Georgian PM under fire after call for ‘direct dialogue with Abkhazians and Ossetians’

13 March 2018
The Enguri (Ingur) Bridge, which leads to the Abkhazian border crossing (Nino Gogua/ OC Media)

The Georgian PM’s statement last Friday calling for ‘direct dialogue with the Abkhazians and the Ossetians’ and improving relations with Russia has come under fire from opposition parties. The EU’s Ambassador to Georgia said PM Giorgi Kvirikashvili’s statement ‘argues for sensible steps’ while Russia said it was ‘satisfied’ with the statement.

On 12 March, Russia’s Foreign Ministry issued a short statement, saying they are ‘satisfied’ with the spirit of Georgian Prime Minister’s statement on ‘improving bilateral relations’, and are ‘ready to go as far as Tbilisi is ready to go’.

The next day, Georgia’s Parliamentary Chair Irakli Kobakhidze said Russia’s response ‘was not an expression of a constructive approach’.

Kvirikashvili had appealed to Russian authorities on 9 March claiming that Georgia was ‘ready for direct dialogue with the Abkhazians and the Ossetians’. He was heavily criticised by opposition groups for this, with a number accusing him of being ‘pro-Russian’. Critics said the statement was pretext for taking a step back in Georgia’s policy of ‘non-recognition and engagement’.

Georgia ‘ready for dialogue with Abkhazians and Ossetians’

In his statement, Kvirikashvili said Georgia and Russia are facing a choice at the 10th anniversary of the August 2008 War: ‘meet this anniversary with mutual accusations and harsh statements, for which there certainly has been no lack throughout these years, or take sensible steps, even small, to lead our relations out of this vicious cycle’.

Giorgi Kvirikashvili after the October 2017 local elections (OC Media)

According to the PM, ‘Moscow's recognition of independence of Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali Region has brought to a dead end all prospects of normal relations between our states’. Moscow recognised the two as independent states in the wake of the August War.

Kvirikashvili reiterated his support for the Geneva discussions, which were set up to address the consequences of the August war, and are co-chaired by the EU, OSCE, and UN.

‘We are also ready for direct dialogue with the Abkhazians and the Ossetians, and a genuinely constructive approach from the Russian side would be welcome in this context. With political will in place, we believe it feasible to take other sensible steps as well’, Kvirikashvili added, but did not specify what such ‘direct dialogue’ would look like.

The Prime Minister called relations between Georgia and Russia ‘a difficult reality’, and said the death of Georgian citizen Archil Tatunashvili in detention in South Ossetia last month ‘the latest tragic example’ of ‘a chain of tragic events’.

At the end, he urged Russia’s leadership to ‘take joint steps and resolve this complicated situation, while fully embracing our responsibility to the present and future generations’.

‘A mistake’

A number of opposition parties, including the United National Movement (UNM), the Republicans, and European Georgia, criticised Kvirikashvili for the statement. European Georgia’s Giga Bokeria, a former secretary of the National Security Council under UNM, called the statement ‘irresponsible and naïve’, and said he feared ‘it will be used against Georgia’.

Davit Usupashvili, former Parliamentary Chair under Georgian Dream who is now in opposition, said the statement was ‘a mistake’. According to him, ‘an unprecedented appeal from the Georgian Prime Minister was responded to by an ordinary comment from the press department of [Russia’s] Ministry of Foreign Affairs’.

Usupashvili hoped that ‘no more mistakes will be made’, but added that ‘we need to give  [the government] more time to tackle the issue with the help of the international community’.

The UNM’s Khatia Dekanoidze said that ‘direct dialogue with Sokhumi and Tskhinvali is exactly what Russia wants’.

‘Bad timing’

Giorgi Kanashvili, head of Tbilisi-based think-tank Caucasian House, says the ruling Georgian Dream party was calling for ‘direct talks’ with Abkhazia and South Ossetia as far back as 2011, in the run-up to the 2012 parliamentary elections. ‘There is nothing principally new in the Prime Minister’s statement’, he added.

‘However, such dialogue has not taken place. Thus, it is a bit unclear, what the PM means — where and how should this direct dialogue take place, with whose involvement’, Kanashvili told OC Media. ‘While in general, it is the right step to express readiness for dialogue, [the Georgian authorities] could have chosen better timing’ Kanashvili added.

Archil Tatunashvili (RFL/RL)

Kvirikashvili’s statement came in the wake of the death of former Georgian soldier Archil Tatunashvili in detention in Tskhinvali (Tskhinval) ‘in unclear circumstances’. The  South Ossetian authorities claimed Tatunashvili, whom they accused of ‘participating in genocide against Ossetians’, died after falling down from stairs while trying to escape.

