Ümit Dinçer
President of the Federation of the Caucasian Associations (KAFFED). Turkey.

Yasemin Oral
Vice President of the Federation of the Caucasian Associations (KAFFED). 


Although the Republic of Abkhazia declared sovereignty as early as 1992 (the Declaration of Independence following in 1999) and was recognised as an independent state by several UN member states including Russia, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Nauru following the August war of 2008, it has lacked wider international recognition since then. As George Hewitt (2012) put it, the partial recognition initially brought about expectations among the peoples of Abkhazia that the path was open for Abkhazia to proceed to full membership of the international community. However, the subsequent developments have demonstrated that the partial recognition has created rather new challenges for Abkhazia.

Ambivalent Politics of State Recognition

The literature in international law is dominated by two competing theories of state-recognition – the constitutive and declaratory theories. According to the constitutive theory, “an entity becomes a state only when it is recognized as such” (Ryangaert & Sobrie, 2011: 469). In this respect, recognition becomes an essential requirement for statehood. Yet, the constitutive position has attracted severe criticisms on the grounds that statehood is a relative and subjective, rather than an absolute and objective, concept due to a number of significant questions such as how many recognizing states are needed for statehood and whether the decision should be based on facts, norms, political considerations or a combination (Ryangaert & Sobrie, 2011: 469). More specifically, the constitutive approach “lends itself to strategic manipulation by powerful states that have a vested interest in recognizing or not recognizing a political entity” (Olaizola, 2012: 64).

According to declaratory theory, on the other hand, “recognition of a new State is a political act, which is, in principle, independent of the existence of the new State as a subject of international law”. (Crawford, 2006: 22) Statehood is fully determined by a set of factual conditions – a permanent population, a fixed territory, an effective government able to control its territory, and the ability to enter into relations with other states on its own account (Brierly, 1955). Recognition is, in this theory, nothing more than an official confirmation of a factual situation (Ryangaert & Sobrie, 2011: 470). That is to say, the international community does not actually grant the status of statehood but merely acknowledges what is already a fact. However, the declaratory position is not devoid of issues, either. Regarding the declaratory position, it is often pointed out that “non-recognized entities have no international legal personality and thus cannot be considered to be a state, even if they meet all the requirements outlined above” (Ryangaert & Sobrie, 2011: 470).

In addition, the aftermath of the dissolution of Yugoslavia brought about some fundamental challenges. During this process, different from the traditional legal framework, the European Community made reference to (1) the right to self-determination which was traditionally confined to the colonial contexts, (2) the democratic commitment, and (3) commitment to disarmament and nuclear non-proliferation as important principles in the recognition of new states (Ryangaert & Sobrie, 2011: 475). However, the rules were not applied in a very consistent manner (Ryangaert & Sobrie, 2011: 476). Most of the recognized republics did not fully meet the criteria – neither the traditional ones nor the new ones. For instance, neither Croatia nor Bosnia-Herzegovina had a stable government able to control their territories at that time. Furthermore, such countries as the USA and Australia did not attempt to justify their decisions of formally recognizing them in reference to these criteria. When Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia in 2008, the international reactions to it further complicated the situation. There was almost no reference to international law. States that recognized Kosovo have almost invariably justified their decision to grant recognition – if such a justification was given at all – by referring to political considerations, most notably the need for stability, peace, and security in the region, and the positive effect recognition would have on these parameters (Ryangaert & Sobrie, 2011: 480).

This paper does not intend to recount the well-known parallels between those cases but the Ahtisaari report deserves a brief reference as the arguments mentioned in the report well apply to the case of Abkhazia. On the contrary, several recognizing states stressed the ‘unique’ character of Kosovo in an attempt to refute the claims that a precedent was being set. A few months later, following the August war, the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia added to the uneasy state of affairs. Condoleezza Rice, the US Secretary of State at the time, claimed that situations in the Balkans and Caucasus have nothing in common: “I don’t want to try to judge the motives, but we’ve been very clear that Kosovo is sui generis (unique) and that is because of the special circumstances out of which the breakup of Yugoslavia came”. Her Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, justifying the recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states, did not refer to the Kosovo precedent either. However, Lavrov, like Rice, claimed that “the recognition by Russia of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states does not set a precedent for other post-Soviet break-away regions. There can be no parallels here.” (Müllerson, 2009:4).

