18 Mar 2013

Confusion lingers over Vanuatu's links with Abkhazia

5:09 pm on 18 March 2013

Vanuatu's Sato Kilman-led government says a process is underway to establish diplomatic relations with Georgia.

It comes almost two years after Mr Kilman and his Foreign Minister Alfred Carlot declared the country's diplomatic recognition of Abkhazia, the Russian-backed breakaway region of Georgia.

Johnny Blades reports on lingering questions over Vanuatu's Abkhazia link.

Sato Kilman has told local media that forging ties with the former Soviet republic of Georgia is in his country's interests.

He made no allusion to his government's earlier recognition of relations with Abkhazia.

After announcing that recognition in 2011, the Foreign Minister denied it before later reaffirming the diplomatic relations with a statement, which is still on the government website.

Marie-Noelle Ferrieux-Patterson of Transparency International Vanuatu questions the nature of Vanuatu's continuing link with Abkhazia.

"On 23rd of May, 2011, there was a report which came out from the Prime Minister's office saying that Vanuatu had formally recognised a country named Abkhazia and established diplomatic relationship. So when we see this happening out of the blue, especially with a country where we were aware after doing a bit of research that Abkhazia had been accused of ethnic cleansing on a massive scale, basically to recognise any country that behaves in such a way goes against the principles on which Vanuatu was founded."

The Director-General of Foreign Affairs, Johnny Koanapo, admits the status of relations with Abkhazia became confused after quick changes of government in mid-2011.

There's been a confusion over what the government had intended to do which was just simply a letter stating that there might be an intention to establish relations with Abkhazia. But at this point in time, there's no action on that and there's no decision.

Marie-Noelle Ferrieux-Patterson says the role in these diplomatic moves of the naturalised Vanuatu citizen, Ti Tham Goiset, still needs to be explained, especially as she became Vanuatu's roving ambassador to Russia and eastern European countries after the 2011 link-up with Abkhazia.

An opposition MP, Jo Natuman, says in 2010 when he was Vanuatu's Foreign Minister he was approached by a Russian diplomat to recognise Abkhazia.

An offer was on the table similar to the 50 million US dollars which Russia said it gave Nauru to recognise Abkhazia.

While Mr Natuman refused the offer, he says the Kilman-led government which soon came to power was more interested.

They established a relationship, although Georgia was contesting that. And when the Russian Foreign Minister visited Suva, because Fiji was playing around with Russia because of their look-north policy, the Foreign Minister (Carlot) and this particular lady (Goiset) visited Suva to talk with the Foreign Minister of Russia. I think they were trying to get some money out of Russia for the recognition of Abkhazia. And maybe Russia did not give any money and that's why they're changing their position, I don't know.

Jo Natuman has questioned Mr Carlot in parliament about a contract signed with Madame Goiset, ensuring her a 15 percent cut on any foreign funding she secures for Vanuatu.

But the ambassador told the Daily Post newspaper this month that she wants the 15 percent commission renounced and amended to somewhere between two or three percent.