Instead of letting the issue of breakaway regions become a pretext for war or a new Cold War, it would be better to give South Ossetia, Abkhazia and similar contested areas special UN membership and status argues Rene Wadlow in this response to the recent conflict of Russia and Georgia.

by Rene Wadlow


            From bitter searching of the heart,

            Quickened with passion and with pain

            We rise to play a greater part.

            This is the faith from which we start:

            Men shall know commonwealth again

            From bitter searching of the heart.

                                                Frank Scott (1899-1985)


The conflict between Georgia and Abkhazia dates from mid-August 1992 when Georgian troops moved into Sukumi in an effort to re-establish Georgian control over the historically autonomous zone of Abkhazia.  The South Ossetia tensions began even earlier, 1989, prior to the break up of the Soviet Union.  South Ossetia requested reunification with the Soviet autonomous republic of North Ossetia.  By 1994, both conflicts were considered “frozen”, that is, no war but no settlement.  The United Nations was involved in mediation between Georgia and Abkhazia, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) was to mediate the Georgia-South Ossetia conflict. 

Why the two conflicts “melted” in the heat of August 2008 is open to speculation, and a good number of commentators have been happy to speculate.  What seems certain now after the recognition of their independence by Russia is that Abkhazia and South Ossetia will not be reintegrated into the Georgian state any more than Kosovo will again become an autonomous region of Serbia. 

Thus government representatives must face the fact that the break up of Yugoslavia and of the USSR has left a series of ‘mini-states,’ economically fragile, potentially manipulated by more powerful states, but  which will not be reintegrated into their former state, even if promised a good deal of autonomy. 

The government  authorities of some states look upon the independence of ‘separatist’ areas with disquiet.  China sees a justification for Tibetan demands or those of Taiwan; Spain for the Basque area.  Many African states face regional demands for autonomy or independence. 

However, it is better to face realities and to develop a form of security for what has been called “the Phantom Republics”.  Security should start with membership in the United Nations as soon as possible. The UN General Assembly begins late September, and membership should be a high priority.  With UN membership, the danger of changing their status by force is lessened.  The independence of Kuwait, certainly as problematic as that of Abkhazia, was re-established by force in the 1991 Gulf War.           

Once recognized by UN membership, it will be up to each of the Phantom Republics to create economic, social and political ties with their neighbors.  Thus will start what Frank Scott saw as “knowing commonwealth again from the bitter searching of the heart.” 


 “The Phantom Republics” has been a name given to the states demanding the status of independence after the break up of Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union: Kosovo, Nagrno-Karabakh, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Transnistra, and Chechenya.  The current conflict between Russia and Georgia has put the Abkhazia and South Ossetia conflicts at center stage of world politics.  The independence of Kosovo has been recognized by a good number of countries, but there is also strong opposition, and Kosovo has not been granted membership in the United Nations.  Chechenya has been ‘pacified’ by Russian troops, and it is unlikely that the Russian Government is willing to reopen the issue. However if the Phantom Republics supported by Russia — Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transnistra — were granted UN membership, it might be possible that Chechenyan independence would be a counter-weight and a sign of good will on the part of the Russian Federation. 

There are obviously oppositions to recognizing each of these states as independent, in particular opposition from the states of which they were once a part.  Serbia has run a long campaign against the independence of Kosovo citing history, the human rights of minorities, and territorial integrity.  At one stage, I had thought that it might be possible to create a pan-Albanian cultural union with official links among Albanians in Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia while keeping a political status of autonomy within Serbia.  However, governments like simple solutions — you are in or out, independent or not.  Just as one is difficultly partly pregnant, so it is difficult to be partly independent. 

Thus, after long and bitter negotiations, Kosovo is an independent state which will have to create links with Albania and Macedonia but which cannot escape relations with Serbia which remains the economic motor of the region.  Each of the Phantom Republics is in a difficult position, and with good will and creative political imagination, other forms than independence guaranteed by UN membership might have been found.  Alas, good will and creative political imagination have been in short supply. 

In the case of Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, at least since 1993, there have been mediators from the UN and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.  There have been ‘track two’ – non-governmental meetings to discuss the issues.  There have been detailed proposals set out, one by a colleague from the University of Geneva, Giorgio Malinverni, who proposed a form of asymmetrical federalism for Georgia — a Swiss Ambassador, Edward Brunner, being the UN mediator at the time.  While the plan was discussed, nothing seems to have come of it. 

Today, the issues in Georgia have resulted in tensions between the USA, Europe and Russia not seen since the end of the Cold War in 1990. 

My proposal is a ‘package deal’ in which all the Phantom Republics become UN members at the same time. Such a package deal resembles earlier package deals for membership when countries had been blocked by Cold War tensions.  UN membership grants   recognition of being part of the ‘international community’.  It guarantees existing frontiers and a wall against aggression.  UN membership will also provide an elegant way for Russia to withdraw its peacekeeping troops from Abkhazia and South Ossetia. 

Thus the Phantom Republics will join the UN along such small UN members as Andorra, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Monaco and San Marino — all the result of the restructuring of feudal Europe. When a few years back, Swiss soldiers stumbled into Liechtenstein on a night march because the frontier has no high walls, there was not a diplomatic crisis.  Switzerland with its democratic institutions has learned to live next door to a hereditary prince without feeling menaced just as republican France lives next to the princely state of Monaco, neither state feeling that its institutions are under attack. It may take some time to turn Abkhazia into a Black Sea Monaco, but inevitably, for economic and social reasons neighboring states learn to cooperate if they are not able to destroy one or the other by war. 

Membership in the UN of the Phantom Republics raises for some the spectre of ‘fragmentation’ or ‘Balkanization’ of the world into a multitude of tiny units to the disadvantage of world security.  However, in this case, the recognition of independence is a necessary first step.  Once UN membership has been universally accepted for the Phantom Republics, new forms of regional cooperation can be undertaken in a calmer and clearer atmosphere.

Rene Wadlow, Representative to the United Nations, Geneva, Association of World Citizens and editor of the online journal of world politics