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Georgia: EU's 'Transformational Power' May Help Frozen Conflicts

(RFE/RL) February 2, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Peter Semneby, the EU's special representative to the South Caucasus, has spent much of the time since his appointment a year ago focusing on frozen conflicts. RFE/RL Georgian Service correspondent Nino Gelashvili spoke to Semneby about the EU's role in the region during a recent visit to Tbilisi.

RFE/RL: The various sides in the conflicts often give conflicting accounts of your views and the overall EU role. Do you feel that everyone wants to present the EU as being on their side?

Peter Semneby: All sides are interested in increasing their exposure to Europe. There is a growing realization in the whole region that the EU has huge transformational power that will develop over time. For that reason, there's a desire on the part of not only Tbilisi, but also the authorities and the people of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, not to be left behind. I think this is a very healthy desire on their part.

RFE/RL: Is the EU going to get more involved in resolving the conflicts?

Semneby: My mandate is actually very broad. I’m here to give a voice and a face to the political part of the European Union. And I have a mandate that is directly related to conflict resolution. It was, in fact, strengthened by changing a few words when I was appointed. Whereas my predecessor was supposed to "assist" in conflict resolution efforts, I’m expected to "contribute" to them. It may not seem like much of a change in practical terms, but it's a political signal.

RFE/RL: What is your official status at negotiations on the frozen conflicts?

Semneby: In the negotiations that are taking place on South Ossetia and Abkhazia -- as we say, if and when they take place -- the EU does not have any formal status. That may seem a little bit strange, since the European Union is a significant actor in the region. But it also reflects a reality that was very much different when the conflicts emerged about 15 years ago. But the EU can nevertheless -- and I believe this very strongly -- have a significant influence on the course of the negotiations.

RFE/RL: Russia is a key player in negotiations on the frozen conflicts. This has been a problem for the Georgian authorities, because Moscow is also the main foreign ally for Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The Russian Foreign Ministry website refers to South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoity, for example, not as a "so-called" or "de facto" leader but as "the president of South Ossetia." Do you discuss these issues when you meet with Russian officials?

Semneby: Absolutely. The conflicts are the very important part of the EU agenda with Russia in general. And of course they dominate the meetings that I have with Russian officials. In general terms, we hope that Russia will play more active role in terms of seeking a solution to the conflicts. Any solution to the conflicts will have to be a peaceful, negotiated one and any solution to the conflicts would also have to involve Russia in one way or the other.

It has been a problem in the course of the last few months that, as a result of the Russian blockade against Georgia, the focus has been not on conflict resolution but on other issues related to Georgia which have also, in a way, diminished the role that Russia could play in terms of finding a solution to the conflicts.

I hope that the cautious, positive steps that we are seeing now with the decision of Russia to send its ambassador back to Georgia will also have a positive effect on possibilities of Russia and efforts of Russia to find solution to the conflicts.

RFE/RL: Moscow has given most of the people in the breakaway regions Russian passports. So who are these people? What country are they citizens of?

Semneby: This is a serious question that will also have to be the topic of any negotiations. It is problematic that by awarding Russian passports to the majority of the population in this region, any solution or negotiation on a solution has been prejudged, in a way.

RFE/RL: Do you think there is the possibility that the Russian peacekeepers in these regions might eventually be replaced?

Semneby: I don't exclude that there would be motivation to do this at some point. But I would not consider this to be the highest priority. The highest priority should be to make any effort possible in terms of confidence-building. That includes, of course, efforts by all sides, including Georgia.

There are lots of measures that Georgia could do to send strong, positive messages to the populations of the breakaway regions. This can be done on the very general political level, by making minority rights a more of a centerpiece, more of a priority in the policy of the Georgian government and the Georgian state in general. I think that would send strong positive signal.

RFE/RL: Have you seen any potential for direct contacts between Georgian officials and authorities from Abkhazia and South Ossetia?

Semneby: I hope that there are some contacts, fairly low-level contacts, at the moment. Any contact is positive.

RFE/RL: Is there any discussion between Tbilisi and Brussels about the peace process?

Semneby: There are various proposals the Georgian government has made, which of course we analyze and look at. When it comes to expectations vis-a-vis the European Union one has to be realistic, though. It's not in the cards that the European Union will make any major contribution to the peacekeeping forces in Georgia. At least, not at this stage. And I would say also not in the foreseeable future. But we are prepared to contribute to the negotiation processes.

Russia And Georgia

Russia And Georgia
Beefed up security outside Russian military headquarters in Tbilisi on September 27 (InterPressNews)

NOT ALL WINE AND ROSES. Moscow's relations with Tbilisi since the collapse of the Soviet Union have often been tense and strained. Among the issues that have made the relationship difficult are Moscow's alleged support for the breakaway Georgia regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as well as the continued presence of Russia troops on Georgian territory. Periodically, Georgian lawmakers propose withdrawing from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) altogether. RFE/RL has written extensively about the rocky relationship between these two countries.


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RFE/RL's complete coverage of Georgia and Russia.