Political Self-Determination: Mr. Kieran Pender

Monday, 19 September 2016

I’ll be exploring cultural and political self-determination, drawing on my recent fieldwork in Abkhazia. I’ll be drawing comments relating to Abkhazia back to Artsakh - it’s useful to have that comparative perspective of how de facto states operate, what they are doing differently and similarly to each other, and the challenges they face as a sub-category in the international community.

It is important to be cognisant to their differences - one risk we faces is putting them all into this homogenous box of de facto states. They have real distinctiveness; but there are important points of similarities that we can learn from.

Political Self-Determination

A colleague of mine, a Polish photojournalist, was in Artsakh last month and she said to me - a lot of people see the NKR as just a part of Armenia; they call each other brothers, they have a common enemy, they are economically dependent on Armenia, they don’t want independence per se but want unity with Armenia.

This may or may not be true for many, but the reason I bring this up is that it is demonstrative of viewing these unrecognised states as just pawns - non-independent actors in a game being played by other states. And that disguises their agency. If you view Artsakh as just part of Armenia, you think it’s controlled by Yerevan and not Stepanakert. And that’s dangerous for several reasons - both from an analytical perspective, where it obscures the far more complex reality, and it has potential real world consequences. As the OSCE is doing, when you view the conflict as a matter of Armenia versus Azerbaijan, you’re oversimplifying far more complex realities and that doesn’t assist conflict resolution.

Abkhazia is perhaps the prime example of where this agency is removed from a de facto state. Following the 2008 conflict between Russia and Georgia, Abkhazia - to the Western world - because a Russian pawn, or a Russian occupied state. These comments were not limited to the more extreme end of the Western political spectrum - only last month John Kerry referred to Abkhazia as Russian occupied territory.

From my experience, that is not the case. Abkhazia has significant internal and external agency.But to the West they ignore this empirical reality, and they use this reality to remove the problem - to focus on Russia, and not deal with the complexities on the ground. The Abkhazian foreign minister said to me that they were fully autonomous - the ministry officials were all Abkhaz locals, not Russian FSB agents.

By obscuring the complex reality, there are both analytical failings and on the ground consequences.

So what does this mean for the leadership of the NKR? It means that the first step in legitimising the claims to self-determination is to prove their status as an independent actor. A secondary problem that arises is recognition. Recognition may produce numerous negative consequences, and possibly war, but when the primary goal of your republic is jeopardised in that way - what are the options?

Abkhazia provides an interesting example. They were recognised by Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuala, Nauru - all the diplomatic powerhouses - following the 2008 war. But since then there has been no further recognition. And that has been problematic, becuase finally after strivigin for a decade and a half, they were recognised by several states and then the process stopped. And eventually this prompted a shift in thinking that perhaps recognition is not crucial for their existence. And so the foreign minister said to me - “we can live without recognition; it’s desirable, but it’s not necessary”. This is a sincere expression of trying to adapt to the reality of the international environment, and they’ve undertaken various creative measures to gain improved international credibility without formal widespread recognition.

Cultural Self-Determination

Culture is an important part of symbolic legitimacy building - and it is also currently a big gap in the academic literature of this field. There has been a huge increase in authors writing about conventional legitimation methods - democratic elections, provision of public goods, economic growth; and they say in their works, there are other sources of legitimacy - labelling flags, anthems, public holidays, national museums. Full stop.

But the symbolic and cultural aspects of legitimacy building is very important; and that is what my research has focused on.

Abkhazia hosted a football tournament in June. Why would a de facto state wiht a failing economy and significant political challenges hold such a tournament? The way Abkhazia used this tournament, and sport more broadly, as as a tool of symbolic legitimacy building.The tournament had real internal and external legitimacy benefits. Abkhazia is a divided multiethnic society, and the tournament brought people together - it consolidated national identity. This isn’t a problem faced by Artsakh, but the external point of legitimacy definitely is.

100 accredited foreign journalists went to the tournament - from the ABC, Guardian, Washington Post, etc. - but this was probably the first time that so many foreign journalists had been in Abkhazia. The media has reported on Abkhazia occasionally, but it has been on its troubles - contested elections, riots, the war in 2008, the civil war with Georgia in 1992-3. The same point could be made of Artsakh. When Western journalists go there, they go to cover the conflict. But now, in Abkhazia’s case, they were no longer in Western media - at least momentarily - a Russian pawn. They were the proud host of an international football tournament.

Not only did that have inherent image building elements, but it also brought to the fore other elements to Abkhaz culture. Flags, the anthem, the opening ceremony dedicated to Abkhazia’s history and culture - we see through this rather creative legitimacy building strategy considerable benefits. The general secretary or  CONIFA, the organisation running the tournament, said that the “tournament itself will not guarantee recognition tomorrow; but it might be the very first step in showing a different image of Abkhazia that ultimately leads to recognition in the future.”

A lesson for Karabakh might be to host a football tournament - but more seriously, this was not a one-off action - this was a concerted push towards an unconventional foreign policy based upon a recognition of the limitations they face, and they have attempted to use sport and culture to improve their external standing. The Abkhaz foreign ministry has been active in setting up sister city agreements across the region that emphasise cultural ties and sporting exchanges. This is a concerted foreign policy of bringing to the fore the cultural aspects of self determination and the symbolism inherent in those to achieve greater legitimacy both internally and externally.

I’ll conclude with a statement which reflects on the personal aspect of all of this. What really struck me; we sit in our ivory tower and research these political oddities - but going there really gave me a sense of the deep personal impact that these conflicts have, and the deep personal impact of non-recognition. My translator in Abkhazia was a recent university graduate who was struggling to get a job because the Abkhazian economy was struggling. She can’t work in the European Union, the US, or more prosperous areas because she can’t travel on an Abkhazian passport.

I hope to leave you tonight with an avid appreciation of the personal impact of these conflicts. It’s easy to appreciate the political - because that’s what dominates our media coverage of these territories - but non-recognition has deep, personal and emotional impacts that were only made evident to me having been there.