At the root of the troubles between Georgia and Russia lie the "frozen conflicts" of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. And while the EU is critical of Russia's lack of constructive engagement, Georgia's role is coming under sharper scrutiny.
Today, Semneby told the European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee that the while the EU "keeps sending messages" to Georgia that the conflicts can only be resolved peacefully, Tbilisi appears to be paying little heed when it comes to creating the necessary conditions for moving forward.
"In addition to that, in order to create the conditions for resolving the conflicts by peaceful means, the rhetoric that has been at some points fairly sharp on the part of some Georgian officials will have to be toned down and will have instead to be replaced by confidence-building measures of various kinds to create the conditions for a real dialogue between Georgians and Ossetians and [the] Abkhaz," Semneby said.
As an illustration of the rhetoric he has in mind, Semneby said massive international pressure headed by EU foreign-policy coordinator Javier Solana was needed to "moderate" the speech Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili gave to the UN General Assembly in New York in September. As a result of the pressure, Saakashvili decided against publicly laying down "timelines" for the withdrawal of Russian troops from Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Semneby today acknowledged as "legitimate" Georgia's attempts to replace Russian peacekeepers in the separatist regions with international forces, and to change the format of peace talks -- which are perceived by some to be tilted against Tbilisi.
But, Semneby said, the Georgian approach contains "serious weaknesses." He said it has been presented in ways that are "unnecessarily provocative" toward Russia. The Georgian plans also do not address the need to "build confidence," nor has there been a commitment to withhold from using force, nor any clear indications as to how Tbilisi would deal with the "security vacuum" that would result from a sudden withdrawal of peacekeepers.
Semneby noted that Georgia's peace plans for both South Ossetia and Abkhazia, unveiled last year and early this year, respectively, have stalled. The reason, according to Semneby, is the removal of the "relatively moderate" Georgian chief negotiators.
The EU special representative also warned of further dangers.
"It has to be said that the conflict potential in the Caucasus is far from exhausted," Semneby said. "Indeed, there are several other large minorities in Georgia, which means that as long as prosperity has not been more evenly distributed within Georgia, the country contains potential for further conflicts."
Semneby noted that a greater focus on minority issues within Georgia itself would also send a strong and useful "message of reassurance" to the populations of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Semneby warned today that what he called a "critical juncture" is fast approaching with the scheduled renewal of the UNOMIG peacekeeping force in Abkhazia. He said the force is dependent on a Russian-dominated local operation for security, which Russia may choose to discontinue. Semneby said both Russia and Georgia appear to have difficult demands. Russia wants Georgia to remove its forces from the upper Kodori Gorge, the only part of Abkhazia presently controlled by the Georgian government. Georgia, in turn, wants the UN mission to include a police component and human rights monitors in Georgian-populated southern Abkhazia.
No Kosovo Link
Semneby today reiterated that the EU rejects attempts to link the future of the Albanian-dominated Serbian province of Kosovo with those of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. He said the circumstances differed to make the cases "unique." However, Semneby also confirmed the EU would not send peacekeepers to either breakaway Georgian region, nor press for observer status during their peace talks. He said EU assistance is going to remain limited to assisting "confidence building," rehabilitation of areas that have suffered from conflict, and refugee return and aid to internally displaced persons.
The relative absence of any criticism of Russia in Semneby's remarks today may be explained by the fact that his remit only covers the South Caucasus.
Most European deputies in Semneby's audience, on the other hand, where not as reticent. Charles Tannock, speaking for the right-wing European People's Party faction, attacked Russia's practice of handing out its citizenship to Abkhaz and South Ossetian populations. He noted that as the EU has agreed to ease its visa rules for Russians, this could result in a "paradox" in which Georgians could find it more difficult to visit the EU than Abkhaz or South Ossetians carrying Russian passports.
Accordingly, Tannock said, the EU should withhold recognition of such Russian passports.
"I am suggesting that one way forward might be that we would not recognize those passports as having the same validity as those Russian passport holders who are resident in the territory of the Russian Federation," Tannock said. "Somehow we need to prevent these Russian citizens, or these so-called Russian citizens living on the 'frozen conflict' territories from enjoying privileges which were not intended for them but were intended for the Russians who actually reside in Russia proper."
Russian military hardware being withdrawn from a Russian base in Batumi, Georgia, in August 2005 (TASS)
WHAT COMES NEXT? Although Russia is unlikely to push an aggressive military response to the current tensions with Georgia, it has a number of economic, political, and diplomatic options at its disposal. Already on October 1, Russian President Vladimir Putin summoned his inner circle to weigh Moscow's options... (more)