Johan Verbeke is the former head of the now-defunct UN observer mission in Georgia and was the UN’s special representative at the Geneva talks initiated after the August 2008 Russia-Georgia war. Verbeke has since been named Belgium’s ambassador to the U.K. On the eve of a fresh round of talks in Geneva on January 28, Verbeke spoke to correspondent Olesya Vartanyan of RFE/RL's Echo of the Caucasus about the possibility of restoring observer missions in Georgia and the continued challenges regarding Russia, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia.
RFE/RL: You were appointed the UN’s special representative to Georgia during the August 2008 war. At the time, the UN still had monitors and humanitarian programs in Abkhazia. How has the role of the UN changed since the war, and what are its future prospects?
Johan Verbeke: The role of the United Nations has fundamentally changed in Georgia. The most significant proof of this, of course, is the fact that the mission of the United Nations, UNOMIG, is no longer there. This is not quite abnormal -- it was quite foreseeable, I think, that the very nature of the UN presence should change in Georgia, and that is indeed what has been happening.
That said, just because the UN mission is gone doesn’t mean that the United Nations is finished in Georgia. There is still the UN country team, with different agencies -- you know, the UNDP, UNICEF and others; and us [working on the Geneva resolution talks]. So, the United Nations continues to work actively, both as the co-chair of the Geneva talks and as a chair of the so-called IPRM [Incident Prevention and Response Mechanism] for Abkhazia.
RFE/RL: What kind of prospects do you see for the UN in Abkhazia? Is there any chance the UN will return there with the same mandate?
Verbeke: The question, I think, is not really should we return there, should we go back to the past, should we re-establish a full-fledged UN mission. I don’t think that is the question. The real question is whether we, as the United Nations, can continue what we have been doing for the last few years -- and that is to keep the confidence on both sides, so that through the United Nations, bridges can be established, dialogue can take place.
How, then, that will take form in the future -- we will see. In diplomacy, you can never force structures -- they have to naturally follow diplomatic developments. It may very well be possible that the UN will increase somewhat its presence in Abkhazia as time goes on, but we should not pre-fix such objectives.
The first thing we should do, and continue to do, is to be an objective intermediator, a facilitator of talks between the Georgians and the Abkhaz, and then see what fixtures, what institutional mechanisms, what structures this needs.
RFE/RL: Some people have praised the UN for managing to maintain trust in both Georgia and Abkhazia. Unlike the settlement process in South Ossetia, there’s been some progress with Abkhazia, even after the war. I’m referring to the meetings in the Georgian-majority Abkhaz region of Gali, for example, which take place all the time. What does it take to remain a trustworthy partner for both sides?
Verbeke: Once you lose the trust of one side, you’re no longer useful in diplomacy. One of the reasons the IPRM meetings in Gali went rather well is...that the UN listened carefully to both sides. We never made dramatic statements with regard to one side, we never took sides in the discussions, and always, as much as possible, we tried to objectively contribute to building bridges.
For the future that remains the recipe for success, and it’s one of the reasons the UN will be called upon to continue playing an important role in Georgia. Because it’s one of the few institutions and organizations that has the objective, intermediary trust of both parties. And in the future, indeed, the Secretary-General [Ban Ki-moon] is looking for a person who may also incarnate those assets.
RFE/RL: The Geneva talks, which continue on January 28, appear to be fundamentally deadlocked. Some of the main players don’t even hide the fact that they don’t expect any progress this week. What needs to be done there?
Verbeke: I think the Geneva talks aren’t something that’s meant to bring miracles in the short term. It’s not a machine for producing big and dramatic solutions. That is not the purpose of Geneva, and never has been. The Geneva talks are a forum, a platform where all the concerned parties can meet, discuss issues and progress to some extent.
I, as a co-chair, and my other friends and co-chairs from the European Union and the OSCE have never had the illusion that we would, in one year’s time, break through with dramatic developments on the status-related questions [on Abkhazia and South Ossetia]. We always said that this should be a bottom-up process, where you start with small-scale problems, and then you build up. The mere fact that the talks are going on, the mere fact that all these parties meet regularly in Geneva, is itself a very important element in what I would call the peace process.
RFE/RL: The Geneva mediators have been working on an agreement which Russia refers to as an agreement on the non-use of force. The third draft of these documents is due to be discussed this week. What’s the content of the agreement, and what is it that the sides can’t agree on?
Verbeke: Again, even though we don’t have a final product on this, the talks have still been useful. You’re right -- the accents are different. From the Russian side, what’s being stressed is the non-use of force. From the Georgian side, what is being stressed is the necessity of having international security mechanisms.
I think that is a legitimate point, and, at least a couple of months ago, there was an agreement that both should go together -- that is, the question of the non-use of force, and that of the setting up of security mechanisms. I’m no longer in the game, as you know, but my colleagues are now in the stage of working out the balance between these two things.
RFE/RL: You worked for the UN for many years. Why did you decide to move back to the Belgian Foreign Ministry?
Verbeke: Well, I’ve been moving up and right and down and what have you all my life. That is the very life of a diplomat, who, by instinct, is sort of a nomad. I came to the UN from the Belgian diplomatic corps -- as you know, I was the Belgian ambassador to the United Nations and, more specifically, in the Security Council. From there, I took up that very interesting job in Georgia. But the time comes when you have to go back to bilateral diplomacy, as I’ve done now.
I can tell you that my experience professionally, as a special representative of Ban Ki-moon, was a very challenging and interesting experience. And the fact that I had the opportunity to live in Georgia, in the South Caucasus, was a very enriching experience on a personal level.