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ICG Expert Says 'Russia Becoming Directly Involved' In Georgia's Separatist Crises

Sabine Freizer is ICG's Europe Program director

Sabine Freizer is ICG's Europe Program director

This month has seen a sharp rise in tensions in Georgia's breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. David Kakabadze, the director of RFE/RL's Georgian Service, spoke to Sabine Freizer, head of the Europe program at the International Crisis Group (ICG), about the roles of Georgia, Russia, and the international community in the continuing strife.

RFE/RL: In a statement, issued by the Russian Foreign Ministry on July 9, Moscow blamed Georgia for a surge of violence in its breakaway regions. Tbilisi, on the other hand claimed that the Kremlin is behind the recent escalation of the situation in and around Abkhazia and South Ossetia. How do you assess the role of Russia in this process -- a country that, at least officially, is the major facilitator of peace?

Sabine Freizer: That's a quite difficult question. I think that, what we have seen over the past couple of years, is a transformation of these conflicts to become really focused on Georgian-Russian relations. This has partially been a strategy by Tbilisi to depict these as Georgian-Russian conflicts, as opposed to Georgian-Abkhaz or Georgian-Ossetian conflicts. And one of the goals behind this from the Georgian perspective is to change both the negotiations and the peacekeeping formats. So, basically, what they are saying, is that Russia is not a neutral player and thus, cannot play a useful role; or rather its role is tainted in these two formats.

On the other hand, of course, we've also seen Russia get increasingly involved in the conflicts, be it in the past with the distribution of passports and other things directly in the conflict zones. But now also with this kind of statements we see that Russia is reacting immediately to anything that happens and is, basically, participant in the conflicts. Similarly, we see the decision of [Russia's then president Vladimir] Putin a few months ago to increase the status of relations between Russia and the two conflict regions. This again shows that Russia is becoming directly involved.

One thing, which, I think, is quite indicative, is that the statement that we saw [on July 9], came from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. And it came on [July 9] -- like a lot of the other statements that have been made by other international actors that came [on July 8] or the day before. I think that Russia is trying to -- in some ways -- step back a little bit. Also, we have not seen a statement by the president at this point.

RFE/RL: But the Russian president did comment on this issue. [On July 5] in the Kazakh capital, Astana, Dmitry Medvedev warned his Georgian counterpart Mikheil Saakashvili about inflaming troubles in the South Caucasus, calling for talks with the breakaway regions but apparently indicating that Moscow lays the blame for rising tensions on Tbilisi.

Freizer: One thing is clear, though: that Medvedev is taking things a little bit more cautiously than his predecessor. And I still hope that there will be room for a dialogue between President Medvedev and President Saakashvili, which could in some ways help improve the situation.

RFE/RL: The U.S. State Department said on [July 7] that Abkhazia "urgently" needs an international police presence in areas where recent bombings have occurred, a proposal which was immediately rejected by the Abkhaz side and criticized by Russians. Why do you think Moscow is so very much opposed to changing the peacekeeping format in Georgia's conflict regions?

Freizer: First, let me point out the other thing that I found quite indicative about the U.S. statement: It directly pinpointed Russia and directly accused Russia for deterioration of the situation in Abkhazia. I found that quite striking.

But then, when we come to the actual deployment of the international police forces, I think, there are two separate issues. One is the military peacekeeping force, and the second is the international police. Now, let's recall that there already is a UN police component, which is working in Abkhazia and in its Georgian-controlled territory. And there is even a EU liaison officer -- just one person at this point -- who is also working on both sides of the conflict line. I think that is very important; they are doing very important work, and I agree with the U.S. statement that it would be positive to bolster, to strengthen this police component. Because a lot of the problems that occur are actually criminal problems and not military problems. This is an area where civilian police would be able to intervene quite effectively.

Also, I think that you could find a certain willingness among the Abkhaz to accept international police because it's also -- to some extent -- in their interest. But it depends very much on how this is presented to them. If the Abkhaz are told that it would be good to have police instead of Russian peacekeepers, then there's no way they're going to accept that offer; but I think that if that is presented to them more as a complement to the existing peacekeeping force, then there would be greater willingness from the Abkhaz side to accept this. And, as I said, they already have accepted per se, because there are already both UN and EU police presences.

RFE/RL: Do you see any signs that Tbilisi...might favor a military intervention [in Abkhazia or South Ossetia]? The ICG in its recent report suggested this was the idea among some hawks in Saakashvili's administration.