On the whole, the recognition of Kosovo by several NATO and EU states and the subsequent partial recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia have clearly shown that the practice of state recognition is characterised by a declining role of international law and an increasing role of political convenience and interests.  Despite all the strong evidence and justifications regarding the ‘double standards’ in this regard, there is almost no exception to the highly selective and politicized practice of state recognition worldwide. International law has clearly been demoted to a position where it is primarily used to support decisions made on the basis of purely political considerations and vested interests rather than providing a normative practice of recognition based on justice-based criteria to which prospective states would be subjected, which resulted in inconsistency, arbitrariness and uncertainty and lack of confidence in international law.

Political Placebo Effect of Partial Recognition

As Kolstø (2020a) states, all the de facto states that have failed to win international recognition or are recognized by only a handful of other states need a strong protector or a ‘patron state’ that sustains the de facto one financially and gives it military security. In the case of Abkhazia, this patron state has been the Russian Federation. Abkhazia is dependent on Russia militarily, politically and economically. About 90% of the inhabitants of Abkhazia hold Russian citizenship since the passport of the Russian Federation not only enables them to travel out of Abkhazia but also gives entitlement to unemployment benefits and pension payments from the Russian state budget (Kopecek et al., 2016). Almost all political actors in Abkhazia have consistently favoured maintaining strong relations with Russia, since any weakening of patron support would put the very survival of the statelet in question (Kolstø, 2020b).

Despite the understandable nature of the patron-client relationship between Russia and Abkhazia given the circumstances, the influence of Russia over Abkhazia has been reinforced by the double standards in the stance of the EU and the USA to the issue of international recognition and their subsequent lack of willingness to cooperate with Abkhazia. Their stance has naturally limited the capabilities of Abkhazia to establish relations with the international community and thus served to buttress its increasing dependency on Russia and gradual isolation from the international system. This high degree of isolation has resulted in Abkhazia in “a significant reduction of income from foreign investments, limitation of the possibility to export goods to foreign markets, a low rate of development aid and zero loans from international financial institutions” (Kopecek et al., 2016). Furthermore, as Kopecek et al. (2016) puts forward, Abkhazia represents the most likely case of successful democratisation-for-recognition strategy among the other de facto states. Their analysis explicitly shows that “the only de facto state which little by little, but constantly, democratises is ultimately Abkhazia”. Yet, this has not brought about even a slightest change in the position of the West toward Abkhazia either.

On the whole, the 14-years-long partial recognition has brought about an increasing dependency on Russia and an attendant gradual isolation from the international system, taking Abkhazia even further away from international recognition than 2008. It is still considered to be a de facto state since it lacks international recognition although it has performed sovereign legislative, executive and judicial power over its territories. Currently, it would not be an exaggeration to say that the partial recognition of Abkhazia in 2008 has functioned like a placebo stimulating hopes and expectations for full membership of the international community; however, the reality seems to confirm the argument that “so as long as de facto states remain as de facto entities, they move away from international recognition” (Meydan, 2018:6). 

The Iron Will

The current state of affairs does not obviously allow us to expect the international recognition of Abkhazia in the foreseeable near future. Yet, prospects for Abkhazia to transform into an internationally recognized state reside in the never-broken will of the Abkhazian people to safeguard and maintain the independence of Abkhazia. This strong will can also easily be tracked in the ‘patron-client’ relationship between Russia and Abkhazia.

