Transparency International Vanuatu press release on recognition of Abkhazia

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The Vanuatu chapter of Transparency International issued a press release on July 29 on Vanuatu's recognition of Abkhazia. The press release does not represent the opinions of Transparency International Georgia and is only a re-posting of the press release. We post this to highlight the work of our colleagues in Vanuatu and we believe it is of interest for the Georgian public to get access to the press release. In case of any questions for Transparency Vanuatu, please contact Francis Bryard, Project Coordinator, at transparency@vanuatu.com.vu.

What is really behind Vanuatu’s recognition of Abkhazia?

Three months ago, how many people in Vanuatu had heard about the existence of the Black Sea region of Abkhazia or even of the recently independent nation (former Russian territory) of Georgia? How many people were aware that Abkhazia has been accused of ethnic cleansing on a massive scale, displacing with Russian assistance between 200 – 240,000 ethnic Georgians (equivalent to the entire Vanuatu population) from this territory?

Then suddenly, these two countries made the front pages of our local newspapers. So what was all the fuss about?

Background

On 23rd May 2011, a report came out from the Prime Minister’s Office that Vanuatu had formally recognized a country named Abkhazia and established diplomatic relations. Under this agreement, citizens of Abkhazia and Vanuatu will be granted visa-free travel between the two countries. This controversial news was circulated by the international media agencies as only four countries in the world (Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela and Nauru) recognize this territory as an independent state. (The Russian Federation and Nicaragua officially recognized Abkhazia in 2008. Venezuela recognized Abkhazia in September 2009. In December 2009, Nauru recognized Abkhazia, in return for $50 million in humanitarian aid from Russia.)
The Government of the Republic of Abkhazia and the Republic of Vanuatu being desirous to contribute to mutual understanding and strengthening friendship and cooperation between two nations, pursuing the principles and purposes of the Charter of the United Nations, international law and treaties, inter alia cencering the sovereign equality of States, the mantenance of international peace and security, national sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity and principles of non-interference in another countries' internal affairs, basing on the principles of Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of April 18, 1961 decided to establish relations at the level of Ambassadors from the signing of this joint statement. IN WITNESS THEREOF the undersigned being duly authorized thereto by their respective Governments, have signed the present Joint Statement in two copies, of which the Abkhazia and English texts are equally authentic and have equal force.
The same day, Mol Saken (Thi Tam) Goiset, the President of the Nagriamel and John Frum movements issues a press-statement declaring the two associated movements recognized Abkhazia. Mrs Goiset stated, "It is a historic moment for our Peoples to recognize each other; this is a first step to commencement of cultural exchanges and friendly relations, my people are eager to learn more about Abkhazian culture, especially customary traditions of the the people of Abkhazia, our movements stand to respect and recognise customary traditions, peace within people and their right to land. Nagriamel was the first customary movement in 1972-1973 to be recognised by the United Nations; Nagriamel represented the interests of Ni-Vanuatu people in the then New Hebrides, the leaders of Nagriamel were at the foundation and signatories to the the Vanuatu Constitution.”

Those people in Vanuatu with a good knowledge of our history would have noted the historical errors in the Goiset statement. While it is true that Nagriamel has played a part in the struggle for Independence, its President was not a signatory to the Constitution and the Movement has not been recognized by the UN as a customary movement as this did not exist at the time. Moreover, somepeople wouldbelieve that the Nagriamel movement was the leading movement in Santo’s rebellion and in fact opposed the newindependent nation of Vanuatu.

On the 31st May 2011, the Office of the Prime Minister released a statement:

“GOVERNMENT OF THE REPUBLIC OF VANUATU
OFFICE OF THE PRIME MINISTER
31st May 2011.
We, the Government and the People of the Republic of Vanuatu are deeply saddened by the sudden passing of the President of Abkhazia H.E. Sergei Bagapsh.
We would like to express, to the people of Abkhazia our most sincere condolences.

The People and the Government officials of the Republic of Vanuatu wish to convey sincere condolences to the close family of late President; Mr. Bagapsh was a truly inspiring leader, availing opportunities and independence in the interest of the People.

We wish to convey our assurances to the Government of Abkhazia that the foundations laid by the late President in establishing political and economic relations between our respective countries shall continue to prosper, in the interests of our peoples.

With deepest respect and since condolences.

Honourable Meltek Sato KILMAN LIVTUVANU (MP)
Prime Minister of the Republic of Vanuatu

This was the first official sign that Vanuatu was establishing diplomatic relations with Abkhazia.

