Author: Shota Utiashvili, Senior Fellow at Rondeli Foundation
If I remember correctly, I have participated in 25 rounds of the Geneva talks and rarely have I come across something so routine and boring. The issues of creating the Incident Prevention and Response Mechanism as well as the hotline were decided within the first two or three meetings and nothing new or important has happened there ever since, if we do not count the obligation taken by Georgia regarding the non-use of force in order to free the occupied territories. Since then, Georgia has been demanding in vain for Russia to take the same obligation as well. Russia, on the other hand, is demanding that Georgia sign an agreement on mutual non-aggression with South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which, of course, is unacceptable for the Georgian side. From time to time the co-chairs of the talks try to find a compromise solution, yet unsuccessfully. In the second working group which deals with the human rights issues, the main question usually is when the Abkhazians and Ossetians will leave the meeting demonstratively and when they will come back.
And yet, Geneva is important for Georgia. First, this is because of the fact that every round starts with the European Union Monitoring Mission reporting to the international community (the UN, EU, OSCE, USA and parties to the conflict) that the Russian Federation has not yet fulfilled the obligations taken through the 12 August agreement, including the fact that it has not returned its army units to the pre-war positions. There is no other international format where Russia is called on to fulfill this agreement.
Second, the European Union Monitoring Mission observes the local military situation and in the case of the danger of escalation of the conflict, reports to the main international players through the Geneva format. Hence, it plays an important role in maintaining peace.
Third, even though “constructive ambiguity” is the very basis of the Geneva format, it is clearly better for Georgia than any other format existing before. In the pre-war Tchuburkhinji format a Russian general, who was practically the commander of the occupation forces, chaired the negotiations held under the UN mandate, as a neutral mediator. Russia was both a player, as well as a referee. In the Geneva format, it is quite clear who the parties of the conflict are, and who serve as the mediators.
And fourth, without the Geneva format, the 12 August agreement will practically turn into a dead document. There will be no mechanism that will observe the implementation of this agreement. And It is in the interests of Georgia for this agreement to be on the agenda for as long as possible.
As for the progress, it is lacking due to the fact that the positions of the parties are radically different, not because the format itself is bad. Will the positions of the parties change if different officials from Georgia and Russia meet in a different city or a different company?
Georgian position is that Russia recognized the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia illegally, occupied and practically annexed them – steps that it needs to take back. The Russian position is that the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia is final and will not be subject to revision. Georgia must resolve the contentious issues through direct dialogue with Sokhumi and Tskhinvali and this is not the issue of Russian-Georgian relations. Russia has not occupied Abkhazia and South Ossetia but is rather “providing brotherly help to the newly independent republics” so that they do not once again become objects of aggression from the Georgian side.
The fact that Putin’s Russia will not be revising this position is very clear, especially given the fact that its confrontation with the West is becoming worse with every passing year. We all know that melting the ice will only be possible after Russia has been defeated in its confrontation with the whole of the civilized world. Then, it will become possible for the Geneva format to turn into a conflict resolution format instead of a peace-keeping one.
However, it is important for the Geneva format survive in order for this to happen. The unexpected propositions of the Government of Georgia put this into question. According to the statement of the Prime Minister of Georgia, he is ready to personally get involved in the Geneva talks.
As of today, the parties are relatively equally represented: Deputy Ministers of Foreign Affairs from Georgia and Russia, Assistant Secretary of State or Deputy Assistant Secretary of State from the United States and the so-called Foreign Ministers from the puppet regimes of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as well as the heads of their legitimate governments. What configuration will we get in the case of raising the level of representation? Kvirikashvili, Putin or Medvedev, Donald Trump, Khajimba and Bibilov (Russia will of course not miss the chance to celebrate diplomatic victory and will roll out the red carpet for these two officials in Geneva), Sanakoyev and Kolbaia? And all this four times a year?
Let us assume that we do not ask the Western partners to raise the level of their attendance. Then we practically have a meeting of four “heads of state”: Kvirikashvili, Putin or Medvedev, Khajimba and Bibilov and relatively low level representatives from the West. In such a case why go to Geneva at all – isn’t Sochi better?
If there was real progress in conflict resolution, with everything going fine and the “four-party meeting” was merely necessary for finalizing the negotiations, then we could surely agree to this as well; however, it is quite clear that we cannot even dream of any progress in the nearest future.
Hence, it is very important for the Geneva format to remain in its current form and for us not to do something that would undermine it, because if the current status-quo changes in any way, Russia will put a high price on agreeing to a new format. It is no less important for Russia’s status to be maintained in the current form as well – as a party to conflict and an occupant, but in no way a mediator in the direct talks between Tbilisi and Tskhinvali-Sokhumi.