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Friday 23 March 2018

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Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili

Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili has publicly appealed to Russia to embark on “sensible, if small” steps aimed at breaking out of the impasse in bilateral relations caused by Moscow’s recognition nearly 10 years ago of Georgia’s breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states.

Tbilisi formally severed diplomatic relations with Russia in retaliation for that move and Kvirikashvili also affirmed, once again, his readiness for direct dialogue with those two breakaway polities.

Three days after Kvirikashvili's March 9 appeal, the Russian Foreign Ministry responded with a commentary welcoming Kvirikashvili’s initiative.

But at the same time, the ministry implicitly placed the onus on Tbilisi by stipulating that “Russia…is ready to go as far as Tbilisi is.”

That response neatly glosses over the more problematic aspects of Kvirikashvili’s statement, while signaling approval or acceptance of other proposals.

Kvirikashvili cast his overture as the pragmatic and logical next step in a gradual process launched following the advent to power in 2012 of the Georgian Dream party of which he leads.

The talks that got under way four years ago between Kvirikashvili’s special envoy, Zurab Abashidze, and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin have yielded concrete steps towards resuming economic cooperation, and the Russian Foreign Ministry declared its readiness to deepen that cooperation.

Georgia's special envoy on relations with Russia, Zurab Abashidze
Georgia's special envoy on relations with Russia, Zurab Abashidze

But Kvirikashvili appeared to contradict himself by first affirming the possibility of breaking out of the “vicious circle” of mutual recrimination occasioned by the August 2008 war that culminated in a humiliating military defeat for Georgia and Russia’s formal recognition of the two breakaway state-lets -- and then casting doubt on the possibility of such a reset in light of “a chain of tragic incidents” for which he implicitly blames Moscow.

The Russian Foreign Ministry response made no direct reference to that implicit reproach, or to the 2008 fighting. But it did hail Kvirikashvili’s professed desire to achieve “real progress” in the internationally mediated talks in Geneva on overcoming the security and humanitarian consequences of the war, “regardless of who heads Georgia’s delegation to Geneva.”
Kvirikashvili declared in December 2017 that he is prepared to participate personally in those talks if doing so would serve a useful purpose -- even though, as several Georgian analysts pointed out, the issues under discussion are not of the magnitude that would require his direct participation.

Moreover, progress on that front is fraught with serious problems given that the position and priorities of Georgia on the one side and Russia, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia on the other, differ so widely.

Tbilisi has consistently focused on discrimination against the Georgian minorities in the two breakaway regions and on Russia’s deployment of military personnel on those territories and unilateral demarcation of the borders between them and the rest of Georgia.

Russia, by contrast, criticizes as a potential threat to the two regions the military assistance Georgia has received from the United States, including the recent sale of Javelin antiarmor missile systems.

It therefore prioritizes the signing of formal nonaggression pacts between Georgia and the two breakaway polities. Tbilisi has dismissed that demand, arguing that it is Russia, rather than Abkhazia or South Ossetia, that poses a threat to regional peace and stability.

As for Kvirikashvili’s parallel offer to Abkhazia and South Ossetia to embark on direct dialogue, the Russian Foreign Ministry lauded it as “the only real way of addressing the problems that worry Georgia and that do not fall within the framework of bilateral relations.”

That circumlocution is tantamount to a direct rejection of Tbilisi’s long-standing argument that the Abkhaz and South Ossetian leaders are merely Russian puppets that obediently carry out its orders, and that responsibility for the situation on the frontiers between Georgia and the two breakaway regions lies exclusively with Moscow.

In that respect, Moscow’s decoupling of two issues that Kvirikashvili linked together -- Georgia’s relations with Russia on the one hand, and with its breakaway republics on the other --is clearly intended to convey the message that those republics’ de facto presidents have complete freedom in conducting what, from Russia’s standpoint, are their respective foreign policies.

The Abkhaz leadership has repeatedly made clear that dialogue with Tbilisi is contingent on Georgia’s recognition of Abkhazia as an independent sovereign state. Moscow for its part has repeatedly ruled out the possibility of rescinding its formal recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

As noted, the Russian Foreign Ministry commentary did not make any direct reference to the August 2008 fighting. The 10th anniversary of the outbreak of that war, to which Kvirikashvili pointedly pegged his initiative, is still five months away.

That raises the question of whether Kvirikashvili’s primary objective may have been to deflect opposition criticism of his government’s handling of the most recent in the “chain of tragic events” to which he refers.