As Kolstø (2020a) demonstrates very clearly, Abkhazia has not always been an obedient client to Russia, nor has it shied away from pursuing and maintaining its own interests despite the asymmetrical power relations between them. This was the case when the initial bilateral agreement “On Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Support” was sought by Russia to be replaced by a new one in 2014 and Abkhazia successfully negotiated the terms in a way that “the new treaty “On Alliance and Strategic Partnership” would supplement, not supplant, the 2008 treaty, and that it would not contradict the Constitution of Abkhazia” (Kolstø, 2020a). In a similar vein, in 2015, when establishment of a joint Russian–Abkhazian “Information and Coordination Centre to Combat Organized Crime and Other Kinds of Criminality” was on the table, it took two years to sign an agreement due to the perceived need to safeguard Abkhazian state independence against all possible encroachments within the Abkhazian side (Kolstø, 2020a). The last issue analysed by Kolstø (2020a), Abkhazia’s reluctance to allow Russians to buy property in their country, despite massive pressure from the Russian authorities, has still significant currency as is evident in the recent turmoil over the issue of the transfer of a large territory in Pitsunda to Russia.

As discussed above, almost all political leaders in Abkhazia have consistently favoured maintaining strong relations with Russia, but it must not be forgotten that they have also had to convince the voting public that they are able to stand up to any kind of Russian pressure that would jeopardise Abkhazia’s independence (Kolstø, 2020b). The contentious and unsecured aspects of Abkhazian-Russian relations has of course a long history. It is the very same Russian Federation which is not only the successor of tsarist Russia, the perpetuator of the Circassian genocide and exile including the Abkhazians in the 19th century, but also one of the signatory states of the embargo agreement in 1996 covering all commercial, financial, and transport connections with Abkhazia, from which it did not officially withdraw until spring 2008.

What is needed are some steps to break this vicious circle and to extend the iron will of the Abkhazian people for freedom and independence with the ultimate aim of full international recognition. Despite the dominance of the constitutive approach in practice and the ambivalence in the international politics of state-recognition, every effort still should be made to inform the world of the legitimacy of Abkhazia’s case in order to forge public opinion at the international level, to demonstrate Abkhazia’s commitment to the requirements of international law and to the further democratizatopm of the system in the country.

Epilogue: Diaspora as a Prospective Agent for International Recognition

The last part of this paper is devoted to the role of the Circassian diaspora in Turkey as a prospective agent for the wider recognition of Abkhazia. Yet, this first necessitates a brief overview of the Circassian diaspora. Although there are not any official figures, it is estimated that there are approximately three to seven million Circassians living in Turkey. The Circassian diaspora in Turkey is not homogenous but is rather composed of various peoples (predominantly Abkhazians, Adyghes, Ubykhs and other North Caucasian peoples) who speak different dialects and have diverse cultural identities. Furthermore, this heterogeneity extends to political thought. What characterises the diaspora is not homogeneity and monolithic structure but diversity and dynamism in terms of political thought and cultural identity. However, despite all these differences, there are strong social and historical ties which connect these groups in various ways.  The term ‘Circassian’ (or ‘Cherkess’) has a wider sense of ‘North Caucasian’ including the Abkhazians, Adyghes and other groups in Turkey since they have all lived in close proximity to each other and believed in a common history and culture, since they are considered to be historically and spatially inseparable from one another. They have always been directly concerned about what is happening in all parts of the Caucasus; both the Abkhazian and other North Caucasian communities living in Turkey have interacted and cooperated closely at various times. It should be particularly noted that it is the maintenance of these strong ties, alongside the diversity and differences, which could make the Circassian diaspora a more influential pressure-group, a more powerful actor both in Turkey and the EU throughout the process of broader international recognition for Abkhazia.