[For details, read on OC Media: South Ossetia links dead Georgian citizen to ‘home-made bomb’]

Despite calls from the EU, NATO, the US, and UK, South Ossetian authorities have repeatedly refused to hand over Tatunashvili’s body until a forensic examination is complete. Two detainees, apprehended with Tatunashvili, were released from South Ossetia two days after Kvirikashvili’s statement.

‘Preparations for something big’?

Olesya Vartanyan, an analyst with peacebuilding organisation the International Crisis Group, said she got an impression from Kvirikashvili’s statement that ‘the Georgian government is preparing for something very big and very important’.

Vartanyan says this could be a ‘statement on non-use of force, that can be made by Russia, de facto authorities, the US, EU, OSCE and UN representatives, at the upcoming Geneva Discussions’.  

The next round of the Geneva discussions are set for 26–29 March. On a preparatory meeting with the co-chairs on 9 March, Abkhazian Foreign Minister Daur Kove said he hoped they would ‘have an opportunity to adopt a joint verbal statement on the non-use of force, to which I think we are very close’.

‘I think that with your active participation we will make progress in this direction’, Kove told representatives of the discussions, according to a statement from Abkhazia’s foreign ministry.

‘We hope that in the next round in Geneva, we will be able to take certain steps in order to get out of the … deadlock and to regulate the conflict’, Georgia’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Tuesday.

Kove told Abkhazian state-owned media outlet Apsnypress on 13 March that Kvirikashvili’s statement ‘was not the first of its kind, but the problem is that we do not see any steps from the Georgian side, which would facilitate the establishment of dialogue and the settlement of the conflict’, adding that progress should be tied to a statement on the non-use of force.

Daur Kove, Abkhazia’s Foreign Affairs Minister (Apsnypress)

Kove said  the adoption of such a statement ‘could be a good basis for the Georgian-Abkhaz talks’, with ‘mediation of the Russian Federation and other international actors participating in the peace process’.

In an exclusive interview with Tbilisi-based media outlet Netgazeti, South Ossetian Foreign Minister Dmitry Medoyev called Kvirikashvili’s statement ‘quite strange’, and ‘amusing’.

According to Vartanyan, the Georgian government has ‘spent a lot of resources communicating its readiness to subscribe to this statement’, discussions of which ‘have been going on for years’. Vartanyan added that the government, ‘especially in the several months, has been in very close communication with foreign diplomats and allies’.

‘Need for more engagement’

Janos Herman, the Ambassador of the European Union to Georgia, wrote on 12 March that Kvirikashvili’s statement, ‘coming at challenging moment, argues for sensible steps by/with Russia and more engagement with/in breakaway regions of Georgia’. He said the EU is following the ‘ensuing complex debate in Georgia’, adding that EU policy of non-recognition and engagement continues’.

Vartanyan argues that more EU engagement is the right way to ‘help the situation in breakaway regions’ and the people on the ground.

[Read an opinion on OC Media: Europe must engage Abkhazia on its own terms]

Olesya Vartanyan, an analyst for International Crisis Group (ICG)

‘During the last three years, the situation in the breakaway regions deteriorated so much: we can see more crime, corruption, instability — especially in the regions with an ethnic Georgian populations — Gali [in Abkhazia] and Akhalgori [in South Ossetia] districts’, Vartanyan told OC Media. ‘In order to engage, you need to talk with the other sides’, she added.

A 2017 report, published by the Olof Palme International Center last July, detailed what it described as deteriorating human rights conditions in Abkhazia. The report argued that the penitentiary system needs ‘new and more humane detention facilities’ and that education, property, and health rights ‘require urgent attention’.

The report also focused on ethnic and national communities in Abkhazia, the situation in Gali, and the ‘acute issue’ of the freedom of movement. It was prepared by Thomas Hammerber, a former Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, and Magdalena Grono, Crisis Group’s Europe and Central Asia programme director.

[Read on OC Media: Georgians in Gali — foreigners in their own land]

The statement on the non-use of force, Vartanyan argues, could unlock the whole process, and ‘help the Georgian government and the international community start working on the territories that are suffering so much in recent years’.

For ease of reading, we choose not to use qualifiers such as ‘de facto’, ‘unrecognised’, or ‘partially recognised’ when discussing institutions or political positions within Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and South Ossetia. This does not imply a position on their status.

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