Published: 09 March 2021 Author: Stefan Talmon
In the wake of the break-up of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic declared its independence on 9 April 1991. This, in turn, triggered the two Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which both border on Russia, to declare their independence from Georgia on 21 December 1991 and 23 July 1992, respectively. In both cases, armed conflict between separatist and Georgian Government forces ensued. Atrocities were committed on all sides, ethnic cleansing was practiced, and hundreds of thousands of people were displaced.
A Russian-brokered ceasefire for South Ossetia was signed on 24 June 1992. The Georgian Government retained control over substantial parts of South Ossetia. A peacekeeping force, with a strong component of Russian troops, was established to monitor the ceasefire. Starting in 2004, the Georgian Government made efforts to bring the region back under government control. On the night of 7 to 8 August 2008, after an extended period of ever-mounting tensions and incidents, Georgian Government forces attacked the town of Tskhinvali in South Ossetia. The fighting soon involved Russian, South Ossetian and Abkhaz military units and other armed elements. The Georgian advance into South Ossetia was stopped and, in a counter-offensive, Russian armed forces penetrated deep into Georgia, stopping short of Georgia’s capital city, Tbilisi. After five days of intense fighting, a six-point ceasefire plan brokered by the French President was accepted on 12 August 2008.
On 14 May 1994 in Moscow, after several failed ceasefire agreements, the Georgian and Abkhaz sides signed the Agreement on a Ceasefire and Separation of Forces. At the time, only a small region of eastern Abkhazia remained under Georgian control. The parties agreed to the deployment of a mainly Russian peacekeeping force of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) to monitor compliance with the Agreement. The United Nations Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG), which had been established earlier, was given the task of monitoring the implementation of the Agreement and observing the operation of the CIS peacekeeping force. After the outbreak of hostilities in South Ossetia, Abkhaz forces supported by Russian troops opened a second front on 9 August 2008, capturing the last remaining part of Abkhazia held by Georgian troops. UNOMIG’s mandate came to an end on 15 June 2009, after Russia vetoed a draft resolution submitted by Germany and other States to further extend the mission’s mandate.
As a consequence of the armed conflict, the separatist forces established de facto control over all of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. On 26 August 2008, the Russian Federation recognized the Republic of South Ossetia and the Republic of Abkhazia as “sovereign and independent State[s]”, and the Russian President instructed the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to hold negotiations with the two States on the establishment of diplomatic relations and the conclusion of treaties of friendship, cooperation and mutual assistance. He also authorised the stationing of Russian armed forces in South Ossetia and Abkhazia in response to an “appeal by the President[s]” of the two republics. During the UN Security Council meeting on the situation in Georgia on 28 August 2008, the Russian representative declared that Russia had recognized the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, “aware of its responsibility for ensuring the survival of their brotherly peoples in the face of the aggressive and chauvinistic policy of Tbilisi.” On 28 August 2008, the Georgian Parliament declared the two territories to be under Russian occupation, and Georgia severed diplomatic relations with Russia. Russia signed agreements on alliance and strategic partnership with Abkhazia on 24 November 2014 and South Ossetia on 18 March 2015. Under the agreements, joint groups of armed forces were established “for rapid reaction to armed attack (aggression) and other military security threats against either party.”
At the beginning of 2018, only Russia, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Nauru recognized the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Vanuatu and Tuvalu, which had recognized the two republics in 2011, withdrew their recognition on 12 July 2013 and 31 March 2014 respectively. Germany, like the rest of the international community, does not recognize the breakaway republics. In response to parliamentary questions on perspectives for cooperation with Georgia and the secessionist regions, the Federal Government declared:
“Germany and the EU base their Georgia policy on the principle of the territorial integrity of Georgia and the non-recognition of the conflict regions.”
