Georgia-Russia: Learn to Live like Neighbours
Europe Briefing N°65
8 Aug 2011
Three years after their August 2008 war over the South Ossetia region, tension is growing again between Russia and Georgia, and talks are needed to restore stability and create positive momentum in a situation that is fragile and potentially explosive. Diplomatic relations are suspended, and the two have only started limited negotiations, with Swiss mediation, on Russia’s World Trade Organisation (WTO) membership. Yet, they share interests in improving regional security, trade and transport and should start discussions on these rather than continuing to exchange hostile rhetoric that only makes renewed dialogue more difficult.
Lack of contact has increased distrust since the fighting ended. For Georgia, Russia is an occupier who is undermining its sovereignty and security. While almost the entire international community regards South Ossetia and Abkhazia as parts of sovereign Georgia, Russia recognised both as independent shortly after the war. Moscow maintains an estimated 7,000 to 9,000 combat, security, and border forces in those two territories and is building and refurbishing permanent military bases there, in violation of the ceasefire brokered by the EU presidency in 2008. Some 20,000 persons displaced that year have been prevented from returning home, and casualties still occur along the administrative border lines (ABLs).
The Geneva negotiations set up under the ceasefire to create a more productive security environment and address humanitarian issues, have made only modest headway, including the setting up of an Incident Prevention and Response Mechanism (IPRM) between Georgia, Russia, the de facto authorities in South Ossetia and Abkhazia and the European Union Monitoring Mission (EUMM) for information exchange on security incidents. The sides have been unable to agree, however, on the larger issues that the Geneva negotiations were intended to address, such as the return of displaced persons, and could easily collapse in the present toxic atmosphere.
Georgia says it has proof of Russian security services involvement in a series of bombings on its territory. Moscow denies this, while some politicians and officials accuse Georgia, with little evidence, of re-building its military to threaten Abkhazia and South Ossetia and aiding radical Islamist insurgents in Russia. The Georgian government has embarked on an effort to engage with people from Russia’s North Caucasus, but to avoid provocation, it should do this in cooperation with, rather than in spite of, Moscow. The bilateral dispute is highly personalised, with Russia’s leadership saying it will not engage with President Saakashvili. The effects are also felt in what should be unrelated spheres. Georgia is blocking Russia’s bid to join the WTO. Espionage arrests in Georgia are fostering a domestic atmosphere of suspicion less than a year before 2012 parliamentary elections.
The two sides communicate mainly through Swiss diplomats. Bern already mediates talks on the WTO dispute and is prepared to facilitate discussions on other issues, like trade, transport or security. Georgia and Russia have signed agreements on transport and energy since the war, so there is a basis for cooperation on which to build even if political willingness is limited. To take advantage of any opportunities and begin the long process to normalise ties, Moscow and Tbilisi should:
- engage in direct talks, without preconditions, on a range of subjects, with mediation, if needed, by a mutually acceptable third party. This should complement, not substitute for, the existing Geneva process; and
- de-escalate rhetoric about bombings and support for terrorism and agree to joint investigations or ones carried out by third parties.
Meanwhile, to improve security in and around Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the international community should:
- continue to press Moscow to withdraw to positions held before the 2008 conflict, facilitate the return home of displaced persons and allow the EUMM full access to South Ossetia and Abkhazia; and encourage the parties to exchange information on their security forces and their movements in areas near the ABLs.
Tbilisi/Moscow/Istanbul/Brussels, 8 August 2011