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EU Envoy Says No 'Business As Usual' In Russia-Georgia Talks

Peter Semneby
Peter Semneby
As part of the EU-brokered cease-fire between Georgia and Russia, the two sides met in Geneva on October 15. Little progress was made and the second round was set for November 19.

Ahead of those talks, the EU's special representative to the South Caucasus, Peter Semneby, talked to RFE/RL's Georgian Service Director David Kakabadze and RFE/RL correspondent Brian Whitmore about what the EU can do, and what unresolved issues he sees going forward.

RFE/RL: The second round of the Geneva negotiations is due to take place on November 19. How hopeful are you on the eve of this round, given that the first round last month can be considered a failure?

Peter Semneby: I don't really want to get into any speculation of what may come out of this meeting at this stage. Because obviously, preparations are going on and, as we all know, these are very sensitive issues, where every detail is important. The signals that we have from the different parties are encouraging enough for this meeting but I will not go into any detail.

RFE/RL: After the recent Nice summit, the talks on the EU-Russia agreement appear to be back on track. We just did a story ourselves, saying "back to business as usual." Some people see this as capitulation, given that Russia has not really complied with the terms of the cease-fire agreement. How would you respond to that allegation that going back to business as usual with Russia on the part of the EU is in some ways a capitulation?

Semneby: I would take the issue without that it's business as usual. First of all, Russia has complied at least with a very important part of the cease-fire agreement. The Russian troops withdrew, as Russia had agreed, to the administrative boundary lines of South Ossetia and Abkhazia by October 1. There've been some questions regarding details here but fundamentally they took this very important step.

The questions that remain concern the commitment in the six-point plan to withdraw to positions before August 7. As far as the EU is concerned, the main consideration here was to have channels of communication open with Russia at the very sensitive moment. Those channels of communication and the negotiations on the agreement will in themselves give the European Union leverage also on issues related to Georgia and to the conflicts. And these issues, believe me, will be brought up in the course of those discussions with Russia.

RFE/RL: But even if Russia has fulfilled most of its commitments, one of the most important of them -- restoration of the status quo ante -- as you've just noted, remains unfulfilled.

Semneby: This is precisely what I mentioned: There are still questions -- and this is rather a mild and almost euphemistic way of putting it -- there are questions regarding that particular commitment -- the withdrawal to the positions before August 7, before the hostilities started. Absolutely.

RFE/RL: What leverage does the EU have to make it possible for its monitors to assess the situation inside the breakaway regions? It remains a huge problem, even if the mandate of the EU Monitoring Mission includes those regions.

Semneby: Absolutely. It's a very important aspect of the mandate of the monitoring mission that it covers the entire territory of Georgia. The conditions so far have not been present for their activities in the breakaway regions. This will be an issue that has already been raised and will continue to be raised in contacts with Russia within the framework of the Geneva talks and in whatever relevant context and forum that we have.

RFE/RL: Russia is not only increasing its troops' presence in Georgia's breakaway regions but considers moving a naval base to Ochamchire in Abkhazia. Moscow is justifying this on the grounds that these are bilateral talks between independent countries, leaving aside the fact that nobody other than Russia and Nicaragua recognizes them. Given that both sides are kind of dug in here, is there any way to bridge this gap?

Semneby: First of all, that kind of argument that these are bilateral agreements between independent states, they do not hold any value in our eyes. The EU does not recognize, of course, the independence of the breakaway regions and this is a very fundamental position we are also bringing across to the Russian Federation in the talks that we have with them.

As far as the military presence in the breakaway regions is concerned, of course we are concerned about any kind of military buildup, in particular also in the situation, where there is very little in terms of transparency. We know fairly well what the situation is, what is going on on the side that is controlled by the Georgian government, but we have very little insight into the situation on the other side of the administrative lines.

The Narrative Of Events

A new international commission has been recently set up to investigate the causes of the August war. This investigation is getting under way at a time when -- at least in the media -- the narrative seems to be shifting a little bit on the origins of the war, most significantly after "The New York Times" piece that came out on November 7. The article, citing unidentified OSCE observers, said that Georgia acted indiscriminately in Tskhinvali, which a lot of people don't dispute. But the piece also says that Georgians acted without being provoked, which a lot of people do dispute. Is that change in any way reflected in the diplomatic community, as the investigation is under way?

