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De facto states such as Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Nagorno-Karabakh are often described as the “places that don’t exist” on the map of sovereign states, and their lack of (widespread) international recognition constrains their external interactions. Isolation of the South Caucasus breakaway entities has impacted negatively on the prospect for conflict resolution, and even conflict prevention. It has fueled radicalization and increased the dependence on the de facto states on their external patrons. While the strongest opposition to engagement usually comes from the parent states, the de facto states are not necessarily keen on such links either. Whereas the parent states are worried about creeping recognition, the de facto states tend to worry about creeping reintegration and the weakening of their de facto independence. Engagement is viewed, by both sides, in an instrumental way. The resulting obstacles are sometimes reinforced by patron state involvement. Patron state support affects the extent to which the de facto states need external links and consequently their willingness to accept the constrained form of engagement on offer. The Georgian and Azerbaijani governments, for example, share very similar status-related concerns, yet one has adopted an explicit and increasingly ambitious engagement policy, while the other is resisting even military confidence-building measures. Abkhazia and South Ossetia have an interest in increased engagement, which is viewed by the de facto authorities as a strategy for furthering the goal of international recognition and could help make up for the reduction in Russia’s financial support. However, Abkhazia has been reluctant to accept the constraints on engagement imposed by Tbilisi. Anything that implies a hierarchical relationship or gives the parent state control over activities in the de facto state has been rejected. The Abkhaz authorities were, for example, quick to denounce the recent trade proposal from the Georgian government, saying that no representative of the de facto leadership took part in discussions of the proposed package. In the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the Armenian side is usually supportive of confidence-building measures and often insists that such measures must be implemented before the substance of a future settlement can be discussed. Yet this support for CBMs depends on the specific form, and the Karabakh authorities would have several “red lines” if more extensive engagement was on the table. The Armenian position is that CBMs should ensure and entrench the continuation of the status quo. They consequently rejected an Azerbaijani proposal for promoting relations between the Armenian Karabakh community and the Azerbaijani Karabakh community.
*The featured photo of the Enguri River bridge that separates Abkhazia from Georgia is taken from TripAdvisor.