The first three rounds of talks -- in October, November and December -- ended without result; but at the fourth round, which ended on February 18, the sides signed an agreement on albeit limited measures to preclude violent incidents. How effective that agreement will prove in practice is an open question, however, given that, as Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin pointed out, the measures in question are not legally binding. But the very fact that all sides have formally agreed even on minimal cooperation is a step forward.
The February 18 agreement, titled "Proposals for Joint Mechanisms for Averting and Reacting to Incidents," is one of two discussed, but not signed, at the previous round of talks on December 18. (The second draft document, according to "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on February 16, focuses on ensuring the unrestricted distribution of humanitarian aid in the two conflict zones.) The "Proposals" envisage weekly meetings between local police and security officials and international representatives in Abkhazia's Gali Raion and the South Ossetian village of Ergneti, south of Tskhinvali, to discuss the security situation, and a "hotline" to coordinate reactions in an emergency situation.
Abkhaz representatives said earlier this week they would push in Geneva for the resumption of such talks, while UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon proposed such regular exchanges of information in his February 3 letter to the Security Council urging the extension of the mandate of the UN Observer Mission in Georgia
The "Proposals" also provide, at least in theory, for the involvement of international monitors in investigating shoot-outs and other violent incidents; but to date both the Abkhaz and the South Ossetian governments have refused to allow the 200 EU monitors deployed on Georgia's borders with those regions access to their territory.
The South Ossetian delegation announced in Geneva that OSCE monitors will be allowed to participate in joint investigations on South Ossetian territory only after a formal agreement is reached on extending the mandate of the OSCE's mission. Abkhaz Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba told journalists in Sukhumi on February 16 that EU monitors would not be allowed to enter Abkhaz territory because that organization has formally ruled out recognition of Abkhazia as an independent state.
How the "Proposals" will contribute to preventing shoot-outs or reprisals against civilians, as opposed to facilitating joint postmortems after they have occurred, is likewise unclear.
The South Ossetian delegation to the talks demanded that work begin immediately on drafting a legally binding pledge by Georgia not to resort to military force against South Ossetia. The Russian daily "Vremya novostei" on February 19 quoted EU special representative Pierre Morel as saying he hopes such an agreement can be formalized at the next round of Geneva talks, tentatively expected to take place in late May or early June.