Semneby: First of all, the discussions on launching this investigation have been going on for quite some time and that decision on the investigation was not conditioned in any way by the recent media reports. I think this is important to point out.

I agree that the recent reports have given another narrative than has been the case so far. I have been rather troubled, I must say, also by a lot of previous narrative because it has concentrated too much on a very narrow time interval on the day that the active phase of the war broke out. I don't think we are ever [likely] to get absolutely full clarity about the sequence of events and what information was available at what particular time on that day. There's always going to be some doubt about August 7 itself.

But what is as relevant and perhaps even more relevant, is the larger context. Because we saw over the course of a very long period -- I would say, a year at least -- a gradual buildup of tension, where both sides were only too happy to participate and engage in this buildup but where it seems clear that Georgia was the party that was under pressure in this period. And in most cases, in many cases, Georgia had to respond to moves of various kinds.

Part of the events in the year preceding were military, others were political. One year and one day before the war broke out, we had a Russian missile landing very close to the main highway and very close to -- maybe even within -- the area that was occupied by Russian forces this year. We had in April of this year a decree by [Russian] President [Vladimir] Putin to the government on establishing closer links with the breakaway regions. We had other military dispositions, we had in the weeks immediately preceding the outbreak of the war, also a number of events, including the overflight of four Russian fighter planes in mid-July over South Ossetia -- Georgian airspace -- including fighting in various parts of South Ossetia between South Ossetian militia and Georgian forces that never really stopped before August 7.

This is part of a much larger perspective and a much larger pattern. That is a very complex series of developments that need to be studied and that's the reason why this investigation has been launched.

RFE/RL: In just a couple of weeks the EU will have a new president -- on January 1, 2009, the Czech Republic will take over the presidency from France. What will that mean for Georgia? Will there be any shift -- and if yes, in which direction -- in the EU policy toward the South Caucasus? Is there any prospect for some kind of a broader mandate for the EU, maybe in form of a police force stationed in the conflict areas?

Semneby: Well, if you ask about change of the EU policy, yes, of course there will be a change. The European policy is adapted all the time to the circumstances and particularly in a crisis situation like the one that we have.

The strategic objectives though remain the same: We want to stabilize the situation, we want to find ways towards a political solution of the conflict and we want to make sure that the reform process in Georgia is moved forward. These we continue to consider guiding principles.

As far as the presence of the EU is concerned, there will of course in due course be a review of work of the EU Monitoring Mission. But these are still very early days and I don't dare to say what the parameters of that sort of review would be, not to speak of the outcome of the review.

There are other important events also, that we can expect during the Czech presidency. The one that will have profound consequences for Georgia and the other countries of the South Caucasus, is the discussion on the so-called Eastern Partnership, the initiative that was launched by Poland and Sweden a few months ago, and which will now be brought forward by a report to be produced by the European Commission that, in turn, will be discussed between member states.

In order at some time during the Czech presidency for the member states, for the Council of the EU to take a decision that I believe will mean a qualitatively new step in terms of our relation with these countries. This will send the signal that the EU is firmly committed to the prosperity and security of the countries in the South Caucasus, that the partnership with the EU is a durable and lasting one, which I believe will serve to provide a kind of guiding direction for the reassurance to the countries but also a signal to other external partners that the EU is there to stay.

RFE/RL: In January a new administration will be coming into office in the United States. Many people would like to see the Americans and the Europeans in the region on the same page. Sometimes it seems the Americans are doing their own thing and the Europeans are doing their own thing. Are you hopeful that the Americans and the Europeans will be more coordinated on South Caucasus under the future administration?

Semneby: I think, all the conditions are there for a very close dialogue on the South Caucasus. These are early days, of course, after the U.S. election. I will be going myself to the United States already next week and I will meet [with] quite a few people both from the current administration and from those who are likely to take over responsible posts in the new administration. But I am fairly confident that we are going to find common language on the most important issues, relating to this region.

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