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Georgia: EU Official Says Events In Abkhazia 'Demonstrate Dangers And The Need To Act'

EU representative Semneby (left) in RFE/RL's studios in Prague on May 13 (RFE/RL) Peter Semneby, the EU special representative for the South Caucasus, this week traveled to Georgia for talks on the breakaway region of Abkhazia. The territory has been in the spotlight in recent weeks, as Moscow has built up its troop presence and sought to formalize its ties with the region's de facto leadership, a move Tbilisi says violates its territorial integrity. Semneby spoke to David Kakabadze, head of RFE/RL's Georgian Service, during a stop in Prague following the visit.

RFE/RL: Tensions between Georgia and Russia remain quite high. Is the EU planning any talks with the Russian side to follow the discussions in Georgia?

Peter Semneby: We have an ongoing dialogue with Russia, and Georgia is usually part of that dialogue. There will be several meetings in the next few weeks with Russia, where I expect that Georgia -- and the situation in the conflict areas -- will be discussed.

RFE/RL: George W. Bush this week voiced concerns about Georgia during a phone conversation with new Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. But many European Union countries -- particularly the members of "old Europe" -- are reluctant to confront Russia on the Georgia question. Why is the U.S. willing to take up this issue while the EU is not?

Semneby: If you look at statements that have been made by the EU over the course of the last month or so, you will see the EU has indeed raised many issues of concern with Russia. I would not agree with your way of posing this question. We have been concerned in particular about some unilateral moves [by Moscow] -- for example, the presidential instruction [by then-President Vladimir Putin] to establish and reinforce the ties with the authorities in the breakaway regions without the consent of the Georgian government. And there have been a number of other moves of this kind as well, which we have raised on several occasions. Look at those statements!

RFE/RL: Evidently not everyone is satisfied. Mikheil Saakashvili, speaking to visiting EU foreign ministers this week, condemned European nations for failing to oppose the Soviet Union when it absorbed Georgia in 1921, and urged Europe to choose a different path this time. Do you think Europe is about to, as Saakashvili put it, "repeat this mistake"?

Semneby: No, Europe is definitely not about to repeat this part of history.

RFE/RL: The Kremlin claims its recent moves are only meant to defend Russian citizens in Georgia's breakaway regions. One Western diplomat called these citizens a "fake diaspora" that Moscow has created by granting Russian citizenship to Abkhaz and Ossetians. Why did it take so long for the West to realize that Russia cannot be seen as an impartial mediator or facilitator in those conflicts?

Semneby: There is a kind of dilemma here, in the sense that Russia is, and will remain, a factor to reckon with in this region. It is the largest and the most important direct neighbor of Georgia. And against this background, it is of course crucial -- in order to have a stable neighborhood -- to reach a settlement, reach an agreement with Russia. And that means one has to talk to Russia in order to reach a solution to the problems. It is a secondary issue whether you call Russia a mediator, or facilitator, or part of talks, or whatever. But in the long run, in order to have a stable neighborhood, some kind of modus vivendi, at the very least, will have to be found with the largest neighbor of Georgia.

RFE/RL: Abkhazia and South Ossetia are just two of the so-called "frozen conflicts" on the territory of the former Soviet Union. There are two others: Nagorno-Karabakh and Transdniester. Does the EU have a common strategy with regard to those conflicts?

Semneby: First of all, I would like to avoid the term "frozen conflicts," because it implies that these conflicts are not really very dangerous. This is a term that invites -- to a degree -- complacency, which I think it wrong in this case. Instead of implying that the conflicts are just below the freezing point, I would say they are just below the boiling point. They are, rather, simmering conflicts, where any situation, any incident can actually lead to a very dangerous escalation. And this is also the basis for our view of the conflicts. These are conflicts which we cannot allow to continue in the state that they've remained in for so long, because sooner or later there will be a course of events where we would lose control. And in that situation we will have to work toward changing, overcoming, moving the status quo in the conflicts.

RFE/RL: Do you think we could be approaching this critical moment in Abkhazia now?

Semneby: We have faced some very difficult moments recently, and I think this should come as a memento to us all. [This] would require -- and I think we have already seen, in terms of the positions and the statements that have been taken -- that there is an even more active interest and involvement of the European Union and others in these conflicts. We have been concerned all along, but the events of the last few weeks have once again, and perhaps more clearly than before, demonstrated the dangers, and the need to act.

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