On 29 May 2018, the Syrian Foreign Ministry released a statement saying that Syria recognized the Republic of Abkhazia and the Republic of South Ossetia and that it had decided to establish diplomatic relations with the two republics. The European Union (EU) immediately issued a statement, saying that the establishment of “diplomatic relations with the Georgian breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia violates international law and the principle of territorial integrity as defined by the United Nations Charter and relevant UN Security Council resolutions.” Referencing the EU statement, the Director for Eastern Europe, Caucasus and Central Asia at the Federal Foreign Office tweeted: “Germany fully in line. Unacceptable step! Germany fully supports territorial integrity of Georgia.” Speaking to the media, the German ambassador to Tbilisi stated:
“Let me reassure you that we denounce the decision of the Syrian government, which contradicts international law. Germany and all our international allies support Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
The 10th anniversary of the armed conflict between Russia and Georgia on 7 August 2018 afforded Germany with another opportunity to restate its position. In a statement issued by the Federal Foreign Office, it said in part:
“The Federal Republic of Germany supports Georgia’s national sovereignty and territorial integrity within its internationally recognised borders. The unilateral recognition of the breakaway Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia by the Russian Federation and four other states is unacceptable.
Germany backs the efforts to find a peaceful solution to the conflict within the framework of the Geneva International Discussions, which remain the cornerstone of the international mediation efforts. We urge Russia to meet its obligations under the agreements of 12 August and 8 September 2008 in full.”
On a visit to Tbilisi on 23 August 2018, Chancellor Angela Merkel also reaffirmed Germany’s support for Georgia’s territorial integrity. During a joint press conference with the Georgian Prime Minister, she said:
“The last time I was here was almost exactly ten years ago. At that time, the ceasefire agreement […] had just been signed. Back then, I explicitly demanded the withdrawal of Russian troops and, of course, today, ten years later, I stand by the territorial integrity of Georgia.”
Attending a meeting with students at Tbilisi State University, Chancellor Merkel was asked why she was not using the word “occupation” in her assessment of the situation in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Chancellor Merkel replied:
“I have no trouble saying that this is an occupation. I believe that this is a gross injustice. Russia has occupied a part of the country. I have no trouble saying that this is an occupation.”
Three weeks later, Chancellor Merkel again blamed Russia for the conflict in Georgia, saying: “I recently visited Georgia. There, with South Ossetia and Abkhazia, a part of the country has simply been cut off.”
On 9 June 2019, parliamentary elections were held in South Ossetia. Asked to comment on these elections, the spokesperson for the Federal Foreign Office sated on 7 June 2019:
“We consider the result of these elections illegitimate. Germany, like the EU, does not recognise the constitutional or legal framework for these elections. Why is that so? Because Germany protects and supports the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia within its internationally recognised borders.”
On the occasion of the 11th anniversary of the conflict between Russia and Georgia, the UN Security Council held a briefing on the situation in Georgia and discussed developments since 2008. After the meeting, Germany joined six other current or future Security Council members in a statement on Georgia which read in the relevant part as follows:
“We firmly support Georgia’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity within its internationally recognized borders. Russia’s recognition of the so-called independence of South-Ossetia and Abkhazia and the deepening of its security relationship with both de facto authorities demonstrate a lack of respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of its neighbours and for the rules-based international order.”
On 25 August 2019, presidential elections were held in Abkhazia. While Germany did not join a statement of 15 Western States on so-called “presidential elections” in Abkhazia, the Federal Foreign Office issued its own statement on 26 August 2019, which read:
“The German Government stands resolutely shoulder to shoulder with Georgia as regards its sovereignty and territorial integrity within its internationally recognised borders.
Like our partners in the EU, we do not recognise the constitutional or legal framework for the so-called ‘presidential elections’ held in the breakaway Georgian region of Abkhazia on 25 August. We regard these ‘elections” and their outcome as illegal.”
The German position on the two Georgian breakaway republics is based on firm legal ground. It is a generally recognised principle of international law that the territory of a State shall not be the object of acquisition by another State, including a newly created State, resulting from the use of force. The creation of the de facto States of South Ossetia and Abkhazia was not the result of an internal conflict but was made possible only through the military intervention of the Russian Federation. All States are thus under an obligation not to recognise the creation of the two de facto States or their institutions as legal. In practice, this means that States must continue to treat the two breakaway republics as integral parts of Georgia. Any recognition of independence of the two de facto States or their institutions thus violates the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia. Any such action would also be contrary to UN Security Council resolutions which have consistently reaffirmed the commitment of the Security Council and all Member States “to the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Georgia within its internationally recognised borders”, and underlined the unacceptability of any action in contravention of these principles.
Category: Territorial sovereignty