On September 27, 2019, on the margins of the 74th UN General Assembly at the UN Headquarters in New York, a meeting between the Foreign Ministers of Russia and Georgia took place for the first time since 2008. The importance of this development is self-evident so our goal here is to acquire a broader understanding of this meeting, based on the information that became public after it.
It has to be pointed out at the outset that the information is quite meager, yet it is still possible to draw some conclusions. However, until we do that it is perhaps better to speak very briefly about the format and the organization process of the meeting.
The meeting was facilitated by Switzerland. The Russian news source, Kommersant, writes the following about the role of the Swiss side in organizing the meeting:
“The meeting was held in a bilateral format and lasted for about an hour. The protocol envisaged that Sergey Lavrov and Davit Zalkaliani would be met by the Permanent Representative of Switzerland to the UN, Jürg Lauber, in the meeting room, who would leave the room after making a greeting statement. One of the Russian diplomats participating in the meeting confirmed that this is in fact what happened.”
The initiator of the meeting was the Georgian side which was unambiguously stated by the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, while some Georgian experts were still discussing the role of Switzerland in organizing the meeting. Later this information was confirmed by the Vice Speaker of the Parliament of Georgia, Giorgi Volski.
The comments made by various Russian officials and structures immediately after the meeting, even though also rather meager, still do paint an interesting picture. First of all, we probably need to draw our attention to the official comment published by the Russian Foreign Ministry made against the background of the debates launched in Georgia about the meeting between Lavrov and Zalkaliani in which the government’s main argument was that a dialogue with Russia was necessary for actualizing the issue of the occupation and resolving the problems stemming from it. More specifically, the official comment of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia points out that:
“From the side of Georgia, we mostly still hear worn-out theses about occupation. It seems that our Georgian colleagues think much more about the format and protocol of these negotiations than they do about their contents and directions.”
In the same context, Sergey Lavrov’s statement is also interesting, saying that certain comments from the Georgian side cause him to smile and be amazed.
Of course, with this the Russian side unambiguously says that it does not intend to discuss the issue of occupation with the Georgian side. It is difficult to imagine that publicly stating such a position merely intends to “pacify” the occupation regimes in Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region. The Russian side states its position this clearly for the Government of Georgia and its public and, more importantly, for the international community. This second “target group” is perhaps even more important than the first one.
Given all of this, it is expected that Russia will activate its work with the international community not just publicly but through diplomatic and other channels and mechanisms available to it, especially with our partners in order to convince them that the issue of Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region is a “done deal” and has been for a long time and the Georgian public has long come to terms with this idea.
It is noteworthy that despite Russia’s unambiguous denial of discussing the topic of the occupation, the expectation for the continuation of launched negotiations was clearly stated. In addition, it was pointed out that the problem is not in the Georgian public, which is also ready for dialogue, but rather in the Government of Georgia. More specifically, the already mentioned statement by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia also underlines:
On the same topic, the comment of the Press Speaker of the Russian President, Dmitry Peskov, is also interesting as it says that:
“Any constructive dialogue, or even the beginning of such process, stems from these kinds of meetings (meaning the Lavrov-Zalkaliani meeting). The Kremlin, as well as Russia at large, wants to have good neighborly relations with Georgia. The President of Russia has always positively assessed friendly, almost kin relationship between Russians and Georgians; however, when it comes to the Government of Georgia, here we still have problems.”
The expectation of the continuation of dialogue between Georgia and Russia that started at the UN Headquarters in New York is indeed quite realistic. If nothing else, it is difficult to imagine that the renewed contact on the level of Foreign Ministers after 11 years would be limited to a single meeting.
This expectation is reinforced by the comment made on this topic by the Special Representative of the Prime Minister of Georgia for Relations with Russia, Zurab Abashidze, in his interview with the online-magazine, Sova, on 27 September. In it, Abashidze says:
What the dialogue with Russia will bring to Georgia is difficult to discuss without assessing the international, foreign and domestic policy contexts as well as thoroughly analyzing the dynamics of Russia-Georgia relations since 2012.
At the first glance, it can only be said that the clear focuses set by the Russian side after the very first meeting in past 11 years, as well as the prior experience of our relations with Russia, do not give us much reason for optimism.