Civil Georgia (Civil.ge) interviewed the EU Special Representative, long-time Estonian and EU diplomat, during his recent visit to Tbilisi.
Q. The new European Commission under Ursula von der Leyen began its work two and half months ago; Mr Josep Borrell replaced Ms Mogherini as the Head of EU’s external arm. Where is Georgia now in the agenda of the new leadership of the European Union?
A. Georgia was and remains a key partner for the EU within the Eastern Partnership, first of all because of its special contractual relationship with the EU. In that sense, nothing has really changed. The current EU leadership is just as committed to its specific and privileged relationship with Georgia, as was the previous one.
Could you please tell us more about the current priorities of the EU Special Representative regarding the crisis in Georgia? And could you please elaborate on the most pressing security and humanitarian challenges on the ground?
My current visit is linked to the tensions that we saw in the second half of last year, in particular in the Chorchana-Tsnelisi area on the South Ossetian Administrative Boundary Line (ABL). My desire – which I share with my colleagues, my fellow GID Co-Chairs – is to work towards reduction of these tensions and find ways out of the situation that we have found ourselves in regarding the Chorchana area and the closure of the crossing points, but also the continued ‘borderisation’. We certainly see this as an imperative to get very strongly involved in this process. That is why we are here, in-between our regular trips and consultations before each GID round. We visited Moscow last week and Tskhinvali yesterday. And we are now having meetings with colleagues in Tbilisi today to see how we can move forward.
The Odzisi crossing point connecting Akhalgori residents to Georgia proper remains closed since September 2019. Tskhinvali leader Mr Bibilov noted that it would remain so unless Tbilisi dismantles its police checkpoint in Chorchana. On its part, Tbilisi shows no intention to remove it and speaks of Akhalgorians being “held under hostage”. You traveled to Tskhinvali yesterday. How do you see possible ways out of this stalemate? Are there any interim proposals to solve the issue of crossing points?
As far as interim solutions are concerned, we were told in Tskhinvali that “look, we allowed pensioners to cross for a limited number of days, we have also shown flexibility for medical crossings, so we have improved the situation”. My response, together with my fellow co-Chairs, was that this is obviously not enough. There is no justification for the continued closure of the crossing points and linking it with the developments in Chorchana, putting the Akhalgori population in this situation, is simply not acceptable. There is no justification for that. While, of course, the situation in Chorchana has to be resolved, there is no justification for keeping crossing points closed and having the people suffering.
You have visited Moscow recently. What did you hear from Moscow regarding the developments on the ground?
We [reiterated] very clearly our position regarding the crossing points. We made it clear that we expect from the Russian participants a constructive engagement in trying to resolve the situations we find ourselves in. This was precisely our message and the purpose of our visit. We are very strongly engaging with Russian participants, as we are engaging with the Georgian participants today.
In the latest turn of events, Tskhinvali dismissed ethnic Georgian school principals in Akhalgori district, which was criticized by Tbilisi. The State Ministry overseeing occupied regions spoke of “russification” in Akhalgori. What steps are being done, or could be done, for young Georgians in the districts of Gali and Akhalgori to have access to education in their mother tongue?
When it comes to the case of these two principals, I simply do not know the details, so I would not like to [comment] on that. On the wider principle of Georgian language education, this is a point we have made both in Abkhazia and in Tskhinvali, as well as in Moscow, that people should be able to study in their mother tongue, which is Georgian. We will continue to make this point. If we look at the specific example of the Gali situation, there [was a] forced transition to Russian language education in a situation where you do not have qualified teachers, you actually remove a functioning system, you deprive the children of a functioning system, which was a Georgian language education system, and you are not giving them a functioning system in exchange. Thereby you are condemning an entire generation to get sub-standard education. Apart from the principle that you should allow children to be educated in their mother tongue, you have the additional problem of depriving children of possibility of [getting] quality education.
The Incident Prevention and Response Mechanism (IPRM) meetings in Gali and Ergneti have been stalled for some time now. What are the prospects for the resumption of this format? Has there been any progress so far to resume this format and re-launch meetings?
