On 13 June 2013, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted an annual resolution on the status of refugees and internally displaced persons from Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region. The number of countries supporting this resolution increased this year and it is noteworthy that this happened regardless of the change of power in Georgia. At the same time, certain unpleasant tendencies observed this year give food for thought. The Georgian government should analyze these tendencies, draw appropriate conclusions from them and design an effective diplomatic strategy for the maintenance, strengthening and increase of international support for the resolution.
The main elements of this humanitarian resolution are: the recognition of the right of all refugees and internally displaced persons to return to their homes in Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region; the respect of the property rights of those persons; the prohibition of forced demographic changes; humanitarian access for all refugees, internally displaced persons and other citizens living within the conflict affected area; a call on the participants in the Geneva talks to establish favorable security conditions conducive to the voluntary, safe, dignified and unimpeded return of internally displaced persons; the development of a timetable for their return; and the demand that the UN Secretary General submit a complex report on the implementation of the resolution at the next General Assembly.
This time around, the resolution recognizing the right of all refugees and internally displaced persons to return to their homes in Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region was adopted by a recorded vote of 62 in favor to 16 against, with 84 abstentions. This means that, compared to the previous year, the list of supporting countries increased by two and those opposing the resolution by one (Belarus), whilst two more countries joined the ranks of those abstaining.
As regards the geography of the supporting countries, the resolution was supported by all EU member states except Cyprus, which traditionally remains among the abstaining countries. Other supporters of the resolution in Europe are Croatia, which will become an EU member state on 1 July, and the non-EU member states of Iceland, Norway, Lichtenstein, San Marino and Andorra. Switzerland abstained because of its role as a mediator between Georgia and Russia.
According to the official data on this year ballot, none of Georgia's four bordering countries voted in favor of the resolution: Russia and Armenia went against the resolution, Turkey abstained, whilst Azerbaijan, a supporter in previous years, appeared on the list of "empty seats" (i.e. official absentees) because of some "technical reasons".
Moldova was the only supporter from among the GUAM member states (Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova). From the former Yugoslav countries, the supporters include Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina, with Serbia voting against the resolution and Macedonia abstaining. It is noteworthy that Georgia has not yet established diplomatic relations with Macedonia because of controversies over the official name of the country. Georgia takes into account the principled opposition of Greece, a NATO and EU member state, against the "Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia" being officially referred to as "the Republic of Macedonia."
From the Western hemisphere, Georgia's resolution is traditionally supported by the United States and Canada. Central America shows greater instability. Even though Belize appeared among the supporting countries for the first time this year, Honduras and Costa Rica, which had changed their stance from supporters to abstainers in 2012, once again abstained from casting ballots in favor of the resolution. All South American countries stuck to their earlier position of abstaining. A positive, though somewhat unstable, situation was observed among the Caribbean countries: Grenada, which voted in favor of the resolution for the first time last year, opted to abstain this year, whereas Antigua and Barbuda, the Bahamas, the Commonwealth of Dominica, Saint Lucia, as well as Saint Vincent and the Grenadines all supported the resolution.
From Oceania, supporters included Australia and New Zealand and the smaller island countries of this region – Palau, Samoa, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Vanuatu and Tuvalu. It is worth noting that Vanuatu has shown a confused position towards the territorial integrity of Georgia, first recognizing and then withdrawing its recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but has traditionally supported the resolution. The situation with Tuvalu is even more paradoxical: the country recognizes the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but supports the UN resolution on Georgia.
None of Georgia's four bordering countries voted in favor of the resolution: Russia and Armenia went against the resolution, Turkey abstained, whilst Azerbaijan, a supporter in previous years, appeared on the list of "empty seats," i.e. official absentees, because of some "technical reasons".
In Asia only two countries support the resolution on Georgia – Japan and the Maldives, an island nation in the Indian Ocean. African countries, similarly to those of the Caribbean and Oceania, show a positive dynamic but exhibit instability from year to year. For example, Liberia, a supporter in 2012, abstained this year. The Comoros supported the resolution last year, but did not turn up for the ballot this year. Burundi switched from abstaining to a supporter this year. The Central African Republic also changed its position for the better. As of today, the supporting African countries include Burundi, Gambia, Malawi, Somalia and the Central African Republic.
Along with Russia, this year's resolution was opposed by Belarus, Venezuela, Vietnam, Zimbabwe, Cuba, Laos, Myanmar, Nauru, Nicaragua, Serbia, Armenia, Sudan, Sri Lanka and North Korea. There is no doubt that each of these countries took this unfriendly step against Georgia under pressure from Moscow.