In accordance with the complex composition of the diaspora, there are many civil organisations and foundations with which the Circassian diaspora in Turkey have contacts at various levels. Among those organisations, KAFFED (The Federation of Caucasus Organisations) is the largest associational network in Turkey with around 55 member-associations located all around Turkey. It was established in 2003 when it became possible to establish federations with the new laws and regulations introduced as a result of the democratisation process encouraged by the prospect of EU membership, but its processor, KAFDER (The Caucasian Association), was established in 1993. KAFFED commits itself to the political representation of the Circassian diaspora in Turkey as well as the development of active and effective political participation-strategies among the Circassian diaspora. KAFFED acknowledges the exile and genocide committed against the Circassian people and calls for the recognition of this historical truth and thus puts a strong emphasis on the 21st of May. Furthermore, while KAFFED is always concerned with the political processes in the homeland in general, KAFFED supports, in every possible way, Abkhazia’s drive for strengthening its independence and a free, democratic and prosperous country. More specifically, KAFFED (1) considers Abkhazia as an essential part of the cultural identity and the guarantor for cultural survival/revival of the Abkhazian people, (2) acknowledges the decisive importance of the international recognition of Abkhazia for peace and stability in the Caucasus, and (3) demands the recognition of Abkhazia as an independent state by Turkey and the international community. In this regard, while being committed to undoing the historical injustices, KAFFED supports the conciliatory diplomatic methods of mutual understanding and compromise without jeopardising the prospects for the future of Abkhazia that have emerged as a result of the partial recognition of its independence. In addition, KAFFED defends the right to return of all peoples deported from their homeland and thus seeks to spread the idea of repatriation to the homeland and supports all initiatives in this respect.

This overview will now be followed by how the Circassian diaspora in Turkey can provide more political support and contribution to Abkhazia in general and to its policies aiming at wider recognition in particular. The Circassian diaspora in Turkey, which has a large population that pays strong attention to both Abkhazia and the North Caucasus, has the potential of becoming a more effective pressure-group for the interests of Abkhazia both in Turkey and in the EU. It can and must make an impact on the Turkish government and impress the European Union. On this matter, the quality of diaspora-Abkhazia relations is of great significance. There are of course certain difficulties the diaspora faces with which they have to deal on their own in Turkey and together with Abkhazia.

Firstly, this potential could be realised more easily and faster when they are united with a shared vision rather than divided down ethnic and/or micro-nationalist lines. This in fact already reflects the long-lived perception among the Circassian diaspora in Turkey. Therefore, conciliatory steps might be taken to increase a mutual understanding rather than to strengthen the negative attitudes in Abkhaz-Adyghean relations both in the homeland and in the diaspora would be of great benefit to the realisation of this potential and the fulfilment of Abkhazia’s expectations from the diaspora as well as to the peace-building in the region.

Secondly, what is needed is the development of more effective, dynamic and multilateral channels of communication, which would facilitate the political involvement of the diaspora, between the members of the diaspora and Abkhazia. To be able to achieve that, it is necessary to acknowledge the naturalness of the different expectations or disagreements between diaspora members as well as between the homeland and the diaspora and the unique and complex identity of the Circassian diaspora in Turkey – just as in any other diaspora (Çelikpala, 2009: 146). It is not always realistic to expect a one-to-one correspondence between the homeland and the diaspora. The diaspora has been through its own process, created its own dynamics in Turkey while longing for the homeland and now accordingly has its own problems and prospects. Despite the increasing numbers of young people claiming their Caucasian identity in Turkey and despite all the achievements obtained so far, the diaspora is still in need of accelerating the politicisation-process, a process of transition from cultural identity to cultural-political identity. The question is how to harmonise these differences with the actions of both the diaspora and the homeland to be able to build up a common vision and perception but not how to nurture those differences and contradictions that might lend themselves into further tensions.

Overall, the Circassian diaspora in Turkey with a population of millions is an assurance for Abkhazia and the Northern Caucasus; Abkhazia, as the historical homeland, is always a source and aspiration for cultural survival and revival for the diaspora. We have every confidence that the independence of Abkhazia will be recognized by the international community, that Abkhazia will become a member of the United Nations one day. And, we have also every confidence that one of the major roles throughout this process shall be played by the diaspora living in Turkey.



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