Georgia’s new authorities are taking flexible and result-oriented approach while addressing issues related to breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia, State Minister for Reintegration Paata Zakareishvili on March 20.
Zakareishvili spoke at a hearing of parliamentary commission on territorial integrity, which was also attended by civil society representatives working on issues related to conflicts and confidence building.
He said that one of the key aspects of government’s approach was to change radical rhetoric, which, he said, prevailed under the previous authorities, and to deprive Sokhumi and Tskhinvali of any arguments against Tbilisi. He said that such an approach was already showing its results, which led to toning down of rhetoric from Sokhumi and Tskhinvali as well. He said that criticism of the Georgian authorities coming from Sokhumi and Tskhinvali had reduced significantly recently.
In parallel, Zakareishvili said, Tbilisi’s goal was to also deprive Moscow of its arguments to claim before the international community that recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia was required because cooperation between these regions and Tbilisi was impossible. By doing so, he said, “we are empowering our friendly states’ arguments in the process of non-recognition policy”, involving deterring Moscow’s efforts to achieve international recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
“So we have stopped aggressive rhetoric and policies, which were carried out by the previous authorities and are moving to a new mode,” Zakareishvili said.
Before becoming the State Minister after last year’s parliamentary elections, Zakareishvili of the Republican Party was a frequent commentator on conflict-related issues with an extensive experience of working on Abkhaz and South Ossetian issues. He was a fierce critic of President Saakashvili’s policies in this regard.
In his opening remarks Zakareishvili stressed that it was the priority to maintain Geneva talks, launched after the August 2008 war, as the main mechanism in which conflict-related issues would be addressed between Russia and Georgia.
He said that there were attempts from Russia to “downgrade” the role of the Geneva talks, as well as attempts to distance itself from this format; he said that in parallel there were also attempts by Sokhumi and Tskhinvali to change the existing format of these talks with a purpose to obtain certain status.
Zakareishvili said that change of format should not be a goal in itself, instead the goal should be achieving results and if change of format would lead to tangible results then it would be possible to discuss changing of the existing format.
Negotiators in the Geneva talks from Georgia, Russia, United States, as well as representatives from breakaway South Ossetia and Abkhazia are taking part in the discussions in an individual capacity without identifying the entities they are representing and formally they are referred to as “participants” of Geneva Discussions. This format was agreed during the second round of Geneva talks in November, 2008 in order to avoid differences on the status of negotiators, in particular of representatives from the breakaway regions.
In November, 2012 Sokhumi said it was seeking change of format through upgrading status of negotiators from “participants” to “delegations”. Recently, the authorities in breakaway region have also voiced a proposal to change the format through merging of two working groups in which talks are currently ongoing during Geneva discussions; there are two working groups – one addressing security issues and another one discussing humanitarian aspects.
“In general, hypothetically, talking about change of format is not ruled out,” Zakareishvili said. “But we should know exactly why the change is needed. Our approach is following: we also have our questions to the existing format, because now results are not what we want them to be. If let’s say that the current format gives no result, then what result is possible to achieve if we change the format?”
“In this regard we are flexible; we do not say categorical ‘no’ – we are not looking for pretexts for saying ‘no’, instead we are looking for solutions in order to say ‘yes’,” he said.
“We say: ‘ok, you want to change the format, but why?’ What they want is simply to gain status and that’s all… they do not say that change of format will lead to results,” Zakareishvili said, adding that in this case Tbilisi will be against of format change.
“If it turns out that change of format is also acceptable for the Georgian side, then no problem, but now we see no need in such change,” he said.
The next, twenty third round of Geneva talks is scheduled for next week.
Zakareishvili also spoke about Incident Prevention and Response Mechanism (IPRM), which was established in frames of Geneva discussions and represents a body to address on regular basis security issues on the ground. While on the South Ossetian direction IPRM meetings, involving officials from Tbilisi, Tskhinvali, as well as representatives of the Russian troops on the ground and EU Monitoring Mission, are held on regular basis, such meetings on the Abkhaz direction in Gali are suspended for a year already.
Gali IPRM has not been held since March, 2012 after Sokhumi denounced head of EU Monitoring Mission in Georgia (EUMM) Andrzej Tyszkiewicz as “undesirable person on the Abkhaz territory”.
Zakareishvili said that Sokhumi’s “complaints” related to this issue “are unfair and groundless.”
He said that situation on the ground across the administrative boundary line, as well as in Gali district of breakaway Abkhazia was now relatively calm and added that the Georgian side “has minimized threat of escalation in Gali”.
Zakareishvili said that Georgia’s new government continued pursuing active “non-recognition policy”, involving deterring Russia’s attempts to achieve international recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
The State Minister said that Georgia’s international partners were providing Tbilisi huge assistance in this regard.
He also said that there have been some positive signals that some of those few countries, which have recognized Georgia’s breakaway regions, might retract their decision. In particular he was referring to Vanuatu; he, however, also said that the information needed to be verified and confirmed.
Strategy on Occupied Territories and Engagement
He, however, also indicated that a very initial draft of a new strategy also existed on which work should continue.
But he also made it clear that right now there was no need to replace the existing strategy with new one.
“After the existing strategy exhausts itself, we will immediately table the new one… So the existing one works now,” Zakareishvili said.
During the hearing he was asked by UNM lawmaker Shota Malashkhia, who in previous Parliament chaired the commission on territorial integrity, about terminology; MP Malashkhia said that instead of “Abkhaz side” or “South Ossetian side” and “de factor authorities”, “puppet regimes” should be used because these were occupied territories. Zakareishvili responded that “side” was the most flexible term in rhetoric and use of this term in no way implied attaching to these entities any legal status.
Zakareishvili was also asked by UNM lawmakers about draft of amendment to the law on occupied territories, proposed by the state ministry for reintegration, which offers to partly decriminalize entry into breakaway regions from territories other than those controlled by Tbilisi. Now the violation of these rules may result either into a fine or a jail term from two to four years. According to the proposal in case of violation of these rules for the first time, a person will be fined with GEL 400 and in case of repeat violation by the same person, criminal prosecution should apply. UNM MPs, who are against of the proposal, asked Zakareishvili if his ministry would drop plans to amend the law. Zakareishvili responded that his ministry would not retract the draft from the Parliament and added that liberalization of this provision in the law was not in any way indicating on easing government’s “de-occupation” efforts.
Reviewing the law on occupied territories has been among EU’s recommendations. The issue was again raised in a newly published annual progress report on Implementation of the European Neighbourhood Policy.
On the conflict-related issues the progress report, which was released by the European Commission on March 20, also says: “Following the change of government, there are some encouraging signs of possibly more effective engagement with the breakaway territories, and a more relaxed implementation of the Law on Occupied Territories.”