When Tuvalu, a string of atolls in the Pacific Ocean with a population of 11,000, received fresh water from a Russian-backed breakaway region...
SYDNEY — When Tuvalu, a string of atolls in the Pacific Ocean with a population of 11,000, received fresh water from a Russian-backed breakaway region of Georgia last month, the emergency shipment had strings attached.
Georgian officials say the donor, Abkhazia, has been working to persuade aid-dependent countries to recognize it as an independent nation.
There were no conditions attached to the water aid, said Juris Gulbis, Abkhazia’s ambassador to the Asia- Pacific. The shipment was a response “to a genuine emergency, our principles prevent us from exploiting human hardship for political gain,” he said by email.
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While Georgia lifted its veto over Russia joining the World Trade Organization last month, their conflict is now playing out 9,000 miles away in the Pacific Ocean. So far, four countries acknowledged the independence of Russian-backed Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the separatist state Russia and Georgia went to war over in 2008.
“This is unquestionably checkbook diplomacy,” Richard Marles, the Australian parliamentary secretary for Pacific Island affairs, said from Canberra. “It would be naive to think this kind of behavior could go on in the Pacific undetected.”
Tuvalu’s government confirmed the water shipment arrived Oct. 21. It officially recognized Russia-backed Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states in September, the island state’s prime minister, Willy Telavi, said in an Oct. 7 interview.
The other three countries that have given official recognition are Nauru, another Pacific island, and Nicaragua and Venezuela in Latin America.
Russia says it had nothing to do with it. “We heard about Tuvalu’s decision from media agencies,” said Timur Zevakhin, second secretary at the Russian embassy in Canberra.
“We do not have any idea about other Pacific states establishing relations with South Ossetia and Abkhazia,” he said. All Russian aid to the South Pacific region is “transparent,” Zevakhin said.
Georgia became the last of the 153 members of the World Trade Organization (WTO) to approve Russian membership after the European Union supported the accession. Russia expects to conclude the process Dec. 15, Arkady Dvorkovich, chief economy aide to President Dmitry Medvedev, said in Moscow.
“Such unfriendly acts from Russia as buying recognition from yet another state worsens the atmosphere,” Georgian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergi Kapanadze, said by email on Oct. 13 as he participated in WTO talks.
Aligned with Russia
Georgia last month dispatched its foreign minister to Fiji and regional powers Australia and New Zealand after Tuvalu became the second Pacific state after Nauru to establish relations with the two Russia-backed breakaway regions.
“Obviously if they recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia, they’re aligning themselves with Russian interests and the interests of the other countries that have recognized us,” Gulbis, the Abkhaz envoy, said in Suva, Fiji.
Tuvalu and Nauru are the two smallest countries in the world by population other than the Vatican.
The Russian Embassy in Canberra said Russia has paid $10 million to Nauru, which recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2009. Tuvalu now expects Russian aid, premier Telavi said in Funafuti, the island’s capital.
Tuvalu, whose official development aid made up 44 percent of national income in 2009, according to World Bank data, has only a few paved roads and gets income from remittances by expatriate Tuvaluans and selling the “.tv” Internet domain.
Fiji also is being courted by both Russia and Georgia. Foreign Minister Grigol Vashadze visited last month, offering six scholarships and to send 100 books for schoolchildren, according to a statement by the Fijian government.
Pacific island nations are used to bartering recognition for aid, after exploiting competition between China and Taiwan, said Fergus Hanson, research fellow at the Sydney-based Lowy Institute for International Policy.
“It costs them very little to recognize somewhere like Abkhazia, they couldn’t care less, it doesn’t affect their international standing because they have very little,” Hanson said.
Australia, which along with New Zealand is a major donor to the South Pacific region, is urging Russia to desist from effectively bribing Pacific nations to align with its interests.
“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,” said Marles, the Australian parliamentary secretary.