Freizer: I think that up to this point, Tbilisi has had a successful policy, and the president has been able to quiet any hawks that might exist in his administration and to convince them that it is necessary to continue with a diplomatic offensive rather than a military one. But I would just say that this is something that must continue. The president needs to continue this line. If he changes and ends up supporting more the hawks' approach, then I think the international support for Georgia will immediately crumble.

RFE/RL: The U.S. and the EU are speaking with one voice, more or less, in supporting Georgia in its efforts to restore its territorial integrity. The problem is that Moscow simply doesn't seem to care. Could the international community do more than issue statements of support?

Freizer: First, I think that we need to recognize there has already been a significant shift over the past couple of years, where at least you get these statements. That would not have been the case previously. So there is a success there. Then, of course, you have some of the friends of Georgia that have gone a step beyond that. If we remember, Lithuania was putting conditions on the resumption of the EU-Russia talks over the partnership agreement, basically putting as a condition that Russia recognize the territorial integrity of Georgia and stop intervening in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. So to some extent now this whole issue is even entering direct EU-Russia relations.

Of course, there are a lot of competing agendas and competing issues on the agenda. If we look at the G8, we can see the range of topics which are being discussed with Russia, and it's not always evident that Georgia is going to be on the forefront. But on the other hand, I think it's extremely clear that Georgia has become much more of an issue of concern, for both the U.S. and the European Union. And I think especially in the EU's case, this is going to continue, because the EU is increasingly understanding that the Caucasus is part of its neighborhood, and I think it's going to be willing to make strong statements and perhaps take measures vis-a-vis Russia.

However, I think that one thing that is very important for Tbilisi to understand is that it is important that it get all EU member states on board. So it is not helpful to try to divide Old and New Europe and really to try to get New Europe to support Georgia against Old Europe. If Georgia wants to succeed, it's going to need to get the big states -- Germany, France -- on its side as well, and not just the Baltics and some of the Central European countries.

RFE/RL: Germany and France remain critical questions. Both Saakashvili and Russian President Medvedev have held meetings with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in recent weeks. It's still not clear, however, whether Germany and France will support Georgia's bid to receive a NATO Membership Action Plan in December. Is there anything Georgia can do to win their support?

Freizer: Personally, I don't think that it's so important whether or not Georgia gets a MAP in December. Georgia received a very, very strong commitment at the Bucharest summit for NATO membership, and it's my understanding that Merkel was one of the people who was very strongly behind that statement, and who felt that it was very important to give Georgia that clear promise for membership.

So personally, my feeling is that Georgia should perhaps feel comfortable with that pledge and not feel that it's absolutely essential to get a MAP this year. I think that, personally for me it's more important that other issues move forward. Of course, one is just the general democratic reform and transition in Georgia; but second of all is also to restart the negotiations with the Abkhaz and the South Ossetians. That's how I would judge the Georgian policy. I think that the focus on MAP is not essential; the promise is there, it's better to focus on other issues.

RFE/RL: Increasingly, you can hear voices in Georgia -- including very well-known experts -- saying that maybe the time has come for Georgia to give up its NATO ambitions in exchange for stability and the restoration of its territorial integrity. Is it likely that Russia would agree to drop its aggressive stance against Georgia and help it solve its territorial issues if Tbilisi were willing to sacrifice NATO?

Freizer: That I'm not sure of. I'm not sure that Russia would completely change its policy around if Georgia gave up on NATO completely. So I wouldn't go quite that far. But I do think that some kind of intermediary point like I just said -- maybe not focusing on a MAP this particular year, but trying to focus on other things -- would be a good approach.

Overall, as ICG wrote in its last report on Georgia-Russia relations, we understand and we consider that one of the main problems right now, from the Russian perspective, is NATO enlargement. And perhaps a lot of the statements, a lot of the gestures that Russia has made in the past few months, are a reaction to Bucharest.

And of course it's extremely unfortunate that Georgia is the victim of this, but at the same time what I would say is that I believe that the NATO member states can also try to improve the understanding in Russia about NATO. I think that unfortunately here, over the past decade, there's been a kind of discounting of Russian concerns about NATO expansion, and I think that the NATO countries should do more to try to make Russia understand that this is not an offensive alliance, and it's not being deployed to Georgia to be on the borders of Russia to be prepared to attack Russia.

But obviously this is also part of the discussion that's going on right now with the [missile-defense] shield, and obviously there's a tremendous amount of confidence building that's necessary between the U.S. and Russia and between NATO and Russia to somehow diminish the tensions.