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This Tiny Pacific Island Nation Just Gave Russia a Big Bruise

Flickr/Tomoaki INABA

Russia has been diplomatically wounded of late. As punishment for taking over Crimea, it was isolated in the United Nations Security Council, condemned in the General Assembly by 100 votes to 11, excluded from the G8, and some of President Vladimir Putin's best friends were sanctioned by the United States. Few of these recent snubs, however, have been quite as embarrassing as that from Pacific microstate Tuvalu, which, on March 31, scrapped its recognition of the Russian protectorates of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and established diplomatic relations with Georgia. The island nation may only have a population of 10,782, but its decision could spell the end of a years-long diplomatic strategy that has cost Russia millions.

Back in 2011, in the heady years after the Russo-Georgian War in 2008, Tuvalu was one of five countries that sided with Moscow in recognizing at least one of the two small, South Caucasus republics as independent, rather than as part of Georgia. Now, that number is down to three: Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Nauru, a Pacific island whose population of 9,488 makes it the second-smallest independent nation in the world, after Vatican City.

It might be unfair to call Nauru and Tuvalu diplomatic prostitutes, but they have tended to hook up with anyone who’ll pay them. In Nauru’s case, that is hardly surprising. It has strip-mined its phosphate reserves and now resembles the surface of the moon. Unemployment is at 90 percent, the second-highest in the world after Zimbabwe. A key source of its foreign earnings was “checkbook diplomacy,” in which wealthy countries essentially pay impoverished ones for diplomatic recognition. In 2002, Nauru backed China, then switched to Taiwan three years later, making money each time. The last switch earned its ministers stipends of $5,000 a month, according to WikiLeaks. But in 2008, Taipei and Beijing agreed to give up on the diplomatic dance, leaving Nauru short of cash.

So, in December 2009, Nauru saw an opportunity to expand its client base, and asked for $50 million in aid (as the Kommersant newspaper reported) from Russia to diplomatically recognize the two South Caucasus Republics. Russia officially denies having bribed Nauru and instead credited Abkhazian and South Ossetian diplomats who, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov insisted, “regularly visit this region.”

Among those diplomats is Juris Gulbis, a globetrotting Latvian who wrote his doctoral thesis on Abkhazia, lived in Fiji, and became the Abkhazian ambassador in the Pacific region. He spoke to the parliaments of both Vanuatu and Tuvalu in 2011, arguing for recognition of Abkhazia's independence from Georgia, and won out. “Both Tuvalu and Vanuatu recognized Abkhazia based on the merits and willingness to support small countries and peoples in their right to self determination,” he insisted.

In May 2011, Vanuatu, an archipelago east of Australia with a quarter-million inhabitants, became the fourth United Nations member to side with Russia and recognize Abkhazia (it did not, oddly, recognize South Ossetia). The status of this small Black Sea region briefly became international news as the politically unstable islands sent mixed messages: Within the space of a fortnight, successive Vanuatu governments de-recognized and then re-recognized Abkhazia. According to ex-Foreign Minister Joe Natuman, Russia offered $50 million for the country’s signature.

Tuvalu, then in the midst of a severe drought, looked on hungrily. It recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia in October 2011, and Abkhazia sent it a shipment of water. It is not known whether Russian aid followed, but Prime Minister Willy Telavi and Lavrov had met a month earlier to discuss “promising areas for bilateral cooperation, including trade, fisheries and education.” Russia’s foreign ministry boasted in a statement, “This step of the Tuvaluan side reinforces the international legal status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.”

Russia's display of soft power was making Georgia nervous. Moscow might only have had five allies, but the number was rising quickly, every new ally a blow to Georgia's hopes of regaining control over what it considers occupied territories. Georgia need not have worried, though: Winning Tuvalu turned out to be the not-terribly-high point of Russia’s diplomatic campaign.

A year ago, Vanuatu’s government switched allegiance once more and sacked its ambassador to Russia, following local press reports that she got to keep 15 percent of any cash she raised in Moscow. In April 2013, its prime minister denied Vanuatu had ever recognized Abkhazia at all, and in July it sealed diplomatic relations with Georgia, bringing the number of Russia’s allies down to four. “Vanuatu was constantly asking for money and the problem is that Vanuatu’s instability is systemic," said Gulbis. "Abkhazia simply cannot afford to support such governments. If we support them, it will only last until the next government comes in.”

Tuvalu followed suit on Monday.

Gulbis said Tuvaluan officials contacted him toward the end of last year to say that Georgia had offered $250,000, and could Abkhazia beat that? “[Abkhazia] does not even have the money to refurbish the toilets in the foreign affairs office, let alone to give millions of dollars to countries that we want to recognize us,” Gulbis said. (Georgia’s foreign ministry did not respond to a request for comment. Tuvalu officials couldn't be reached.)

So now only three countries side with Moscow, and it's conceivable that one of them might want to chat with the Georgian finance ministry, too.

“This is a very humiliating development for Russia,” said James Ker-Lindsay, an expert in southeastern Europe at the London School of Economics, and author of The Foreign Policy of Counter-Secession, a book about the diplomatic tussles that surround contested states. “Tuvalu has not chosen Georgia over Russia. It has chosen the West over Russia. Something has happened to persuade it to change its mind. The question is what? Also, was Russia given the chance to respond? If so, why did it not make a better offer? There are some very interesting questions here that are not immediately easy to answer.”

Ker-Lindsay said Nauru is likely to follow its Pacific neighbors in siding with Georgia, leaving just Nicaragua and Venezuela on Russia’s side. The two Latin American republics both recognized Russia’s protectorates for political reasons. A State Department official quoted by Wikileaks credited Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega’s decision to “nostalgia for Cold War rhetoric and politics” (though Venezuela also gained some generous arms deals too). Ker-Lindsay said Georgia is probably hoping that they, too, will come round—but that Georgia should be careful what it wishes for.

“If they all decide to rescind their recognition, Moscow might well decide that it has nothing left to lose and that it would actually just be better to follow the same route as Crimea and annex [South Ossetia and Abkhazia],” he said.