Unresolved conflicts and breakaway territories divide five out of six of the European Union’s Eastern Partnership countries, most of them directly backed by the Russian Federation. But a policy of isolating the people living in these conflict regions narrows the road to peace.
Ethnic-Georgian man reportedly died while in custody of de facto South Ossetian authorities 23 Feb, provoking outcry in Tbilisi. Deceased, 34-year-old internally displaced person from South Ossetia Archil Tatunashvili, was involved in cross-border trade along with two others who were also briefly detained; de facto govt accused group of espionage and planned sabotage ahead of 18 March Russian Presidential elections; Georgian govt and relatives denied. De facto officials voiced readiness to hand over body after post-mortem by Russian experts; relatives and political activists 26 Feb protested by briefly blocking two roads connecting South Caucasus to Russia, demanding handover of body. Co-chairs of Geneva talks (conflict settlement platform that allows Georgian, Russian, Abkhaz and Ossetian participants to discuss security and humanitarian issues since 2008 war between Russia and Georgia) expressed strong concern over Tatunashvili’s death and called for more intensive exchange of information between sides, including at 1 March Incident Prevention and Response Mechanism meeting in Ergneti. EU and foreign embassies in Georgia also voiced concern. Georgian parliament prepared special resolution condemning incident; some MPs discussed creation of “black list” of people involved in crimes against ethnic Georgians in breakaway regions to restrict their travel and access to Georgia-provided medical and social benefits. After latest round of Swiss-mediated Georgia-Russia talks on transit trade through South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Russia 2 Feb confirmed its intention to sign contract with Swiss private company that will conduct monitoring of customs at crossing points leading to breakaway regions, previously controlled by Russians and separatist de facto officials. Georgia already signed contact in Dec. Transit deal would clear way for launch of transit trade through South Ossetia, based on 2011 Customs Agreement; would represent first serious breakthrough in Georgia-Russia relations since 2008 war and Russia’s recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia; and potentially open opportunities for more communication through de facto regions, currently largely dependent on Russia.
Whether the smooth transfer of power Georgia achieved after October’s bitter election sets a standard for democracy in its region depends on whether the new government can strengthen the independence and accountability of state institutions in what remains a fragile, even potentially explosive political climate.
On the third anniversary of their war over South Ossetia, talks between Georgia and Russia are needed to create positive momentum in a still unstable environment.
Georgia has maintained political and economic stability despite the shock of the 2008 war with Russia, but the government needs to use the two years before the next elections to create public trust in democratic institutions by engaging in meaningful dialogue with the opposition over further reforms.
The historically coveted region of Abkhazia has become even more dependent on Moscow since Russia’s controversial recognition a year and a half ago.
Ten months after the “August war” between Georgia and Russia, violent incidents and the lack of an effective security regime in and around the conflict zones of South Ossetia and Abkhazia create a dangerous atmosphere in which extensive fighting could again erupt.
The situation in and around Georgia’s conflict areas remains unstable. Violent incidents are continuing. Shots were fired near a convoy carrying the Georgian and Polish presidents on 23 November. European Union (EU) monitors are being denied access to South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Unambitious multi-party negotiations focusing on security and internally displaced person (IDP) return have gotten off to a slow start in Geneva. For the moment, however, domestic politics are the capital’s main preoccupation.
Over the last three years, we have been seeing a serious decline in the situation in the districts [of South Ossetia] mainly populated by ethnic Georgians.
There was a social media campaign two years ago [in Abkhazia] encouraging people to boycott the funerals of anyone who died after seeking medical care in Tbilisi.
Renewed fighting in eastern Ukraine is quickly turning into a litmus test of Russia’s intentions in backing Ukrainian separatist rebels, and the real willingness of the West, in particular the United States, to support Kyiv. Fears over Washington’s wavering may also cause positions to harden in the protracted conflicts in Europe’s East, most immediately in Georgia.
Originally published in Today's Zaman
Originally published in Bloomberg
Georgia is in the midst of transitioning from a presidential to a mixed parliamantary system, in which much power will lie with the office of the Prime Minister. Elections later this year will determine whether current President Mikheil Saakashvili's party, United National Movement, will retain control of government. Medea Turashvili, Caucasus analyst for the International Crisis Group, discusses what implications this might have on Georgia's domestic and foreign policy.