Russians are back in the South Pacific


Michael Field

Russians are back in the Pacific in manoeuvres that started during the Rugby World Cup involving cash in envelopes and promises of more to come.

The money is to recognise non-existent states Abkhaz and South Ossetia. Rival money is being paid to say they do not exist.

The diplomatic game has left Pacific experts concerned that the region is being destabilised by a phoney war fought in the Caucasus which began with the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union when Georgia declared its independence.

The Black Sea region of Abkhazia tried to break away but most of the world sees is as part of Georgia. A 1992-93 war saw Abkhaz and Russian forces drive Georgians out.

Russia also helped the mountainous South Ossetia region through several conflicts to proclaim an independent state.

Recognition matters as each state's vote in the United Nations is as good as any other.

Little noticed during the RWC, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and rival Georgian Minister Grigol Vashadze worked the sidelines and used the Auckland Pacific Forum summit to show their wares.

Diplomatic sources at the summit said the Caucasus rivals had cash in private envelopes and more visible offers of aid.

First spoils went to Russia with the world's smallest state, Nauru, recognising Abkhaz and South Ossetia.

Georgia felt they had the second largest nation, Tuvalu, and they gave them US$12,000 (NZ$15,400) in medical equipment last year to back a UN resolution calling for the return of displaced ethnic Georgians to Abkhazia.

But Tuvalu's nod proved to be for sale and after Tuvalu Prime Minister Willy Telavi met Lavrov, they switched sides.

Abkhazia's new ambassador to the Pacific, Juris Gulbis, told Bloomberg their response of giving water aid to drought afflicted Tuvalu was as "a genuine emergency, our principles prevent us from exploiting human hardship for political gain."

Three months ago Abkhazia announced it had been recognised by Vanuatu but a day or so later Vanuatu said it was not so.

Vanuatu's UN ambassador Donald Kalpokas told the New York Times this was not true.

"We don't know who is responsible for declaring that this is true. As far as we are concerned, we are dealing with Georgia, not Abkhazia. It is defamation for our country. This is disrespect."

After RWC, Georgia's Vashadze flew to Fiji's dictator Voreqe Bainimarama offering six scholarships and 100 school books. He also promised a mining industry.

This week the Australian Strategic Policy Institute said Russia's activities involved more than just UN vote buying and in a paper say it looks like the millions involved are also aimed at getting fishing access.

Australia's parliamentary secretary for Pacific island affairs Richard Marles is annoyed at the cheque book diplomacy.

"It would be naive to think this kind of behaviour could go on in the Pacific undetected," he told Bloomberg.

"What this boils down to is Russia taking advantage of very small, pretty vulnerable countries to pursue agendas which have very little to do with the Pacific."

In the 1970s then Prime Minister Robert Muldoon and then David Lange are various times expressed alarm over Soviet involvement in the South Pacific.

This time around, it has gone unnoticed in Wellington.

4 December 2011






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