"The links between South Ossetia and the rest of Georgia are not functioning properly as they should," he replied. "To what extent there has been, or is currently, a blockade or not is difficult to say. It's a complicated situation that you have there, also with the border open between South Ossetia and Russia that is not controlled by the Georgians."
Semneby added that Georgian control of traffic in the area has been motivated "by the need to control traffic of a kind that would otherwise not have been subject to any control at all."
"To what extent, then, the Georgian side has been justified in all individual actions that have been taken, that's a question that goes beyond what I'm able to respond to," he added. "But, fundamentally, it's a very complicated and a very unnatural situation that we have in this area."
Georgia's Military Buildup
Georgia saw its military spending rise by 135 percent in 2005 -- the biggest percentage increase worldwide. Tbilisi says the hike is meant to bring Georgia's defense capabilities in line with NATO standards.
Semneby said the EU does not talk to Georgian government officials about the actual planning of the armed forces, but that "what we do talk with Georgia about is the need to be careful in terms of military dispositions of various kinds, and to make sure that whatever is being done at least does not jeopardize the confidence building between the communities."
Semneby acknowledged the jump in military spending has not gone unnoticed in South Ossetia, where some officials have expressed fear that Georgia is hoping to reintegrate the territory by force.
"There is a degree of concern that I have noticed on the South Ossetian side about the buildup of the Georgian army, and I think this is a point that should be discussed between the communities, and where there is a need for the international community to continue to work with confidence-building measures of various kinds," he said. "There is a deficit here in terms of confidence building on both sides."
How EU Can Help
So what can the EU do to improve relations between Georgia and South Ossetia? Semneby said Brussels has sought to use its leverage to ensure that both sides put some suggested measures in place.
"We can also, in a more positive sense, encourage the different sides to pursue policies that will increase the confidence vis-a-vis the other side," he said.
"For example, we've been very active in Georgia, as has the Council of Europe, on the adoption of the [property] restitution law [for victims of the South Ossetian conflict in the early 1990s]. That's very important for the refugees from South Ossetia," he added.
The EU can also play a role in discussing issues related to the conflict with Russia, whose support for South Ossetia has only exacerbated the poor ties between Moscow and Tbilisi, Semneby noted.
"There are also messages we can send to Russia on various issues related to the conflict," he said. "Of course, we do hope and expect that Russia in its actions will respect the sovereignty [and] territorial integrity of Georgia. It's a positive sign that the two presidents -- Vladimir Putin and Mikheil Saakashvili -- did meet yesterday [June 13] and discuss these issues. They had a frank discussion, and I think a frank discussion is something that's needed here."
President Putin at a Kremlin meeting in April (epa)
PUTIN SPEAKS OUT: During a January press conference, Russian President Vladimir Putin said there is a need for "universal principles" to settle "frozen" conflicts in the CIS. His comments came against the background of impending talks on the future status of Kosovo, which many predict will grant it a form of "conditional independence" from Serbia and Montenegro. As an ally of Serbia, Moscow has consistently opposed the idea of Kosovar independence. Putin's remarks suggest he may be shifting his position, but only if the principles applied to Kosovo are also applied to frozen conflicts in the former Soviet Union. If Kosovo can be granted full independence, he asked, why should we deny the same to Abkhazia and South Ossetia? (more)