Abkhazia's Independence Farce

The push for Abkhaz statehood makes a mockery of international law -- and recognition would represent a chilling validation of ethnic cleansing.

So-called presidential elections took place last month in the breakaway Georgian region of Abkhazia. The fact that the European Union and the United States rejected them as totally illegitimate, however, did not prevent the proponents of the Abkhaz "cause" from continuing their campaign to achieve recognition as an independent state. Russian ministers, of course, praised the ballot. The international community, however, should not be fooled.

The Abkhaz regime exists only because Russia backs it with military might and financial support. Calls for international recognition conveniently overlook how it was established: through the killing of around 10,000 civilians in the 1990s and the expulsion of more than 300,000 people from Abkhazia over the past two decades.

It is for the international courts to define the legal nature of the atrocities committed by the Abkhaz militia and their Russian allies. But no one should ignore these acts while considering the future of a region that has been forcefully emptied of the overwhelming majority of its population.

The 1992-1993 conflict and the 2008 Russian invasion -- together with the constant harassment and intimidation of the non-Abkhaz civilian population -- have radically altered Abkhazia's demographics. According to Soviet census data, ethnic Abkhaz comprised 17.8 percent of the 525,000 residents of Abkhazia in 1989, while ethnic Georgians accounted for 45.7 percent, numbering roughly 240,000. By 2003, the ethnic Georgian population had decreased by 81 percent to just 46,000 (mostly in the Gali and Tkvarcheli districts); Armenians had been reduced by 41 percent, Russians by 69 percent, Greeks by 87 percent, and others (Ukrainians, Belarusians, Estonians, Jews) by 81 percent.

In the same period, the Abkhaz were the only ethnic group whose ranks increased -- from the prewar tally of just 17 percent to about half the population. The outrageous process by which this occurred has been denounced as "ethnic cleansing" by the United Nations, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, and many others.

The Georgian side that participated, mostly in the form of militias, in the war that raged during the early 1990s, was also involved -- like the Abkhaz -- in abject crimes. But since then, Georgia, as a government and society, has held its criminals to account. The militias were dissolved and banned, and their leaders jailed. Nothing similar has happened on the Abkhaz side. Nobody was prosecuted, and criminals were rewarded with fame, medals, and stolen property. Not a single person among the Abkhaz presidential candidates has ever even acknowledged -- let alone condemned -- the ethnic cleansing.

Meanwhile, proponents of the Abkhaz cause ask a powerful question: Why not apply the precedent of Kosovo, which achieved international recognition after a violent separation from Serbia, to Abkhazia?  

But replicating Kosovo (a process of recognition that can hardly be described as flawless) is not applicable. The differences between the two cases are stark. First, the most heinous crimes in Kosovo were committed by Serbians, the adversaries of secession; in Abkhazia, they were committed by the secessionists and their Russian allies. Second, the right of return of refugees to Kosovo was a precondition for self-determination; in Abkhazia, the so-called self-determination is linked with the refusal to allow the return of internally displaced people.

Put simply, Kosovo's independence was a way of punishing ethnic cleansing. In Abkhazia, such recognition would represent a chilling validation of ethnic cleansing, and a reward to its authors.

And there's more that makes the Kosovo parallel problematic. The processes leading to independence and recognition also could not have been more different. Abkhaz leaders have refused several peace plans proposed by the Georgian government, the United Nations, and Germany. In Kosovo's case, however, it was the Serbian government of Slobodan Milosevic that rejected peace efforts. After the war, Kosovo came under U.N. administration for nine years before its independence was recognized by a vast coalition of countries, including the United States and most European nations. In Abkhazia, international organizations have been denied entry, and its so-called independence has been recognized only by Russia and three other non-European countries, which all receive Russian financial support.

But the illegitimacy of Abkhazia's independence is not solely due to the failure of the international community to accept its sovereignty. It stems from deeper problems: the past and current actions of Abkhazia's leaders, their ideology of ethnic supremacy, and the Russian military occupation of its territory.

