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Georgia and Russia: how a Eurasian conflict came to Canberra

Canberra has become the unlikely staging point for a former Soviet country's diplomatic scramble to retain sovereignty over two disputed territories.

Georgia has been locked in a bitter feud with northern neighbour Russia since 2008, when the latter invaded the former's breakaway provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Georgian ambassador Vladimer Konstantinidi at the Embassy of Georgia in O'Malley.
Georgian ambassador Vladimer Konstantinidi at the Embassy of Georgia in O'Malley. Photo: Jeffrey Chan

While the armed conflict lasted only five days, Russia has heavily backed the two regions' claims to independence and sovereignty, supported by a handful of other United Nations members.

Among that handful were three Pacific island countries – Nauru, and temporarily Vanuatu and Tuvalu – prompting Georgia to step up its diplomatic presence in the region and turning Australia and wider Oceania into a key diplomatic battleground critics have described as driven by realpolitik and funding.

Russian tanks drive through Tskhinvali, the regional capital of Georgia's breakaway province of South Ossetia, moving to ...
Russian tanks drive through Tskhinvali, the regional capital of Georgia's breakaway province of South Ossetia, moving to the Russian border in 2008. Photo: Dmitry Lovetsky

After initial Russian success – Nauru and Tuvalu recognised the two provinces in December 2009 and May 2011 respectively, while Vanuatu acknowledged Abkhazian independence in May 2013 – the Georgians have since taken the lead in the Pacific front.

Georgia appointed its first resident ambassador to Australia, Vladimer Konstantinidi in early 2012, who has since criss-crossed the South Pacific on a diplomatic blitz with the help of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.


Mr Konstantinidi said Georgia had been planning to open a Canberra embassy for some time, but his government saw greater urgency in its establishment after Russia's alleged "chequebook diplomacy" in the Pacific from 2010.

"The process started where it was very dangerous and jeopardised not only our internal affairs, but generally all systems of international relations," he said.

"With the assistance of the Australian government we started very actively working [in the region] and achieved significant results."

Mr Konstantinidi has since been appointed as the Georgian ambassador to New Zealand, Fiji, Samoa and the Solomon Islands, operating in those roles out of his Canberra base.

It took a little over two years for the Georgian government to swing Tuvalu to their side, when a formal bilateral consular agreement stressed Tuvalu's recognition of Georgia's international boundaries – including the disputed territories.

Vanuatu proved a more complicated arrangement. While the country never recognised South Ossetia's sovereignty, its position on Abkhazia has changed several times since 2011.

While originally recognising Abkhazia's independence and agreed on a visa-free travel agreement, officials denied any formal diplomatic relations had ever been established in May 2013.

The country established diplomatic relations with Georgia in July 2013 and Mr Konstantinidi became the Georgian ambassador in 2014, but ambiguous statements by then Vanuatu foreign minister Sato Kilman early last year again threw the relationship into question.

Both countries remain keenly interested in Fiji, which has yet to recognise either South Ossetia or Abkhazia.

Mr Konstantinidi said the outreach to Pacific nations was important as each had a vote in the United Nations General Assembly.

"At the end of the day you have up to 10 countries there, so it's quite a strong group," he said.

"We started diplomatic relations and got accreditation in all of those countries, but without Australia's support I think it would be very difficult."

Setting up shop in Canberra was also a strategic move, with Mr Konstantinidi noting Australia was building a more visible presence on the world stage.

"We believe the significance of Australia is growing, because Australia is becoming more of a global player in the region," he said.

"Australia is also getting more active towards the countries of our part of the world."

The diplomatic visits have been accompanied by substantial financial contributions to the countries; after Nauru's foreign minister visited the disputed territories on the way to the Copenhagen climate change conference in 2009, Russia gave the small Pacific island nation $50 million to build a deep-sea mooring system.

Conversely, Tuvalu received medical aid worth $12,000 in 2011 from Georgia after it backed a UN resolution on repatriation in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

The courtship of Pacific nations in fights over recognition is nothing new, according to Stewart Firth from the Australian National University's College of Asia and the Pacific.

He said People's Republic of China and the Republic of China had looked toward the island nations for validation of their respective claims to the island of Taiwan.

"[Pacific island leaders] are quite used to all this, and they wouldn't have been surprised when it happened; it's a very old game," he said.

"The island nations don't have much but what they do have is sovereignty, and what you can do with sovereignty is recognise places. That's what Georgia in particular is most interested in."

Dr Firth said other countries outside the region, such as the United Arab Emirates, were also taking an increased interest in the Pacific to muster support for their own campaigns in the UN.

Since Russia's annexation of Crimea in March 2014, South Ossetia and Abkhazia's approach to independence has changed, with plans in the former to hold a referendum determining whether residents wanted to become a part of Russia.

Whether this change of approach will affect Russia and Georgia's approach to the Pacific remains to be seen.