At the beginning of June, the New York Times newspaper revealed that Vanuatu's ambassador to the United Nations, Donald Kalpokas, stated that Vanuatu recognized only Georgia and not Abkhazia. Kalpokas was also quoted as saying that ,“I have asked my capital whether this is true and they denied it emphatically,” […]. “We don’t know who is responsible for declaring that this is true. As far as we are concerned, we are dealing with Georgia, not Abkhazia. It is defamation for our country. This is disrespect.” (New York Times, 9th June 2011)

This put Vanuatu in an extremely awkward position. Alfred Carlot, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, has to come out publicly to re-confirm the recognition of Abkhazia. On the 7th June 2011, Radio New-Zealand reported that John Singh, a political appointee of Prime Minister Sato Kilman, said “technically speaking Vanuatu has agreed to Abkhazia’s request, and the reasons why would be revealed soon.”

However Radio New Zealand International also reported the confusion within the Government when it stated, “The Internal Affairs minister George Wells says two months ago when he was still the Minister of Foreign Affairs, he received a request from Abkhazia seeking recognition of its independence. He says he rejected the request based on advice from senior officials”. (RNZI, Posted at 22:54 on 07 June, 2011 UTC online)

On the 10th June, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Alfred Carlot, apologized for the “miscommunication between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Vanuatu’s UN Representative in New-York.”

On the 15th June, Abkhazia was again on the front page of the Daily Post when another confusing article explained that John Singh, the senior political advisor to PM Kilman, says that Vanuatu has not established any diplomatic relations with Abkhazia yet but it was only an intention. This was a clear contradiction of the 23rdMay 2011 documents signed by both Prime Ministers.

On the 17th June, the Vanuatu Supreme Court declared Edward Natapei as Acting Prime Minister after a protracted constitutional legal battle between Natapei and Kilman. PM Kilman was removed from Office.

The next day, Edward Natapei, in a quick and unexpected move, considering Vanuatu’s heavy political agenda, withdrew the recognition of Abkhazia, mainly because the majority of the UN members did not recognize Abkhazia as a country, and instructed Vanuatu’s Ambassador to the UN to commence relations with Georgia.

A few days later, the Center for Justice, an advocacy group promoting the rights of the internally displaced persons in Georgia, appealed to the President of the Republic and to Vanuatu’s Prime Minister to reconsider Vanuatu’s position and urge Vanuatu not to recognize a government that is accused of ethnic cleansing, and to adhere to the international law and fundamental principles of humanity.

10 days later, and after another constitutional case, the Supreme Court declared Serge Vohor’s election unconstitutional and Prime Minister Sato Kilman and Foreign Affairs Minister Alfred Carlot took back their portfolios.

At the beginning of July, the Vanuatu government announced that Vanuatu’s UN Ambassador I New York, Donald Kalpokas, would be recalled. This was not a surprise and it seems that the real reason behind the decision is the international fiasco with Abkhazia.

The Vanuatu Times issue for the week 8-14 July devoted two pages to the subject including extracts from an interview with the Minister of Foreign Affairs who stated, “…I will defend the government stand for Abkhazia to the end.” (The Vanuatu Times, Issue No.90, 8-14.07.2011, page 2 )

In the same issue, the Vanuatu Times revealed that the proper procedure had not been followed and that no proper assessment has been conducted by the Department of Foreign Affairs, which is normally a compulsory requirement in such matters. That same week, the government asked the Department of Foreign Affairs to formalize the diplomatic relations with Abkhazia and issue a recruitment notice for a Vanuatu Roving Ambassador to Russia.

Finally, on 26th July,the Nagriamel President announced that he, “ wishes to make it publicly known that Titam Goiset has no legal mandate to represent the Nagriamel Movement in any dealings or negotiations with the current Government to appoint herself to any foreign missions such as Russia or Abkhazia.” (Vanuatu Daily Post, No 3303, Tuesday 26th July 2011, frontpage and page 4.)

The Nagriamel statement also declared that, “Any appointments as such would be solely in Miss Goiset’s own personal interests and capacity.”

What can be concluded about this seemingly bizarre sequence of events- and what precisely is the status of Abkhazia?

Personal conflicts and interests can play a major role and distract any rules, any regulation or any procedures in place and ridicule our small country when it comes into international relations and diplomacy.

