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Semneby: 'Not Quite There Yet' On Allowing EU Monitors Into Abkhazia, South Ossetia

"A lot of the events that are alleged to have taken place are either very minor incidents or may not have taken place at all," says Peter Semneby, the EU's special envoy to the South Caucasus.
"A lot of the events that are alleged to have taken place are either very minor incidents or may not have taken place at all," says Peter Semneby, the EU's special envoy to the South Caucasus.
Peter Semneby, the European Union's special representative to the South Caucasus, has been in the Georgia capital, Tbilisi, for meetings with government officials, opposition members and NGOs. Semneby also visited Sukhumi, the capital of the separatist region of Abkhazia.

One year after the start of the war between Russia and Georgia, the ambassador sat down for an interview in Tbilisi on August 6 with Nino Gelashvili of RFE/RL's Georgian Service. They discussed the agreements that ended the fighting, the European Union Monitoring Mission (EUMM) currently deployed on the Georgian side of its borders with the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and the prospects for U.S. personnel to join that mission.

RFE/RL: According to a recent EUMM press release, the monitors are intensifying patrols in the area. Is there any particular reason for that, or it is just linked to the anniversary of the war?

Peter Semneby:
It’s linked to the tensions and statements that we have seen in the "virtual" world over the course of the last week or so. All of this is, of course, linked to the anniversary of the war. And in such a situation, where some nerves are a bit tense, the EUMM would want to be in a position where they can quickly react, where they can quickly verify allegations of various kinds, and have a fuller picture of the situation than is normally the case.

This intensified patrolling has proven to be very useful. They have regular night patrols and have also otherwise increased their levels of presence in the areas close to the administrative line.

Fortunately, the conclusion of the EUMM is that a lot of the events that are alleged to have taken place are either very minor incidents or may not have taken place at all. So, we have discrepancy between what we hear in terms of statements and allegations on the one hand and the actual situation on the ground. This is very important for the EUMM to be able to make such a conclusion. This is really what the observation mission is there for – to make sure that the information is available on the real situation, to calm down the situation, and to act as a deterring influence also by its very presence in this area.

RFE/RL: It is known that the head of this mission is reporting to the Council of the European Union. These reports are confidential, of course, but could you tell us about the common picture? Or is it just what is written in the press releases?

The press releases that have been made give the common picture. And the press release that was made today makes it clear that the situation is not very far from what has been observed in the past. It’s a more or less stable situation along the administrative lines, which again is very different from some of the statements that we have heard over the course of the last few days.

And it’s important to know that this is the case because if we would just react on the basis of statements of various kinds, then we could easily get an escalation of the situation that could then spill over from the virtual world to the real world.

RFE/RL: You were in Sukhumi recently. Were you in [the South Ossetian capital] Tskhinvali, too, and have you talked about letting mission monitors into the territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia?

I’ve been in Sukhumi lately, that’s true. I have not been in Tskhinvali. I have indeed raised the issue of the desirability of the presence of the mission on the other side of the administrative lines. I think there are very strong arguments for that. In that case, the mission would be able to fulfill the day-to-day liaison function that would have a calming influence in itself. But it also would be very useful for the conflict parties to have this kind of presence that could straddle the administrative line, the front line.

We are not quite there yet, but I hope that this insight will also prevail among those who are still hesitant or negative about the presence of the EUMM on the other side.

RFE/RL: Are there any preconditions that the parties have talked about for letting this mission on the other side?

I will not comment on the details of the discussions on the presence of the EUMM. I have tried in my discussions also to focus on the benefits to all sides and to convince all sides that it is in their own interests to have the EUMM present. If it is in their own interest, if they realize that it’s in their own interests, then I don’t think horse trading here would be the way to go.

RFE/RL: A year after the signing of the agreement, which I do not even know how to name correctly -- it is often called the Sarkozy-Medvedev plan -- could you tell us more about the procedure of its signing? Is it one document signed by three leaders, or are there two versions -- one signed by [French President] Sarkozy and [Russian President Dmitry] Medvedev and another one signed by Sarkozy and [Georgian President Mikheil] Saakashvili?

This was a complicated negotiation that took place in many places in Moscow and in Tbilisi. There were different documents signed, where however the substantive parts were identical or the same. So, we are not talking about several agreements. It is one agreement.

RFE/RL: I asked this because the president of Georgia and the government were complaining about the sixth point of the document that was included in the version published by the Russian government. It says that the status issue [of Abkhazia and South Ossetia] should be discussed. So, are those documents identical, or do they differ from one other?

In the talks that were launched as a result of the signing of the agreements, the status issues are not discussed. These talks deal with some very technical, but nevertheless extremely important, aspects of the conflicts. It is security-related issues on the one hand and issues related to [internally displaced persons] and refugees on the other hand. But the status issues are not part of those talks and not part of the implementation of the agreements as they have been signed.

RFE/RL: Do you mean the document of September 2008 about the implementation of the August agreement?

I will not go into the technical details here of each paragraph. But, yes, there is one agreement. That is the agreement of the 12th of August and then there is another set of documents, which is not a separate agreement but is a set of arrangements for the implementation of the main agreement.

RFE/RL: A year after launching EUMM in Georgia, there is talk in Georgia about adding some U.S. personnel to that mission. How far has that discussion gone for now?

There has not been any formal discussion on this. The issue is not on any agenda. After the Georgian government made this request and made this request public, of course, there have been a lot of exchanges of views on the issue. But that again does not mean that the issue is on any agenda. I am not in a position to say whether that even would be the case. That will be up to the Presidency of the European Union to determine.

There are many issues that have to be considered here. There are, of course, very important political issues. And my impression is that the political aspect of the U.S. presence was the prevailing consideration when the Georgian government made this request. But there are also operational considerations. I will not mention all of them, but one is the question of whether there is any need to invite third parties to be part of the mission.

At this stage, the European Union has been able itself through contributions of the member states to fill all functions in the mission including the most specialized functions. So, from that perspective, there would not be a need, but again – this is only one aspect.

RFE/RL: From a political point of view, are you in a position to express your opinion about the issue?

I will not express my opinion here because it’s not up to me to decide this issue. It’s an issue that has to be decided by the Council of the European Union -- that is, the foreign ministers of the European Union.

RFE/RL: Mr. Semneby, the August [2008] agreement is not implemented. What is the price for Russia of not implementing it?

The issue of the implementation of the agreement will continue to be raised in our contacts with Russia at many different levels and on many different occasions. That has been the case so far and it will continue to be the case.

RFE/RL: But you don’t talk about any political price...

I’m just saying that there are many different ways of raising this issue, many different angles, many different fora, many different levels, and so on. The context is different at different levels. But whether there is a price at one or the other level and so on, I don’t want to go in that.

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