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Geneva Talks On Georgia Get Off To Rocky Start

Sarkozy and Medvedev laid the groundwork for the talks last month
Sarkozy and Medvedev laid the groundwork for the talks last month
The internationally sponsored talks on the aftermath of the August war between Georgia and Russia broke down at the opening session in Geneva on October 15 as the result of disagreements over procedural issues. The talks, previously envisaged as a fortnightly meeting, have been adjourned for one month, until November 18.

The Geneva meeting was one of the points agreed on during a September 8 meeting between the presidents of France and Russia, Nicolas Sarkozy and Dmitry Medvedev, that was intended to flesh out the cease-fire agreement reached during their talks in Moscow on August 12. The sixth and final point of the cease-fire agreement, which was signed before Russia formally recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states on August 26, called for internationally mediated talks on security guarantees for the two republics.

The September 8 agreement called for internationally mediated discussions focusing specifically on "security and stability in the region" following the anticipated withdrawal by October 10 of Russian forces from the conflict zones, and on the subsequent return of displaced persons to their homes in accordance with "recognized principles and practice of post-conflict settlement." The agreement made provisions for discussion of further issues with the mutual agreement of the participating sides.

Separatists Welcome?

At that juncture, however, it was not specified which states would participate in the discussions, nor which international organizations would mediate them. Over the next few weeks, newly appointed EU representative Pierre Morel reportedly secured the consent of both Russia and Georgia for the proposed format: plenary sessions attended by Russia, Georgia, the United States, together with representatives of the UN, the European Union, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and informal working groups in which representatives from Abkhazia and South Ossetia would participate. Those representatives were to be identified only by name, with no reference to the territorial entity they represent.

Sarkozy was quoted by AFP on October 8 as asserting that "of course" Abkhazia and South Ossetia should participate in the talks. But senior Georgian officials were categorically against inviting the two breakaway republics to participate. Georgian First Deputy Foreign Minister Giga Bokeria was quoted by on October 10 as telling the TV station Imedi that they should be excluded from the October 15 discussions given that the war was "between Georgia and Russia." He said they might be invited to participate at the following session if agreement were reached on replacing the Russian peacekeepers in both regions with international forces, but in that case, Bokeria continued, representatives of the pro-Tbilisi Abkhaz government in exile and of the provisional South Ossetian administration established in May 2007 should also be at the negotiating table. (The heads of those two administrations, Malkhaz Akishbaia and Dmitry Sanakoyev, were included in the Georgian delegation at the last minute, accompanying Bokeria and his fellow Deputy Foreign Minister Grigol Vashadze, according to "Vremya novostei" on October 16.) Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili was even more categorical, affirming on October 15 that "we don't regard these people as politicians; we consider them criminals."

Unnamed EU officials said in the run-up to the Geneva talks that the various parties had indeed agreed that the Abkhaz and South Ossetian delegations -- headed, respectively, by Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba, who is rumored to be in line to replace President Sergei Bagapsh, and acting First Deputy Prime Minister Boris Chochiyev -- would participate only in the two working groups.

In the event, however, the Russian delegation showed up 50 minutes late for the morning plenary session to protest their exclusion. There ensued an ad hoc meeting to try to hammer out a consensus between the Russian delegation (headed by Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin), the U.S. delegation (headed by Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried), EU Representative Morel, the Abkhaz, and the South Ossetians, but not the Georgians.

But that effort degenerated into a shouting match between the Russian delegation and Shamba -- who insisted that the Abkhaz and South Ossetian delegations be afforded the same status as that of Georgia, and that Georgia be excluded from the list of working languages for the talks, the daily "Kommersant" reported on October 16. Karasin failed to persuade Shamba to drop those demands, whereupon Shamba demonstratively walked out of the talks, followed by Chochiyev. According to "Kommersant," Karasin apologized for Shamba's maximalist stance. It is not clear whether the Abkhaz/South Ossetian walkout was coordinated beforehand with Moscow, and the shouting match between Shamba and Karasin was orchestrated, or whether the Abkhaz and South Ossetian representations are evolving into the tail that wags the Russian dog.

Mutual Recriminations

Georgia and Russia blamed each other for the failure of the meeting. Saakashvili said that the Russians "walked out" of the talks, thereby demonstrating that "Russia has no interest whatsoever at this stage in any diplomatic process." Karasin, in turn, accused the Georgian delegation of failing to show up for the afternoon plenary session.

U.S. mediator Fried, by contrast, lauded the approach of the Russian delegation as "constructive," and laid the blame for the failure squarely on the Abkhaz and South Ossetians. "It was clear that both Russians and Georgians were looking for ways to move forward and resolve the problems, rather than to create them -- that was my sense," Caucasus Press quoted Fried as saying. "Unfortunately, the de facto authorities of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, who were present at the meeting, did not exhibit such a constructive spirit. They chose instead to walk out of the informational session and they demanded, after they walked out, as a precondition for further talks basically treatment that would have meant that they were full-fledged national delegations, which no one except Russia was prepared to do."

"The Georgian government showed it was firm in defending its principle of territorial integrity, but actually creative and constructive [in] trying to find ways within that principle to move forward," Fried continued. "Listening to [Deputy Foreign] Minister Karasin, it was clear that he was trying to find practical ways forward."

Fried told journalists on October 15 he hopes the contentious procedural issues will be resolved before the talks resume on November 18. But even if that proves possible, the diverging agendas of the various participants will almost certainly lead to new disagreements. Moscow appears intent on confining the discussion to the originally agreed issues -- security and repatriation of displaced persons. But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has argued that "security" for Abkhazia and South Ossetia depends on the total demilitarization of Georgia, and to that end has called for a ban on the sales of heavy weaponry to Georgia. Neither Georgia nor the United States is likely to agree to that demand.

Moscow also insists that Georgia sign formal documents with both Abkhazia and South Ossetia abjuring the use of military force against them. This was one of the key requirements of the August 12 six-point cease-fire agreement; Saakashvili was reported to have signed such a pledge on September 9.

Prior to his departure for Geneva, Georgian Deputy Foreign Minister Vashadze told journalists on October 14 that Georgia wants the talks to address not only the extent of Russia's compliance with all points of the September 8 agreement, but also repatriation and the "restoration of Georgia's territorial integrity," meaning bringing nominally independent Abkhazia and South Ossetia back under the control of the central Georgian government. That is an issue that neither entity is prepared to discuss, and Medvedev has stated that Russia will not rescind its formal recognition of their independence. The issue of repatriation too is problematic insofar as the South Ossetian leadership has ruled out the return of the republic's Georgian population.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon warned on October 14 that no one should expect the talks to yield a swift solution. "It may be very difficult at the first initial stage, but as we progress through this expert, envoy level consultation, I am sure that we will be able to level up this dialogue at a ministerial and higher level. We need to be patient, even though it may take time," Ban added.