Tbilisi condemns any effort to drive a wedge between it and the European Union -- that was the message that emerged from a meeting on May 19 between Georgian Deputy Foreign Minister Davit Dondua and Ambassador Herbert Salber, the EU special representative for the South Caucasus and the crisis in Georgia.
Salber has been the target of outraged criticism from across the Georgian political spectrum for remarks he is reported to have made during a visit on May 16 to Georgia's breakaway region of South Ossetia in his capacity as one of the co-chairmen of the Geneva International Discussions that seek to resolve the humanitarian and security issues resulting from the August 2008 Russian-Georgian war.
Specifically, Salber was quoted by the press service of the region's new de facto president, Anatoly Bibilov, as congratulating Bibilov on the "recent elections" in April that he won and "the very important post" he now occupies.
Deputy Foreign Minister Davit Dondua and several Georgian opposition politicians immediately criticized Salber's imputed comments as recognition of Bibilov as South Ossetia's legitimate president, and thus as in direct contradiction of the EU's policy of nonrecognition of either South Ossetia or Abkhazia as legitimate polities. (The EU nonetheless continues to pursue a Non-Recognition and Engagement Policy with regard to Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The brainchild of Salber's predecessor as EU special representative, the Swedish diplomat Peter Semneby, it is intended, according to British scholar Thomas de Waal, to create a political and legal space within which the EU can "keep channels and options open," and maintain communication with the breakaway regions' leaders without compromising its adherence to Georgia's territorial integrity.)
Georgia's opposition United National Movement went so far as to argue that Salber's visit to Tskhinvali in itself constituted a violation of Georgia's territorial integrity, and to demand that Georgia insist that the EU recall Salber and appoint a replacement. Independent parliament deputy and former Foreign Minister Salome Zurabishvili argued that Salber should be designated "persona non grata."
In video footage made public after his May 19 meeting with Dondua and quoted by the website Civil.ge, Salber stressed that both the EU and he personally continued to support fully the principle of Georgia's territorial integrity. He also said that neither he nor the EU recognized the legitimacy of "the framework in which the elections took place."
At the same time, Salber stressed that the core of his mandate as special representative focuses on his role as co-chairman of the Geneva International Discussions. Those talks, of which 39 rounds have taken place to date, bring together representatives of the EU, the UN, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Russia, the United States, Georgia, South Ossetia, and Abkhazia.
In a June 2016 address to the OSCE's Annual Security Review Conference, Salber described those talks as "an original set-up built on ambiguities and broad inclusiveness." (One of those ambiguities is to facilitate the participation of representatives of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in a purely personal, rather than an official capacity in order to circumvent the question of formal recognition of those polities.) The UN and OSCE co-chairs accompanied Salber on his visits earlier this week to South Ossetia, and then to Abkhazia.
Dondua too alluded to the Geneva International Discussions after his meeting with Salber, affirming that it was "very important to do everything to ensure that no shadow is cast on the bilateral and multilateral formats, processes, and institutions which have crucial importance for Georgia and which are playing a very important role for maintaining peace, democracy, and for Georgia's development in general."
That circumspect formulation implies that Tbilisi may have construed the comments attributed by Bibilov's press service to Salber as an attempt (at Moscow's behest?) either to drive a wedge between Georgia and the EU and/or to sabotage the Geneva International Discussions.
During the most recent round of those talks (in March), "modest progress" was reportedly made toward an agreement between Russia and Georgia on the nonuse of military force, according to the Georgian Foreign Ministry. Tbilisi has been demanding such a document for years, while Moscow dismisses it as unnecessary on the grounds that the conflict is between Georgia on the one hand and South Ossetia and Abkhazia on the other.
But after the Council of Europe's Committee of Ministers issued a statement in early May reiterating its support for Georgia's territorial integrity and condemning the continued presence of Russian military bases on the territory of the two breakaway regions, the Russian Foreign Ministry countered with a statement questioning whether there was any point in "continuing the Geneva meetings in the current format."