Although the resolution is of a humanitarian nature, Russia spares no effort to load it with political connotations, something which especially complicates its undertakings to convince countries to vote against it. In this endeavor Russia applies the following arguments: given that both the title and the text of the resolution refer to Abkhazia and South Ossetia as integral parts of Georgia, its politically motivated nature is apparent; the war of August 2008 gave rise to a new reality in which Abkhazia and South Ossetia do not, either de facto or de jure, fall within Georgia; the resolution impedes the Geneva talks, grossly interfering with them and is, therefore, counterproductive; the resolution reflects the situation based on information provided by one side alone and, in order to get the full picture, representatives of the "parties to the conflict with Georgia," i.e. Abkhazia and South Ossetia, need to be invited to the debates in the General Assembly.
Taking into account that the absolute majority of UN member states, including 12 out of the 16 countries that voted against the resolution, recognize the territorial integrity of Georgia within its internationally recognized borders, the most worrying of the arguments used by Russia against the resolution is the one about the Geneva talks. The majority of those 84 countries which usually abstain from voting for the resolution commonly explain their positions to the General Assembly by a desire not to impede those talks. Some of those countries might really believe in the righteousness of this position, but for the majority of them this is just an excuse they use to justify their neutral position and is a means of avoiding irritating Russia. Another category of countries oppose the practice of adopting country-specific resolutions by the UN as a matter of principle. There are also such countries which, as a result of their own national interests, are against the principle of the return of refugees in general. Several countries do not back Georgia's resolution because of its pro-Western course. Meanwhile, a couple of other countries vote against the resolution in order to counterbalance their opposition to Moscow's position of recognizing the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Georgia's resolution mirrors the current reality in a world full of controversies and problems. Even though Western countries do not lobby for this resolution with the same zeal that they lobby for the policy of non-recognition of Georgia's occupied territories, it is not difficult for political observers to draw parallels between the resolution and the non-recognition policy. Furthermore, given that this resolution directly refers to Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region as territories of Georgia, it is a sort of instrument of the non-recognition policy. Georgia must therefore step up its lobbying activities within the capital cities of influential Western countries as a means of securing the favorable disposition of developing countries towards the resolution.
It is also worth noting that during this year's debates on the resolution, Russia's call to vote against the resolution was made by the Russian Permanent Representative to the UN, Vitaly Churkin – in contrast to previous years when the calls against the resolution were made by his deputy. Churkin stepping in is a sign of Russia strengthening its pressure to dissuade the Georgian government from submitting such resolutions in the future.
Yet another worrying factor is the change in Belarus's stance, from being neutral to opposing Georgia's resolution. Minsk has experienced no shortage of pressure from Moscow in previous years. However, the Belarusian president considered the Saakashvili government and the diplomacy of the former Foreign Minister Grigol Vashadze to be so important, especially in relations with the EU, that he deemed winning Tbilisi's heart desirable in spite of the pressure from Moscow. Belarus's position this year should be an indication to Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili that even those countries that heavily depend on Moscow appreciate the advantageousness and diplomatic maturity of Tbilisi more than the "thawing" of relations between Georgia and Russia.
As regards Azerbaijan's position, its permanent representative to the UN said that he voted in favor of the resolution but "due to technical reasons" his position did not make it into the results. It must be noted that Azerbaijan's representative to the UN is very experienced and it cannot have been difficult for him to act in accordance with UN regulations to ensure that his vote was recorded in the results. It is a fact that he did not apply this right and, consequently, one may assume that Azerbaijan's "technical reasons" constitute a form of protest against the lukewarm attitude of the current Georgian government towards Baku.
In 2008, Georgia's resolution on the rights of refugees and internally displaced persons had only 14 supporters and 11 opponents. Owing to the efforts of the former Georgian government and the diplomacy of the Permanent Representation of Georgia in the UN and its head, Ambassador Alexander (Kaha) Lomaia, the number of supporters has increased year to year. In 2012, some 60 countries supported the resolution against 15. The fact that the number of supporters increased to 62 this year is both a result of the activities performed over previous years and the activities undertaken by the new government of Georgia. At the same time, the change in Belarus's position and the lapse of Azerbaijan are worrying.
It is necessary that current Georgian government feels that it contributed to the results of this year's resolution – this will probably encourage it to step up its activities in this area. At the same time, the current government must realize the direct correlation between the non-recognition policy of the occupied territories and the campaign for the support of the resolution. Getting developed countries interested in Georgia is an important source for increasing the number of supporters of the resolution. It is necessary to resume the practice of previous years of encouraging representatives of developing states to visit Georgia. It is also necessary to resume the visits of Foreign Affairs Ministry representatives and high-level delegations to the countries of Asia, Latin America and Oceania and to step up other diplomatic efforts aimed at sharing reforms, financing the education of foreign students in Georgia and providing targeted assistance to developing countries. Georgia's activity in the international arena, its liberal visa regime and the country's image as a reformer were those factors which, alongside participation in regional projects, helped strengthen the non-recognition policy and was conducive towards the successful campaigning for securing the support for the resolution on Georgian refugees. This is a positive experience which the current government must necessarily take into account.