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Georgia's Lonely Unilateralisms

  • Ahto Lobjakas

People cross the neutral zone of Enguri Bridge, between Abkhazia and the rest of Georgia.

People cross the neutral zone of Enguri Bridge, between Abkhazia and the rest of Georgia.

Writing on the second anniversary of the August 2008 Russian-Georgian war, Ambassador Hansjorg Haber, head of the EU Monitoring Mission (EUMM) in Georgia, praised Tbilisi for what he dubs its policy of "constructive unilateralism."

Haber holds out as a shining example of that policy the Memorandum of Understanding concluded between the EUMM and the Georgian Defense Ministry in January 2009, putting unilateral limits on Georgian deployments in the vicinity of Abkhazia and South Ossetia beyond the terms of the August 12, 2008, "six-point" cease-fire agreement. As a result, Haber says, the EUMM could "issue a clean bill of health to Georgia" -- something he regrets not having been able to do with regard to Russia (which denies the EUMM access to Abkhazia and South Ossetia).

Haber draws the following conclusion from this: "The Memorandum of Understanding illustrates an important principle, namely that in a situation where the sides to a conflict cannot come to an agreement, formal or informal, unilateral concessions by one side might prove the only way to push things forward. As a result, the party that bravely accepts to make such a concession not only is not harmed, but can actually benefit from it."

Haber then adds what in some quarters is liable to be seen as a touch of controversy. He suggests that Tbilisi apply the principle of "constructive unilateralism" to its strategy of engagement of the populations of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Pas De Trois

Georgia currently has three statutes regulating that issue. There is the highly restrictive 2008 Law on Occupied Territories (adopted under the "emotional impact of the August war," observes Haber), amended in early 2010 to bring it in line with Venice Commission recommendations. The thrust of that law is to outlaw any contact with the two separatist territories that has not been cleared by Tbilisi (for example, the law limits entry to both via crossings from the rest of Georgia). That thrust is present, albeit in mitigated form, in the State Strategy for Occupied Territories (adopted in January 2010) and the subsequent Action Plan. The Georgian government is currently drafting a "modalities" paper to spell out the finer detail of the State Strategy that is expected to be released in September.

It is that document that Haber appears to have in his sights when he urges Tbilisi to "resolve possible incoherences" between the Law on Occupied Territories and the State Strategy. That suggestion takes Haber a considerable distance from the confines of his EUMM remit (not for the first time), but it does illustrate the frustration felt in some EU circles at the Georgian government for not bowing to the inevitable. Tbilisi still appears bent on trying to freeze out any and all outside involvement in Abkhazia and South Ossetia unsanctioned by itself. Among other things, Tbilisi wants the final say on all reconstruction projects, from their selection to the selection of local constructors -- a demand that works on the Abkhaz authorities "like a red rag on a bull," says one diplomat familiar with the situation.

Many in the EU find Georgia's intransigence unhelpful, as it interferes with what the bloc sees its main job -- "confidence building" (a phrase also used by Haber). But there are plenty of sympathetic voices, too.

EU Cacophony

The EU's divisions are part of the problem. Its 27 member states only have the bare bones of a common policy in agreeing that: (a) the separatist authorities must not be recognized; and (b) Georgia must "engage" with their populations. What the latter, especially, means in practice, remains anyone's guess. The European Commission delegation in Tbilisi, for example, has taken a liberal view, dispensing money to nongovernmental organizations operating in the separatist regions whose links with Georgia are tenuous or, in some cases, nonexistent. The EU could thus be said to be supporting capacity building in Abkhazia in particular in ways that can only strengthen the de facto autonomy of the territory.

Another level of confusion is introduced by the fragmented nature of the EU's presence in Georgia. Apart from Haber, there is Pierre Morel, the bloc's special representative for the Geneva talks between Tbilisi, Moscow, and the separatists. Haber (a German) and Morel (who is French) are said to be at loggerheads on a number of policy issues. Strictly speaking, neither is in a position to decide on EU policy, but that stricture is rendered a mere technicality by their competing national backgrounds (both are widely assumed to take orders from Berlin and Paris, respectively, as well as Brussels). Meanwhile, Morel enjoys a complicated relationship with the EU special representative for the South Caucasus, Peter Semneby, whose beat originally included conflict resolution in Georgia (for all intents and purposes, now Morel's responsibility).

Haber ends his article with a double-edged comment. He notes that the EU will "probably" extend the EUMM mandate beyond September 2011, but reminds Tbilisi in the same breath that the EU can only provide an "enabling environment" in which "participants to conflicts" themselves must strive for solutions.

With that Geogia is, presumably, encouraged to continue with its "unilateral constructivism" in the hope that other involved unilateralisms will, in time, also prove "constructive."

Haber's (possibly ingenuous) idealism notwithstanding, this does not appear where things are headed if present trends continue. Russia made up its mind long ago, arguably before the August 2008 war, with President Dmitry Medvedev cementing the status quo with an unrepentant visit to Sukhumi on August 8.

Meanwhile, Georgia appears resigned to a ritualistic contest of wills with Abkhazia and South Ossetia from which the latter may hope to gain respectability by association -- and taint Tbilisi's in the process. President Mikheil Saakashvili's visit to Colombia on August 7, just two weeks after the Abkhaz and South Ossetian leaders had toured Venezuela, is a reminder of just how sterile a struggle Tbilisi appears to be locked into.

Ahto Lobjakas is RFE/RL's Brussels correspondent. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

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