Alfred Carlot was previously Vanuatu’s Ambassador at the UN. He was recalled by the then Vanua’aku Paty led-government, a political party Donald Kalpokas belongs to and once headed as Prime Minister. WereMinister Alfred Carlot’s actions in announcing the recall of Donald Kalpokas, especially the way in which he seemingly unnecessarily denigrated Kalpokas in the media, motivated by some form of petty vengeance? It would be very troubling if this were the case, since this drama is being played out on the international stage, not in some private back room.

Mrs Goiset claims to speak for the Nagriamel movement, but her assertion is rejected by the President of Nagriamel, who says her role in this whole affair is her own personal responsibility.

While all of this might appear from the outside to be a game of petty politics and personal ambition, it has now had a negative effect on our diplomatic relations generally and on our country’s reputation specifically. Of all of this, Vanuatu has not gained more respect on the international scene.

On a more global approach, the Vanuatu government seems to have confused struggle for independence with secessionist movements. While Vanuatu has in the past taken a strong position in support of independence movements in for example New-Caledonia and West-Papua, this was done according to international laws and based on a perceived shared destiny and what is sometimes called Melanesian brotherhood. The New-Caledonia’s independence movement is for example an issue duly recorded with the United Nations Decolonization Committee.

The case of Abkhazia and this Government’s diplomatic recognition of it would appear to have nothing in common with these movements.

Abkhazia is a break away region of Georgia, a country born in the 1990s after the break up of the Soviet Union. Since the 1990s, the Russian Federation has tried to keep its influence in this region and has encouraged the secession of Abkhazia and South-Ossetia.

On the 9th April 1991, Georgia declared its independence from Russia. On 21st February 1992, Georgia's ruling Military Council announced that it was abolishing the Soviet-era constitution and restoring the 1921 Constitution of the Democratic Republic of Georgia. Many Abkhaz interpreted this as an abolition of their autonomous status, although the 1921 constitution contained a provision for the region's autonomy. On 23 July 1992, the Abkhaz faction declared effective independence from Georgia, although the secession was boycotted by ethnic Georgian deputies and the gesture went unrecognized by any other country.

The Abkhaz leadership launched a campaign of ousting Georgian officials from their offices, a process that was accompanied by violence. This was followed by a war between Georgia and Abkhazia that resulted in the victory of Abkhazia in 1993. During that war, gross human rights violations were reported on both sides, particularly in Abkhazia where as stated above between 200,000 and 240,000 Georgians were deported.

In 2008, war resumed and escalated to a full blown conflict between Russia (who support Abkhazia) and Georgia. This resulted in another victory for Abkhazia-Russia in August 2008. Since then, the Russian army is de-facto occupying Abkhazia, a situation said to be necessary in order for Russia to keep the peace. What appears certain is that Russia is the main political and military player and that in the realm of realpolitik Abkhazia has little choice but to align itself with Russia’s wishes.

This region and Abkhazia’s situation is complex and sensitive, and of all the countries or parts of the world that our small Pacific Island nation could be looking to build diplomatic relations with, it must be asked – why the region of Abkhazia?, a territory that is apparently recognized by fewer than a handful of countries.

Vanuatu has in the past been embarrassed by widely publicized diplomatic blunders such as when Vanuatu recognized Taiwan in 2004 only to switch back to recognizing China a month later, when the prime minister at the time Serge Vohor, who made the deal, was forced from office. The recent Auditor General’s draft report into the Beijing Embassy brought further disrepute and embarrassment to Vanuatu.

It is hardly surprising that Russia has come out in support of Vanuatu establishing diplomatic relations with Abkhazia, given Russia’s support of Abkhazia against Georgia.

A country’s diplomatic representatives or aspiring ambassadors should be individuals of good standing. They should bring credit to the country. They should not be having financial difficulties that may prompt them to behave corruptly. Ideally they should have a proven record of verifiable service to the community either through public service, politics or career diplomacy. If we continue to nominate or appoint diplomatic representatives on the narrow one dimensional basis of political loyalty which so often leads to expedient and self serving actions.

It is one thing to be politically naïve about events the wider world, but locally, if there have been any breaches of the Leadership Code, any undue influence, or any other form of official misconduct, then it should be investigated.

Perhaps also, before Vanuatu takes any tangible measures to establish diplomatic relations with any country or part of the world, an open and transparent process should be introduced allowing public comment from qualified or informed persons, which may also help avoid politically embarrassing decisions like this recent debacle with Abkhazia, which has diminished the reputations of everyone involved.