The incident in question is the death last month of Archil Tatunashvili, a Georgian whose family fled South Ossetia in 2008, but who periodically returned there to sell fruit and vegetables.

Meeting in Gori to commemorate Archil Tatunashvili on March 4, 2018.
Meeting in Gori to commemorate Archil Tatunashvili on March 4, 2018.

According to de facto South Ossetian authorities, Tatunashvili, 35, was apprehended on February 22 and taken to the main police precinct in Tskhinvali for questioning on suspicion of having committed war crimes against the civilian population during the 2008 fighting and of plotting “acts of sabotage” in South Ossetia in the run-up to the March 18 Russian presidential election.

Tatunashvili is said to have assaulted a police officer while being taken back to his cell, lost his balance during the ensuing struggle, and sustained unspecified injuries falling down a flight of stairs. He was taken to a hospital where he died early the following day, allegedly of heart failure.

Tatunashvili’s family and Georgian officials reject that version of events, saying his death was the result of torture.

According to Georgian Human Rights Ombudsman Nino Lomjaria, Tatunashvili had been beaten and was already dead on arrival at the hospital.

Furthermore, RFE/RL’s Echo of the Caucasus reports that in August 2008, Tatunashvili was serving as part of the Georgian peacekeeping contingent in Iraq, and therefore could not have participated in the fighting in South Ossetia.

To date, South Ossetian representatives have steadfastly rejected appeals by the Georgian leadership, the head of the Georgian Orthodox church, and also the UN, the European Union, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in their capacity as co-chairs of the Geneva talks, for Tatunashvili’s body to be handed over to his family for burial. They say this will be done following a further autopsy to be conducted in Russia.

The Russian Foreign Ministry’s explicit inclusion of the Tatunashvili case among those issues that it says can only be solved by bilateral talks between Georgia and its breakaway regions thus constitutes a rejection of statements by some Georgian politicians (but not Kvirikashvili) laying the entire blame for Tatunashvili’s death on Russia as the “occupying force.”

In a long interview with InterPressNews, veteran political analyst Ramaz Saqvarelidze postulated that it may have been one of Georgia’s Western partners that persuaded Kvirikashvili to go public with his overture to Moscow so the West would have a valid reason to pressure Russia to respond.

If true, that could explain the unconventional medium Kvirikashvili opted for -- a post on his Facebook page -- rather than resorting either to the contacts between Kvirikashvili’s representative, Abashidze, and the Russian Foreign Ministry, or co-opting a neutral intermediary.

Meanwhile, Georgia’s opposition parties, in particular the former ruling United National Movement (ENM) and European Georgia, which split from it early last year, have lambasted Kvirikashvili for “capitulating” to Russia by implicitly abandoning Georgia’s previous consistent designation of it as the occupier of parts of Georgia’s territory, and for failing to stress the importance of restoring Georgia’s territorial integrity.

The ENM has demanded that Kvirikashvili publicly apologize for the wording of his statement and resign. One of its lawmakers, Salome Samadashvili, accused Kvirikashvili of having “exonerated Russia from all legal and political responsibility.”

European Georgia leader Davit Bakradze was less categorical, but nonetheless characterized Kvirikashvili’s initiative as “a major error,” warning that any move to alter the format of the Geneva talks risks playing into Russia’s hands, with potentially dangerous consequences.

Speaking at a cabinet session on March 14, Kvirikashvili defended his initiative and denounced the criticism it was met with as “absurd.” He insisted that every single step taken by his government serves Georgia’s interests.

“When our country needs it, and when it’s about preventing serious provocations and maintaining stability in the country, we politicians must do everything in our power to defuse tension, regardless of its consequences for our image,” quoted him as saying.

Notwithstanding the opposition’s outrage over Kvirikashvili’s gambit, on March 16, following two weeks of consultations, the Georgian Dream, ENM, and European Georgia parliament factions announced they have reached what ENM lawmaker Sergo Kapanadze called “a common position” that will be reflected in a joint statement condemning human rights violations in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, in particular the death of Tatunashvili.

(The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.)
Georgian Interior Minister Giorgi Gakharia (file photo)

Georgian Interior Minister Giorgi Gakharia has unveiled plans to increase the efficiency of the country's police force. But the proposed reforms have led to doubts about their ability to reverse a steady decline in public trust in the police, and to suggestions that Gakharia is not the right person for the job.

The 42-year-old Gakharia, a former economy minister with degrees in political science and business management from Moscow State University, was named interior minister four months ago as part of a sweeping cabinet reshuffle.

