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Georgia: President describes Russia as the "elephant in the room" in peace process

Publisher EurasiaNet
Author Molly Corso
Publication Date 10 July 2008
Cite as EurasiaNet, Georgia: President describes Russia as the "elephant in the room" in peace process, 10 July 2008, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/487b1244c.html [accessed 28 July 2014]
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Molly Corso: 7/10/08

The Georgian government is betting that a July 9-10 visit by United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to Tbilisi will help reduce tension with Moscow over the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Yet, while both Rice and Georgian officials have emphasized Washington's efforts to resolve the two conflicts, some analysts question the US capacity to foster peace in the two separatist territories.

A recent string of explosions in three Abkhaz towns – Gagra, Sukhumi, and Gali – in addition to a skirmish between Georgian and separatist forces in the Georgian-controlled Upper Kodori Gorge in Abkhazia has put Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's government under growing pressure. The separatist government in Sukhumi blames Tbilisi for the violence; Tbilisi, predictably, blames Moscow.

There has also been an upswing of tension in the South Ossetian conflict zone, where reports of a Russian military plane violating Georgian airspace surfaced on July 9. In a July 10 statement, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that the aircraft had been sent to prevent an alleged attempt by Georgian forces from entering South Ossetia to free four Georgian servicemen who were arrested by separatist law enforcement agents on July 8.

Moscow claims that its July 9 action was designed "to cool off hot heads in Tbilisi and to prevent the situation from developing into a force scenario, the likelihood of which was more than realistic." The timing of the flight, though, is at odds with a July 8 statement by the Georgian Defense Ministry that the four men had been released.

While Tbilisi has not yet responded to Moscow's assertions, at an earlier joint press briefing with Secretary of State Rice, President Saakashvili described Russia as the "elephant in the room" that is disrupting the peace process.

"This is a very worrisome development," Saakashvili said in reference to the growing tensions with Moscow over Abkhazia. "The main point is that Russia no longer acknowledges jurisdiction of Georgia in an essential part of its territory."

Secretary of State Rice told reporters that she came to Georgia "to make very clear" the United States' commitment to the country's territorial integrity. Moscow, she said, needs to "be a part of … solving the problem, and not contributing to it."

Calling for an end to the violence, she vowed to "to reinvigorate and indeed intensify" the Washington's efforts to resolve Georgia's two frozen conflicts, and repeated the Bush administration's support for Georgia's North Atlantic Treaty Organization ambitions.

However, some international and local analysts question how effective the United States can be in promoting peace. On July 8, Abkhazia's de facto authorities flatly refused an American proposal to create an international police force to secure the conflict zone. Labeling the United States as "unilaterally pro-Georgian," de facto Abkhaz leader Sergei Bagapsh ruled out any chance for creating an international police force, an idea promoted by the United States. "We are not going to listen to any recommendations from the State Department," local media outlets quoted Bagapsh as saying.

According to Michael Emerson, a senior research fellow at the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS) in Brussels, neither Russia nor America is suitable as neutral negotiators. "Abkhazia is protected by Russia against Georgia, which, in turn, is backed by the United States. Neither Russia nor the United States are potential mediators.... Both are interested parties," he said in a phone interview from Brussels.

The situation at present, he added, is "completely blocked."

Meanwhile, in Tbilisi, local observers, including military analyst Mamuka Areshidze, are hoping that the European Union will provide a way out of the deadlock. US involvement tends to "antagonize" the Russians, while Moscow is more sympathetic to the Europeans, Areshidze suggested. "Europe is made up of many nations and it is uncomfortable for Russia that they are all united on one front. That is very important," Areshidze said. "Now, Russia is trying not to lose the initiative."

A recent series of visits by high-level EU officials to Tbilisi, Sukhumi and the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali offers evidence that European interest in the dilemma is increasing, he added. European diplomats say that they are eager to work with both separatist regions to "facilitate" dialogue with Tbilisi. It is an interest that they believe is mutual. "I would say with some conviction that a strong interest exists among the Abkhaz to open up to the EU," European Union Special Representative for the South Caucasus Peter Semneby said in response to a question from EurasiaNet at a July 9 press conference in Tbilisi.

"I do believe that there is a degree of confidence that we've been able to establish," he added.

At the same time, that interest comes with due attention to Moscow's own potential role the Abkhaz and the South Ossetian peace processes. It is "imperative to involve the Russian Federation in a constructive way in resolution of the conflicts," Semneby stressed.

For Tbilisi, other sensitive points could also exist. Analyst Emerson noted that the Europeans appear to have "quite serious misgivings" about Saakashvili's tactics for resolving the issue. The Georgian leader's peace plan – which emphasizes the creation of a joint free trade zone and central government posts for the Abkhaz – is seen as "poorly conceived strategically," he said.

Speaking in Tbilisi, Semneby skirted any direct criticism of Tbilisi's proposals, but indicated that the EU backs a gradual approach. "The status issues," he said, "are not the ones we should address at this point."

Rice and Georgian officials downplayed the idea that American and European support is an either-or proposition. Temur Yakobashvili, Georgia's state minister for territorial integration, affirmed that Tbilisi is counting on both the United States and the European Union to help resolve the conflicts. "[T]he American government [is] trying to create an alliance with the Europeans. What is happening in Georgia is not just the business of the Americans; it is also – first of all – primarily European business," Yakobashvili told EurasiaNet.

"It is a very right direction of the Americans to create alliances, the western alliances, to effectively handle the balance in Georgia," Yakobashvili added.

In her comments to reporters, Rice broadly echoed that stance, repeatedly emphasizing the role of the United Nation's Group of Friends of Georgia – a roster that includes Germany, France, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom, and the United States – in the peace process.

"We, through the Friends process, will do everything we can to help resolve those conflicts," she said.

Editor's Note: Molly Corso is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi. Caucasus News Editor Elizabeth Owen added reporting to this story in Tbilisi.

Posted July 10, 2008 © Eurasianet

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