The Abkhaz people do need cooperation with Europe, and they deserve to be part of the world community. But the manner in which this happens is crucial. It cannot be done by validating ethnic cleansing, by ignoring the annexation of Georgia's sovereign territory, or by recognizing elections held in a society that is built on apartheid -- where a vast majority of the population has been expelled and most ethnic Georgians still remaining are not allowed to vote.

Instead, the international community should insist on the implementation of the 2008 cease-fire agreement between Georgia and Russia brokered by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, which stipulates the withdrawal of Russian troops. The next steps must be security guarantees and arrangements provided by international organizations, including ensuring the right of return of all internally displaced people.

Anything short of this throws international law in a waste bin. And any election held before the return of the people who have been expelled can only be a tragic farce.



The Land of Gas and Honey

Israel's giant new natural gas find will transform the Middle East -- and add more fuel to an already combustible region.

Mother Nature's distribution of oil and gas resources around the world suggests she has a mischievous sense of humor. In the Persian Gulf, South China Sea, and Caspian Sea, large fields lie in disputed zones between unfriendly neighbors.

Now we must add another hot spot to that list. New, giant, natural gas finds promise to transform the energy security and economy of Israel and, perhaps, its neighbors. But these treasures could hardly have been better placed to stir up trouble, complicating three of the world's most intractable conflicts: between Israel and the Palestinians, Israel and Lebanon, and Greek and Turkish Cypriots. The recent sharp deterioration in Turkish-Israeli relations makes disputes over gas even more fraught with danger.

Golda Meir, the feisty, cantankerous, and quotable fourth Israeli prime minister, used to complain that Moses led the Israelites through the desert for 40 years to bring them to the only place in the Middle East without oil. In 2000, after Britain's BG had discovered significant volumes of gas at Gaza Marine, she was proved at least half-wrong when U.S. exploration company Noble Energy found a similar-sized field, Mari-B, in Israeli waters.

In 2009, though, Noble put these efforts completely into the shade. Some bold and creative geological thinking led it to find 8.5 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) of gas in deep water at Tamar, the world's largest discovery that year. In late 2010, Noble uncovered an even larger field, aptly named Leviathan, containing 16 Tcf. These fields alone could meet U.S. gas demand for an entire year.

The Levant Basin, the geological area containing Tamar and Leviathan, spans not only Israel's offshore but also that of Lebanon, Cyprus, and Syria. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates it could contain 120 Tcf of gas, equivalent to almost half of U.S. reserves. Given that Cyprus, Lebanon, Israel, and the Palestinian territories between them have a population of less than 17 million, that's potentially a huge windfall.

The gas, therefore, suddenly eliminates one of Israel's key strategic and economic weaknesses: its lack of indigenous energy resources. Tamar alone could supply all of Israel's power plants for more than 20 years. And the discoveries are very timely, because Mari-B will be depleted by 2013 and because of the sudden insecurity of Egyptian gas imports.

Israel receives about 40 percent of its gas consumption from Egypt, though the deal is deeply unpopular there, with ex-president Hosni Mubarak and his cronies accused of underpricing the gas and profiting corruptly from sales. The pipeline through the volatile Sinai has been attacked five times this year, cutting supplies and forcing Israel to raise electricity prices by almost 10 percent in August to cover the increased costs of burning oil.

Replicating Israel's success would likewise transform the prospects of energy-poor Lebanon and Cyprus. Cyprus is still reeling from the accidental destruction of its main power station, blown up in July by confiscated Iranian munitions stored with remarkable carelessness next to it.

Noble has been given the green light by the U.S. Embassy in Nicosia to go ahead with drilling in Cypriot waters adjacent to Leviathan. In contrast, Lebanon and Syria have been painfully slow to realize their opportunity. Major oil companies had looked at the area as early as 2001, yet Lebanon's fractious parliament only passed an oil law in 2010 after enviously eyeing Israel's success. Syria had planned to award exploration blocks this year, but this seems unlikely as long as the uprising against the Assad regime continues.

