Zurab Abashidze, Georgian Prime Minister’s special representative for Russia, and Russia’s Federation Council Senator Grigory Karasin met on November 27, as part of informal, direct bilateral dialogue launched between the two countries in late 2012. The meeting was held online amid COVID-19 pandemic concerns.
According to the Georgian Prime Minister’s press office, Zurab Abashidze discussed the “grave situation” in Abkhazia and Tskhinvali region, noting continued large-scale military exercises of Russia in these regions despite the pandemic. Georgian diplomat raised Tbilisi’s concerns about “borderization” across the dividing lines of the occupied regions, grave human rights abuses, and prolonged halting of movement between Kremlin-backed regions and Georgia proper.
Abashidze reportedly further expressed Tbilisi’s concern about the signing of a program on the “formation of common social and economic space” between Sokhumi and Moscow, dubbing it “as another illegal step towards de facto annexation” of Abkhazia.
According to the press release by the Georgian PM’s Office, a pandemic-induced decrease in bilateral trade between January-October, 2020 was also stressed during the meeting, drawing attention to protecting interests and solving problems of parties involved in trade and traffic fields.
Slow progress was also noted in negotiations over the 2011 customs monitoring agreement, a Swiss-mediated agreement on Georgian-Russian cargo monitoring, Georgian PM’s Press Office said, adding that parties “expressed readiness” to foster activities of expert working groups and support the implementation of the agreement.
The report also underscored that the Russian side voiced plans to renovate Larsi border crossing point, the only legally operated border crossing point between the two countries, to stimulate traffic movement.
In regards to the possible resumption of the flights between Georgia and Russia, suspended since June 2019 upon Vladimir Putin’s order, Abashidze reportedly said during the meeting that “it is wrong to politicize the issue.”
Responding to Russia’s frequent biowarfare allegations against the Lugar Center, the U.S.-funded biological research facility in Tbilisi, Abashidze reiterated Tbilisi’s readiness to host a group of international experts, including Russians, to introduce the work of Lugar Laboratory. According to the Georgian Prime Minister’s Office, Abashidze told the Russian diplomat that “propagandistic hype” regarding the Lugar Center is unacceptable.
According to the statement released by the Foreign Ministry of Russia, in a response to Georgia’s allegations regarding “borderization” and arbitrary detentions near conflict dividing lines, Karasin noted that it was about “ensuring people’s safety,” and stressed the need to stop “provocations” and “illegal crossing of state border” – meaning occupation lines – from the Georgian side.
Regarding the resumption of Georgia flights, the Russian MFA listed “ending anti-Russian manifestations in Georgia and disappearance of safety threats for Russian nationals,” as well as normalization of COVID-19 epidemiological situation in both countries as “well-known preconditions.”
Alluding to anti-Russian occupation protests in June 2019, Russian MFA noted that during talks “mutual spirit was confirmed to overcome the negative consequences of the well-known anti-Russian provocation staged by Georgian nationalists in the summer of 2019.”
“We hope that the Russophobic rhetoric, actively used by radical groups during the election campaign, will become a belonging of the past and that the political forces that won [Georgia’s] parliamentary elections will use their mandate to facilitate the continuation of the process of normalizing bilateral relations,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said.
According to the statement, parties reached an understanding on the need to continue a non-politicized discussion to settle the remaining controversial issues surrounding the 2011 customs agreement and begin the practical implementation.
Russian MFA also said that Moscow expressed readiness for “constructive cooperation” over the COVID-19 pandemic, including in relation to the use of [Russian] vaccines. In this regard, the statement cited Karasin as expressing concerns over the “military-biological” activities of Lugar Center, calling on Tbilisi to arrange a lab visit for Russian experts.
Russian MFA also noted that regional issues, including the November 9 statement between Russia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia ending the recent Karabakh war, were also addressed during the meeting, stating that implementation of the agreements, “in particular, on unblocking transport communications and economic ties, opens up new opportunities for all South Caucasian states, including Georgia.”
Abashidze Makes Clarifications as Protests Follow in Tbilisi
The remarks about “mutual spirit” to overcome the consequences of June 2019 events, as mentioned in the statement of the Russian Foreign Ministry, sparked protests in Tbilisi, with opposition politicians and activists gathering outside the Georgian Foreign Ministry building and later marching towards the Parliament premises.
The opposition has been accusing Abashidze of denouncing “Gavrilov protests” as “anti-Russian provocation,” demanding clarifications from the Georgian Foreign Ministry.
Opposition’s further concerns included inviting Russian experts, albeit as part of an international group, to visit the Lugar Center, fearing further propaganda and provocations from Russia as a result.
Zurab Abashidze later commented on Russian MFA’s statement, denying “mutual spirit” remarks and claiming that the 2019 events were not addressed during the meeting at all, calling the remarks “interpretations of the Russian side.”
According to the Georgian diplomat, during the talks, the Russian side mentioned ending “Russophobic manifestations” in relation to the resumption of air travel, to which, he remarked that no facts of “Russophobic” manifestations against Russian tourists in Georgia could be recalled.