Addressing the European parliament on November 23, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili affirmed that Georgia "will never use military force to restore its territorial integrity." The de facto presidents of the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia responded with similar pledges not to resort to military force, which the Russian Foreign Ministry promptly hailed as a demonstration of "wisdom and political responsibility" on their part.
International mediators reacted more cautiously but nonetheless suggested that Saakashvili's offer created "a new context" for resolving the security problems created by the August 2008 war that resulted in Russia's formal recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states and the exodus of thousands of Georgians from South Ossetia.
Hopes for progress at internationally mediated talks between the four sides in Geneva on December 16 proved illusory, however. The Georgian side blamed Russia for that lack of progress, while the Russian and Abkhaz representatives deplored what they termed Tbilisi's "unconstructive" approach. It is not clear whether or to what extent the Georgian delegation in Geneva sought -- as Abkhaz government in exile head Giorgi Baramia told Caucasus Press it would -- to prioritize discussion of the imputed role of a Russian military officer in Abkhazia in planning the bomb attack in Tbilisi last month in which one woman died.
Since October 2008, government representatives from Georgia, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Russia and mediators from the European Union, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the United Nations, and the United States have met a total of 14 times in Geneva to discuss security and humanitarian issues, such as the right of Georgians displaced in the fighting to return to their homes in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
But from the outset, the Abkhaz and South Ossetian delegations have insisted that Georgia sign legally binding mutual accords with them abjuring the use of military force and thus removing the threat of a resumption of hostilities. Tbilisi, however, has consistently argued: first, that the Russian-Georgian cease-fire agreement signed in August 2008, under which the two sides pledge not to resort to force, renders any further written commitment superfluous; and second, that as Abkhazia and South Ossetia are merely Russian proxies, any further binding agreement should be signed not with them but with Moscow as the "occupier" of Georgian sovereign territory. The Georgian position came close to triggering an Abkhaz boycott of the talks earlier this year.
Reflecting that Georgian position, Georgian delegation head Gigi Bokeria professed "disappointment" that the co-chairs did not adopt a "firmer and more clear-cut position" at last week's Geneva talks and insist that Russia too make a formal pledge not to resort to force.
Saakashvili described his November 23 olive branch as part of his policy of what Ambassador Hans-Jorg Haber, head of the EU Monitoring Mission (EUMM) tasked with policing the cease-fire, dubbed "constructive unilateralism." But as with every previous unilateral overture Saakashvili has made to the breakaway regions in the past seven years -- from the peace plan he outlined to the UN General Assembly in 2004 to the State Strategy For Reintegrating the Occupied Territories unveiled in the spring of this year -- it failed to address the very real fears and concerns of the populations of the territories in question.
Responding to Saakashvili's overture in separate written statements released on December 6, both Abkhazia's Sergei Bagapsh and South Ossetia's Eduard Kokoity said they do not place any trust in Saakashvili's verbal affirmation in light of previous Georgian military attacks on their territory. Georgia attacked Abkhazia in 1992, 1998, and, using Chechen proxies, in 2001, and South Ossetia in 1989-90, 2004, and 2008.
Kokoity said Saakashvili's pledges "aren't worth a penny," given that "they generally precede an attack on our country." Both men again called for a written, legally binding pledge to abjure the use of force, which Bagapsh said should be signed within the framework of the ongoing Geneva talks. They both affirmed their commitment to the "universally accepted principle" of not using or threatening the use of military force, while at the same time reserving the right to resort to such force in self-defense in the event that, as Kokoity put it, "our worst fears are justified" and Georgia launches a new offensive.
The Georgian government, however, does not consider it necessary for Saakashvili to commit to paper his verbal pledge not to resort to military force. Georgian Deputy Foreign Minister Nino Kalandadze was quoted by Caucasus Press on November 30 as arguing that "the peaceful initiative articulated by President Saakashvili from the rostrum of the European Parliament has legal force even in verbal form."
Meeting on December 14 in Sukhumi with EU Special Representative for the South Caucasus Ambassador Peter Semneby, Bagapsh again said that he is not prepared to take any statement by Saakashvili at face value "until Abkhazia obtains clear confirmation of Georgia's readiness to sign an Agreement on the Non-Resumption of Hostilities that is internationally guaranteed."
Moreover, the Abkhaz leadership clearly considers the EU biased toward Tbilisi, and is therefore seeking to secure the backing of the UN, which maintained an observer mission in Sukhumi from 1993-2009, for its own position. At his meeting with Semneby, Bagapsh criticized what he termed "actions by European political structures in support of Georgia that are biased and not thought through politically," by which he presumably meant attempts to disengage political and humanitarian cooperation, expediting the latter while leaving the former on the back-burner. He told Semneby the European approach necessitates a substantive correction to the Abkhaz position.
Bagapsh has therefore duly addressed a formal request to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to facilitate the securing of mutual obligations between Abkhazia and Georgia on the non-use of force and refusal of aggression."
The EU, UN, and OSCE mediators at the Geneva talks perceive Saakashvili's offer, and the responses to it by the Abkhaz and South Ossetian leaders and the Russian Foreign Ministry, as a small but important step toward resolving the whole nexus of security-related problems left unaddressed by the August 2008 cease-fire agreement. At the same time, they acknowledge, in an extensive interview posted on December 15 on the civil.ge website, that disagreement persists between the four sides as to how to develop and build on the potential that has emerged.
Ambassador Pierre Morel, who co-chairs the Geneva talks on behalf of the EU, explained that an agreement abjuring the use of force is just one side of the coin and needs to be underpinned by real security guarantees. He explained that: "we have stressed, again and again, with all the participants, that if you want to work on non-use of force, you have also to work on the international security arrangements, which are connected with non-use of force. Non-use of force is not the kind of concept which is floating in the air. This is something related to concrete situations, which implies rules of behavior and guarantees and consequences on the ground. Otherwise, why should one enter into this complex exercise? This is meant to improve real security; therefore, as soon as you begin to work on this legal and commitment dimensions, you must look at the guarantees and modalities."
Neither Morel nor either of his co-chairs, Antti Turunen of the UN and Bolat Nurgaliyev representing Kazakhstan as OSCE chairman in office, offered any hint as to what sort of specific security modalities they considered effective and feasible. But in an op-ed published on December 16 in "The Moscow Times," U.S. experts Cory Welt and Samuel Charap argued forcefully for expanding the role of the EUMM, the unarmed monitors deployed since the fall of 2008 on Georgian territory bordering the breakaway regions, and who routinely investigate allegations by all sides of human rights and cease-fire violations.
Specifically, Welt and Charap advocate negotiating access for the EUMM to the South Ossetian district of Akhalgori and to Abkhazia's southernmost Gali district, the population of which is predominantly ethnic Georgian. They point out that "after two years of impartiality and transparency, the EUMM appears to have gained the confidence of the Russian military, which is traditionally wary of Westerners in uniform, particularly near Russia's borders. And since the unarmed monitors would be there explicitly to look out for local residents, not inspect [Russian] military facilities, it's quite possible that Moscow would be content with this arrangement."
The Abkhaz, however, have said ever since the EUMM was first deployed that they will not allow its members access to Abkhaz territory; and given Bagapsh's apparent disenchantment with and suspicion of the EU, there are few grounds to anticipate a volte face, even in the event that Moscow agreed in principle to allowing the EUMM access to Gali. That would pose a dilemma for the co-chairs of the Geneva talks: whether to adopt diverging strategies with regard to Abkhazia and South Ossetia, rather than continue treating the two regions as "identical twins," if the former approach held out the possibility of reducing the perceived vulnerability of the remaining Georgians in South Ossetia.