Myself and my colleagues have been continuously raising this issue during our meetings with the Abkhaz participants in Sukhumi, with the Russians in Moscow and with the Ossetians in Tskhinvali. We have been telling all of them that the IPRMs are essential tools that need to be resumed without any preconditions. While we get the message from the Russians that they very much value the IPRMs (we also get the same message from other participants), that does not translate into concrete action. I remain hopeful that we can resume the Ergneti, as well as the Gali IPRMs. Ultimately, everyone recognizes that these have been useful meetings and that we need to make sure that they are not political or politicized but [we should make] use of their intended purpose, which is to address incidents, prevent incidents and resolve incidents.
As the EU Special Representative, you are co-chairing the Geneva International Discussion on behalf of the European Union. Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili has been calling for leveling up the Geneva International Discussions (GID). Did the Georgian side table any concrete propositions on how to upgrade the existing format? And also, how do you assess the work of the GID? Has it been effective in handling the challenges Georgia is facing on the ground?
First of all, I have to say that I have not seen any concrete proposal. This issue has been raised at the level of statements by some officials, you mentioned the President for instance. But I have not seen any concrete proposal in this regard. Secondly, when we talk about the Geneva International Discussions “not delivering,” this is also largely due to political circumstances and approaches to discussions taken by individual participants. In that sense, the question is not so much about levels, but about the commitment to discussions – I would say to result-oriented discussions – and to making full use of all that GID has to offer, both within the formal discussions as well as on its margins. First of all, as I said, we need to look at how we ensure that maximum use is made of the format that we have. Frankly, the GID were created as a unique format at a specific time and place and I believe it would not be easy to replicate it in today’s world. Again, I do not exclude any possibilities, but the most important thing is for us to make maximum use of the tools that we have at hand.
Speaking of the GID, the non-use of force and the return of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees are the two main issues discussed in Geneva. Was there any progress on the two issues over the last two years, since you have been co-chairing it? What can be done to take steps forwards on these matters?
The most important thing for any progress to happen is political will, regardless of what the question is. Regarding non-use of force, we can say that the GID in themselves are also a manifestation of the commitment to non-use of force. But it does not mean we should not be striving for specific agreements – and we have worked very hard on this aspect, with the commitment of all participants. We, as Co-Chairs, certainly believe that this is an important issue. We will continue working on it. At the same time, there are various ways and means of doing so. For us, as Co-Chairs, I think it is important to steer discussions in a way that is useful and result-oriented as much as possible.
Regarding the question of IDPs and refugees, we unfortunately did not have constructive discussions in the Geneva context. We, as Co-Chairs, continuously emphasize the importance of having these discussions. This should be one of the main focuses of the GID. This is what the GID were created for.
Regarding Abkhazia – we had important events happening in Sokhumi in January that led to the resignation of the so-called Abkhaz president. Has this affected your work with your Sokhumi interlocutors? How do you see your future work in the direction of Abkhazia?
The challenge right now is that everybody in Sukhumi is looking to the de facto elections due to take place towards the end of March. In that sense, our work has been affected. This is a period right now where it is difficult to find interlocutors [in Sukhumi] who want to commit themselves to anything specific. So, in a way, we are tied to those processes that are happening there. We hope that we will have as soon as possible interlocutors [there] who would feel themselves more empowered than right now.
It has been slightly over two years that you are serving as the EUSR for the crisis in Georgia. What are the main achievements you witnessed during your mandate and what are the remaining challenges?
I would be lying if I would say that I have seen tremendous improvements. At the same time, there are many factors external to the GID that are influencing the work within this format. I see the role of the EUSR and my other colleagues in ensuring that we preserve this unique format and work to find and to develop constructive discussions on specific issues, even if those are small issues, in order to have a working format of which we would be able to make full use, with a change in the overall situation and more possibilities arising. Meanwhile, the GID have achieved a fair number of successes, maybe not major ones, but small ones that were used for the population on the ground. The IPRMs that are now in some trouble, have been part of the GID, they have been key to this process. And of course, my role is not only related to the GID: at bilateral level as EU Special representative, I come here often to meet with the Georgian Government, other interlocutors, I also travel to Sukhumi and Moscow in my capacity. For the EU, it is important that we work on seeing how we can contribute to build bridges across dividing lines. And to improve the situation of the people on the ground and address specific challenges in support of initiatives that would strengthen the ties that have been broken. Recent statements following the events in Sukhumi, both by individuals in Sukhumi and persons here in Tbilisi, whether in government or outside, have been good. As EU, we are committed to supporting such developments.