He has previously served as business ombudsman, and then, from November 2016 to November 2017, as minister of economy and sustainable development, but had absolutely no previous experience in law enforcement.

Despite this, Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili predicted that he would cope successfully with his new duties, noting his management capabilities.

In a recent interview he gave to the website, Gakharia stressed that he sees himself first and foremost as a manager responsible for the efficient functioning of the ministry.

He singled out as its primary function guaranteeing security in a region where doing so is both "a huge challenge" and the precondition for economic growth. He also emphasized the need for absolute political neutrality.

Structural Changes, New Techniques

To meet those objectives, Gakharia plans to implement within the next couple of months a reform of the ministry that focuses on its three main departments: the traffic police, the criminal police, and the border police. Those reforms, he explained, will entail both structural changes and introducing new techniques (including digitization) to improve human resources procedures and render investigations more effective.

Gaakharia also plans a new 12-person unit within the ministry that will focus exclusively on human rights abuses, first and foremost domestic violence, the news portal Caucasian Knot reported on January 25.

One change that is apparently not on the cards, however, is the introduction of the post of police chief, which would enable the interior minister to concentrate on policy issues. Gakharia declined to offer an explanation for that omission, while admitting that he currently spends up to 60 percent of his time on day-to-day affairs, meeting every morning with the heads of the three police departments.

Public confidence in the police in Georgia has been declining in recent years. (file photo)
Public confidence in the police in Georgia has been declining in recent years. (file photo)

Gakharia had earlier acknowledged "certain problems" with regard to public perceptions of the police, problems that he said could hinder the reform process. Public trust in the Georgian police has fallen from 67 percent in 2011 (the year before the parliamentary election that brought the Georgian Dream coalition to power) to 51 percent in 2017, according to

Irakli Gharibashvili, who was named interior minister in the wake of that election victory, described the ministry in early 2013 as "a closed system that was under political diktat" and that functioned as a tool for "repressing" political opponents; he pledged to make it "transparent [and] open to public scrutiny."

Accordingly, Gharibashvili launched a sweeping reform of the police which, he claimed in November 2014, had transformed the way the police interact with the public at large.

Then in 2015, the security and intelligence services, which had been subsumed into the Interior Ministry in 2004, were decoupled from it to form a separate State Security Service, a move that then Interior Minister Vakhtang Gomelauri predicted would provide for "the de-concentration of excessive power within [a single ministry] and … have a positive effect on the efficient protection of human rights." Gomelauri added that, if necessary, further reforms would be implemented gradually within the slimmed-down Interior Ministry.

When the separation took place in the summer of 2015, however, Gomelauri was named head of the new State Security Service, and former Penitentiaries Minister Giorgi Mghebrishvili, who had worked at the Interior Ministry as an investigator in 1998-2004, succeeded him as interior minister.

Damning Statistics

In January 2016, Mghebrishvili appointed three new deputies in what he described as the first stage of fundamental staff and systemic reforms in the criminal and border police intended to produce better results in the fight against crime. A few weeks earlier, Mghebrishvili had admitted that the number of grave crimes had risen "to a certain extent."

It appears, however, that whatever further changes Mghebrishvili implemented failed to achieve the required result. In January 2018, the Interior Ministry published detailed crime statistics for the first time in two years. That data revealed a 5.4 percent increase in the total number of crimes committed in 2017 compared with 2016, while the percentage of crimes solved fell from 57.4 percent in 2016 to 53.2 percent in 2017, according to InterPressNews.

Two further initiatives are intended to underpin Gakharia's planned reform of his ministry. The first is a draft bill initiated by the Interior Ministry that will intensify the penalties for abetting or protecting so-called "thieves-in-law," meaning influential crime bosses who succeed in operating with impunity thanks to protection from senior government officials.

The second is the introduction, in January 2019, of an independent State Inspector Service that will probe suspected crimes committed by police officers. The rationale cited for that initiative is that the Prosecutor-General's Office has an appalling track record with regard to such investigations: Out of a total of 91 cases concerning the suspected use of force by police officers to which NGOs and the human rights ombudsman alerted the prosecutor's office in 2014-2017, only two ever came to trial, according to the news portal Caucasian Knot.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.

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About This Blog

This blog presents analyst Liz Fuller's personal take on events in the region, following on from her work in the "RFE/RL Caucasus Report." It also aims, to borrow a metaphor from Tom de Waal, to act as a smoke detector, focusing attention on potential conflict situations and crises throughout the region. The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.