Thursday, May 21, 2009

Fifth Round of Russian-Georgian Security Talks in Geneva Ends with Mixed Results

The fifth round of the security talks between Georgia, Russia and Georgia's breakaway provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia was off to a rocky start on Monday, May 18, when the Russian delegation, citing Abkhazia's refusal to participate, pulled out from the negotiations along with its other proxy, South Ossetia. Under the pretext of a bureaucratic technicality - the delay in the distribution of the U.N. Secretary-General's most recent report on the situation in Georgia - the separatist Foreign Minister of Abkhazia Sergei Shamba told Reuters on Saturday, May 16, that Abkhazia would not take part in talks.

As this detailed analysis of the U.N. report by explains, Abkhazia balked at the title of the report, which contained the accepted designation of "Abkhazia, Georgia" because it implied that Abkhazia is a part of Georgia. As a result, under the joint pressure from Abkhazia and Russia, the report's title was revised to drop any reference to the contentious issue of the status of the breakaway region. In addition, the reference to the separatist authorities in Abkhazia as "de facto Abkhaz authorities," which was used customarily in all previous reports, was for the first time truncated to just "Abkhaz authorities." Introduction of these last minute semantic changes undoubtedly represented a concession to Moscow because it is consistent with the Russian campaign to obtain the international community's acceptance of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states. Commenting on the revised version of the U.N. report, the Georgian Foreign Minister Grigol Vashadze noted that it contained "points clearly indicating that they were introduced under pressure from Russia."

After the revised U.N. report finally arrived late on Monday and the U.S. State Department spokesperson Ian Kelly called the Russian walk-out "a coordinated effort to undermine the Geneva talks," the Russian side and its separatist allies decided to reengage the next day. The 3.5 hour closed-door talks on Tuesday were hailed as constructive by the E.U. co-chair of negotiations Pierre Morel. According to the Russian Foreign Ministry press release of May 20, the discussions mainly focused on the Russian proposals for the legally binding non-use of force agreements between Georgia and the breakaway regions, including "a commitment not to remilitarize Georgia." Moscow views such agreements as absolute preconditions for "a reliable security regime" in the conflict zone.

Co-chaired by the U.N., the E.U., the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (O.S.C.E.) and with participation of U.S. diplomats, and dubbed the "Geneva Discussions on Transcaucasia" by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the security talks in Geneva represent one of the few remaining diplomatic venues, where Russian and Georgian sides meet face to face. The most recent session, originally scheduled for two days (18-19 May), is the fifth one since the launch in September of last year and the next meeting is tentatively scheduled for July 1. Meanwhile the mandate of the UN Observer Mission in Georgia (U.N.O.M.I.G.) with its 129 military observers and 16 police officers, who monitor the situation along the de facto border between Abkhazia and Georgia, is expiring on June 15 and its fate will be decided by a vote of the U.N. Security Council.