|Vanuatu, Abkhazia play out odd couple farce|
|June 21, 2011|
They appeared unlikely partners from the outset -- a Pacific Ocean archipelago and a rebel-held ex-Soviet conflict zone on the shores of the Black Sea, thousands of kilometres distant.
And, like many odd couples, their relationship rapidly descended into farce.
The Pacific island nation of Vanuatu became caught up in a diplomatic dispute when it was reported last month to have recognised Georgia's breakaway region of Abkhazia, some 14,000 kilometres (nearly 9,000 miles) away, as an independent state.
Having no known links to Abkhazia, it was unclear why Vanuatu decided to become the fifth country to recognise the Russian-backed territory, which fought a bloody war to break away from Georgia in the 1990s and remains a potential flashpoint in an unresolved conflict.
The confusion escalated further when the Pacific state's ambassador to the United Nations denied shortly afterwards that it had even happened.
Officials in Abkhazia, who portrayed the decision as a "historic" event, responded by publishing what they said was proof: what appeared to be an official agreement signed by Vanuatu's Prime Minister Sato Kilman.
A video statement from Vanuatu's Foreign Minister Alfred Carlot was also posted on YouTube, showing the diplomat dressed in a flowery shirt confirming the move as part of an attempt to "eradicate colonialism from the face of the earth".
But on Friday, Georgia struck back, circulating what it said was a letter signed by Vanuatu's new Prime Minister Edward Natapei saying that the decision had been reversed after a change of government in the Pacific state.
"The fact is that the majority of the world's governments consider Abkhazia as part of Georgia's territory," the letter said.
A report in the Vanuatu Daily Post on Monday appeared to corroborate that, stating that Natapei had "cancelled and withdrew Vanuatu's recognition of the so-called independent state of the Republic of Abkhazia".
Despite this however, the Vanuatu government's official website on Monday continued to carry a statement confirming the recognition.
After the confusion began, an opposition lawmaker in Vanuatu said that the debacle had become a "diplomatic embarrassment for the country".
"It does no good for the reputation of Vanuatu," lawmaker Joe Natuman told Radio New Zealand International earlier this month.
Vanuatu was also involved in a similar controversy in 2004, when it recognised Taiwan as independent before reversing its decision after several weeks under pressure from China.
Despite high hopes in Abkhazia of a new ally in the Pacific, the small Black Sea coastal region is still only recognised by Russia and three other countries with links to Moscow: Nicaragua, Venezuela and the tiny island of Nauru.
There was satisfaction however among Georgian officials, who have formalised diplomatic ties with a series of smaller countries around the world over the past year as part of attempts to head off any further recognitions of Abkhazia.
US-backed Tbilisi's arch foe Moscow was the first to recognise Abkhazia as an independent state after defeating Georgia in a brief war in 2008.
The Kremlin then permanently stationed thousands of troops there -- a move described by Georgia and some of its Western supporters as occupation.
The region had already been under separatist control since a civil war in the early 1990s that killed thousands of people and caused some 250,000 more, mainly ethnic Georgians, to flee their homes.
Copyright © 2011 AFP. All rights reserved.
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