as much of Central Asia, through a transition lens, suggesting that the countries there still are evolving-presumably towards democracy. However, almost twenty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union it may be useful to move away from this transition framework and think instead in terms of regimes and regime types. Today the countries of the South Caucasus are no longer clearly in a transitional state but have evolved into regimes where some formal democratic structures and institutions support regimes that could be generously described as illiberal democracies or electoral semi-authoritarian regimes. The South Caucasus regimes are not all the same as Georgia is freer and open than either Azerbaijan or Armenia, but this is a difference of degree not kind. Similarly, Georgia does a far better job of presenting its democratic credentials to the west, but this is a triumph of spin not substance. Naturally, the prospects for democratization in the region are not bright for the immediate future. There is little reason to think that there will be sufficient internal or external pressure on any of these regimes to become more democratic. Similarly, with EU and NATO membership off the table, at least in the short term, that enormous incentive for greater democracy is no longer there.
We remain more hopeful about democracy in Georgia than in the other countries. The logic, or national interest, for democracy is strongest in Georgia. Azerbaijan is looking more and more like a standard resource curse authoritarian country with wealth and power highly concentrated and a state that is strong enough to rebuff all challenges. If Armenia remains in the orbit of a non-democratic Russia, there is little reason to expect democratic advance there. Georgia is different. Democracy remains central to that country’s long term stability, security and interests. For this reason democracy will not be entirely abandoned in Georgia.
Caucasus Times.: What possibilities for the “engagement without recognition” could you propose for Nagorno-Karabakh Republic? What differences/similarities do you see between this case and two former Georgian Autonomous entities?
A.C.& L.M.: Though the “unresolved conflicts” across Eurasia have some similarities, especially in their origins at the time of Soviet dissolution, they also have very different flavors. In the case of Transnistria, we currently see many more links between the sides as well as an effective policy of “engagement without recognition:” being practiced by outside parties including the United States. In the case of Nagorno-Karabakh we believe that the conflict is much more of a classical territorial dispute between Azerbaijan and Armenia, with Karabakh the object of dispute. Yes, Karabakh displays certain autonomous institutions and an effective military, but it has always been more effectively connected to Armenia than Abkhazia to Russia (though that may be changing now) and self-identifies as an “Armenian” entity. Like South Ossetia, the land-locked, enclave geography of NK makes it more difficult to expand its array of international influences and partners. But we do think that ending NK’s extreme economic isolation, as part of an effort to promote greater regional economic ties, and would be a welcome step.