Meanwhile, the unfortunate people of Gaza, whose field arguably started the whole rush, suffer from daily power cuts. Long negotiations to develop their gas predictably went nowhere because the Israelis had no intention of giving the Palestinian Authority an additional source of revenue, especially after Hamas's 2007 takeover of the strip.

The Israelis now have an abundance of riches. They could export gas to Jordan, whose economy is struggling under the burden of expensive oil. The Jordanians, though, might play them off against Iraq, a more politically palatable supplier that will also have excess gas to sell within a few years.

Other than that, without any friends in the region, the Israelis will have to look west for markets. They could have built a pipeline through Cyprus and on to Turkey and mainland Europe. But, with impeccable timing, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government has escalated a war of rhetoric against Turkey, as Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman reportedly threatened with his characteristic finesse to arm the Kurdish PKK group.

Instead, Israel will probably require more costly and complicated liquefaction facilities in order to ship the gas by tanker to customers in Southern Europe.

The other problem is the region's territorial disputes. Israel and the Republic of Cyprus -- that's the Greek one -- have delineated their maritime border and have shared economic interests. But the maritime border between Israel and Lebanon is not demarcated, and Lebanon has weakened its position with diplomatic missteps while each side has submitted its own claims. These will be hard to resolve: International courts and arbitration do not apply while the two states have no diplomatic relations, and Israel has not signed the 1994 Convention on the Law of the Sea.

The actual overlapping claims area is surprisingly small, and it seems clear that Tamar and Leviathan lie in Israeli waters. Yet Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has vowed to retaliate against Israel's gas installations for any attempt to "steal" Lebanese natural resources. It appears that underwater gas could become another Shebaa Farms issue, a minor territorial claim exploited to perpetuate the Lebanese-Israeli conflict.

The Israelis are probably well capable of defending offshore installations against Lebanese or Palestinian threats, particularly as the wells will be on the seabed beneath 1,600 meters of water. Turkey is an entirely different matter. Turkey, of course, recognizes neither EU member Cyprus, having backed the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus since the 1974 war and partition of the island, nor the Cyprus-Israel accord.

Turkish Cypriot President Dervis Eroglu said in early August that Cyprus's gas (not a molecule of which has yet been discovered) belonged not only to Greek Cypriots but to Turkish Cypriots and Turkey too.

Turkish pressure is likely to push Cyprus deeper into Israel's willing embrace. Solon Kassinis, head of Cyprus's Energy Service, fired back at the Turks, "I expected Turkey to bark, but I don't think they will do anything ... if they want to be considered a country that respects international law." Greece, which has been wooed by Israel following its rupture with the Turks, vowed to defend Greek Cypriot sovereignty.

The most explosive issue, however, is the rupture of Turkish-Israeli relations. Although Turkey has no maritime border with Israel, nor much prospect of sharing in the offshore gas bounty, the Cyprus and Lebanon disputes give it an excellent opening to retaliate for Israeli intransigence over the Gaza-bound flotilla raid and other areas of dispute.

Interviewed by Al Jazeera, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared on Sept. 8, "Turkey will not allow Israel exclusive use of the resources of the Mediterranean Sea" and said he planned to dispatch three frigates to confront Israeli warships. Israeli Infrastructure Minister Uzi Landau responded, "Israel can support and secure the rigs that we are going to have in the Mediterranean." But in the current political climate, neither Turkey nor Lebanon wants to give Israel an easy path to riches.

The United States has urged Turkey and Israel to ease tensions, while saying that it viewed the gas discoveries overall as positive. In a few years, if all goes well, some brave soul in Congress might question the irony of a major gas exporter's being the largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid.

But in the short term, the lure of riches makes conflict resolution more difficult and gives hard-liners on all sides another casus belli. Tamar and Leviathan are unfortunately not the catalyst for regional peace and prosperity, but, rather, more fuel in an already combustible mix.

David Silverman/Getty Images