At first glance, Nauru and Abkhazia make an unlikely pairing on the world stage, with little in common other than their obscurity, and desperate need for new friends. Nauru, the world's smallest republic, is a destitute South Pacific island microstate of just 8.5 square miles, with about 10,000 inhabitants and a critical shortage of funds following the collapse of its only industry of note, mining phosphate deposits created by bird droppings.
Abkhazia, some 13,000km away on the eastern coast of the Black Sea, is a former Soviet republic of about 240,000 people, with precious few allies in the international arena besides its chief backer, Russia. Its independence is recognised by only six countries, including Nauru, with the rest of the world viewing it as a renegade province of Georgia, against whom it fought a bloody secessionist war in the 1990s.
Yet despite their differences, Nauru and Abkhazia have recently become firm friends, as a result of a "paper war" between Georgia and Russia that is reshaping the geopolitical landscape of the South Pacific and prompting accusations of cheque-book diplomacy – using aid, investment and gifts for diplomatic gains, including their votes at the UN.
Since the end of its 2008 war with Georgia, Russia has been lobbying for international recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the two breakaway Georgian territories at the heart of that conflict. The first shot fired in the diplomatic war was in late 2009, when Nauru became only the fourth country (after Russia, Nicaragua and Venezuela) to establish diplomatic relations with Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Nauru, whose economic plight over the past decade had forced it to resort to store-housing refugees on Australia's behalf, subsequently received $10m (£6.3m) in Russian money, used to pay for critical work on its port and aircraft.
Moscow's new assertive policy in the South Pacific, illustrated by Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov's visit to Fiji last week for talks with Pacific Island nations, has prompted Georgia to launch a rival campaign to woo the region's leaders. "Although the war with Georgia has ended, we're on a constant diplomatic battlefield," said Juris Gulbis, Abkhazia's ambassador to Asia-Pacific, labelling the rivalry a "paper war".
Mr Gulbis told The Independent Abkhazia had approached about 14 countries in the region, and expected at least four – on top of the three Pacific Island nations, including Nauru, which have already recognised Abkhazia – to give their backing by the year's end. The ultimate goal is recognition in the United Nations, with each vote from a member state amounting to another small step on the path to statehood.
"The problem Abkhazia has faced with European countries is they want to recognise us, but there's a lot of pressure on them not to," explained Mr Gulbis. "Pacific states are more democratic and perhaps more sovereign than some of the countries in Europe." Nauru and Abkhazia were not as different as they might seem, he added. "They went through the same (independence) struggle themselves in the past 30 years."
However, observers see less idealistic motivations underpinning the relationship. Dr Steven Ratuva, a specialist in Pacific politics at the University of Auckland, said the region was experiencing a new round of cheque-book diplomacy. "This is a mutual thing, not a one-way street," he said. "The big countries are targeting them, hoping to make use of them, and get their support. They're doing it in the Pacific because the island states are very easy to dangle a carrot in front of, because of their size and the state of their economies, but they still have a vote in the UN."
Dr Ratuva said the current jockeying was "a replay of the China-Taiwan diplomatic game", in which Pacific leaders had "become masters of playing one side off against the other" to leverage greater benefits for themselves. Taiwan and China eventually called a truce on poaching each other's diplomatic allies, following a humiliating 2008 affair in which Taiwan lost over $30m trying to persuade Papua New Guinea to switch sides.
Until recently the focus for Russia and Georgia had been on wooing Fiji, a country eager to boost its regional status and forge new alliances. Since a military coup in 2006, Fiji has been marginalised by traditional Pacific powers Australia and New Zealand, and cast out of the Pacific Forum regional bloc over its failure to hold elections.
Last October, Georgia's Foreign Minister, Grigol Vashadze, visited Fiji to court the regime of Commodore Josaia Voreqe "Frank" Bainimarama. Then, late last month, just days before Russia's Mr Lavrov was scheduled to make his first visit to Fiji, a Georgian delegation returned to present the island republic with 200 notebook computers. Georgian Deputy Foreign Minister, David Jalagania, said Tbilisi hoped Fiji would withstand "temptation or pressure" from Russia and refuse to recognise Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
"This is clearly cheque-book diplomacy," said Mr Gulbis. "Georgia has not had any relations for years in the South Pacific, but suddenly, just before the Russian Foreign Minister arrives, a delegation just happens to turn up with these completely useless Georgian-made laptops."
Russia, too, has started aid payments to Fiji, including $20,000 for relief from recent floods. But Mr Gulbis denied it was to garner further backing for Abkhazia's statehood bid. "We have not paid a single Pacific country to recognise us," he said, adding that Russia's $10m payment to Nauru was "unrelated" to the country's recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. "As far as us going around saying Russia will support you if you back us, that doesn't happen."
Last year, the nations of Vanuatu (population 240,000) and Tuvalu (population 11,000) followed suit in recognising Abkhazia. The latter, a low-lying atoll suffering a freshwater crisis, which gets by mainly on expatriate remittances and by selling the ".tv" web domain, successfully elicited sweeteners from both sides. In September, it received a shipment of medicine worth about $12,000 from Georgia, before switching its allegiance and receiving a shipment of thousands of bottles of Fiji Water, courtesy of Abkhazia.
Timur Zevakhin, first secretary to the Russian Embassy in Australia, said Moscow was weighing an aid contribution to Tuvalu, adding that it was "hard to say" whether other Pacific countries could expect to receive contributions on the scale of those made to Nauru.
"If the countries need assistance, we will consider their request," he said. "Fiji had flooding, so we helped them. Nauru had a difficult economic situation, so we helped them."
The aid payments had nothing to do with the issue of recognising the breakaway Georgian states, he said, adding that at last week's meeting with Pacific leaders in Fiji, the issue of Akbhazia and South Ossetia had not been raised at all. "We just want to develop relations with these countries," he said.
The meetings, which had gone well and would be held regularly in the future, were part of Russia's goal to strengthen its "political and economic presence" in the region, as an "integral part" of its Asia-Pacific strategy, Mr Zevakhin said. Russia's vision is outlined in an article by Mr Lavrov, which describes the centre of global growth moving rapidly to Asia-Pacific, where "the emergence of a new polycentric world order" was taking place.
Australia, in particular, had reacted warily to the Russians coming "into its backyard", and voiced its concern about Russia and Georgia's battle for influence undermining development efforts in the region.
Dr Ratuva said that such cheque-book diplomacy, if it lacked transparency, could certainly contribute to a culture of political corruption already endemic in the Pacific. On the other hand, decades of Australia and New Zealand "administering" the islands had achieved little in terms of economic development. Perhaps the arrival of new players could be of lasting benefit, if Pacific leaders respond smartly to the opportunity.
"Before, they were locked in a corner. Now, they have a wider range of global players to deal with," he said. "The fact all these big fellas are coming to them gives them a sense of maturity, a political self-esteem which was not there before. If they use that newfound confidence to generate economic development, it could be a positive."
Register for free to continue reading
Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism
By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists
Already have an account? sign in
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies