- guardian.co.uk, Monday 14 December 2009 16.58 GMT
It is 8 square miles in size, home to 11,320 citizens and looks like a small dinner plate dropped into the gleaming South Pacific. But today the tiny atoll nation of Nauru achieved a rare moment in the international spotlight by saying it will recognise the republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
According to Kommersant newspaper, Russia is preparing to give hard-up Nauru $50m (£30.74m) in humanitarian aid. In return Nauru will establish relations with the two Russian-backed territories.
The Kremlin has been frantic to secure international recognition for both regions since its punitive war last year with Georgia. So far only Venezuela and Nicaragua have followed Moscow's lead, with the rest of the world regarding the rebel provinces as Georgian territory. Even Kremlin allies such as Belarus declined.
In mounting desperation, Russia courted Nauru's foreign minister, Kieren Keke. Over the weekend, Keke dropped in to South Ossetia's capital, Tskhinvali. The Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, who normally grapples with weightier issues such as Iran's nuclear programme, also invited Keke for talks.
Today Keke was unavailable for comment and the island's website appeared to have conked out. Observers suggested Russia's latest diplomatic initiative was worthy of ridicule.
"I don't see the sense in this," said Alexander Privalov, a columnist and political analyst in Moscow.
According to Privalov, Nauru has previously taken money to recognise the independence of Kosovo and Taiwan. In July 2002, Nauru accepted $130m from China to de-recognise Taiwan only to re-recognise it in 2005 after apparently receiving another, better offer.
"It seems that political démarches are a kind of business in Nauru. It's a custom there, a bit like wearing a tie," Privalov said. "I can't really understand what Russia gets out of this. It may be about making us look more decent."
Germany annexed the island in 1888 and incorporated it into the Marshall Islands Protectorate. Australia occupied it during the first world war, and it subsequently became a mandate country administered by Australia, New Zealand and the UK, with a brief violent incursion by Japan during the second world war.
Home to a Pacific people with a unique language, Nauru became independent in 1968. It joined the UN in 1999. The republic, which lies just south of the equator, has been in economic trouble for a decade or so.
In 2000 its main resource, fossilised bird droppings mined for their valuable phosphates, began to run out. The island experimented by becoming a tax haven. From 2001 until last year Nauru took in asylum seekers in a money-spinning deal with neighbouring Australia.
According to Kommersant, Nauru's parliament will legislate on South Ossetia and Abkhazia in the current winter session. Nauru officials may also visit Abkhazia – another somewhat larger micro-territory on the Black Sea. "We will be asking other Oceania countries to help us in the same way," South Ossetia's speaker, Stanislav Kochiev, told the paper.
Some analysts put a more positive spin on the development, predicting that other tiny island states in Oceania could emulate Nauru.
"These small exotic countries make their living from tourism and the issue of collectors' stamps and coins," said Alexei Makarkin, deputy director of the Centre for Political Technologies in Moscow.
"These countries need to advertise themselves. Recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia may become their PR act. I don't rule out recognition statements from several states in the region, in addition to Nauru,"' he told the Interfax news agency .
He added: "This is good for the image of Abkhazia and South Ossetia because they can now say they are recognised by four countries."
Russia's attempt to buy international support on the issue has not always ended happily. In October, Moscow offered Ecuador's president, Rafael Correa, $200m in loans when he popped into Moscow. Correa subsequently failed to recognise South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and Russia responded by not giving him the money.
Last night the Russian foreign ministry spokesman, Igor Liakin-Frolov, said he was too busy to comment.