On February 6, in Geneva, the latest round of Russian-Georgian negotiations on the implementation of the 2011 agreement “About the Basic Principles of the Mechanism of Customs Administration and Monitoring of Trade in Goods” ended without any result (Mid.ru, February 7).
The agreement provides for the opening of “transit corridors” across the territories of the separatist Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia to facilitate overland trade between Russia, Georgia and Armenia (Kommersant, February 7, 2017). It was reached through the mediation of the United States, as part of negotiations on Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO). At that time, Georgia remained the only country blocking Russia’s WTO membership until a resolution could be reached on the status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Tbilisi and its Western partners consider these territories “occupied by Russia”; whereas, Moscow unilaterally recognized their independence on August 26, 2008, following the Five-Day War.
After a face-to-face meeting between then–Presidents Barrack Obama and President Saakashvili, in November 2010 (Korrespondent, November 20, 2010), Moscow and Tbilisi managed to draft a “status neutral document” that did not address the controversial issue of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The parties agreed that a “neutral company,” not representing the interests of Russia or Georgia, would monitor the movement of goods through these “trade corridors.” The two countries signed a contract with the reputable Swiss company Société Générale de Surveillance SA (SGS). According to the accord, SGS observers will stand in the Gori and Zugdidi (Georgia) area as well as Vladikavkaz and Sochi (Russia) to watch goods moving through the “corridors.” Cargo will be marked and supplied with chips to monitor their movement using GPS technology. And then, all the data will be sent to the WTO (Georgia Today, December 20, 2017). To date, however, none of these steps have been implemented.
The resumption of north-south movement through Abkhazia and South Ossetia is especially important for Armenia: it currently is able to trade with Russia only via the Yerevan–Tbilisi–Vladikavkaz highway. But this route is often blocked due to snow and landslides. Roads through South Ossetia and Abkhazia are much safer and more convenient.
After last year’s “Velvet Revolution,” Armenia’s new leader, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, is interested in opening additional transit links with Russia to resolve domestic social problems and raise Armenians’ standard of living. According to Georgian journalists, this was discussed during Pashinyan’s recent visit to Georgia, where he met with Prime Minister Mamuka Bakhtadze (Vestnik Kavkaza, January 17, 2019).
Russia and Georgia have already transferred five million Swiss francs ($5 million) to SGS to begin the monitoring procedures (Nsp.ge, February 4). Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin has confirmed, in an interview with the paper Kommersant, that most legal and financial problems have been resolved, although Moscow and Tbilisi differently interpret the term “customs administration.” Meanwhile, Georgian Foreign Minister David Zalkaliani rejected all speculation that the placement of Swiss monitors along the occupation line of Abkhazia and South Ossetia would effectively imply that Georgia “recognizes their customs borders” and, thus, the independence of these occupied territories (Kommersant, February 4). On the other hand, the fact that Moscow, for the first time in history, agreed to place foreigners on its territory to monitor trade with the South Caucuses, does not mean it is giving up recognition of the former Georgian autonomies’ “independence.”
These differences in interpretation of the agreement are not an obstacle to resuming the movement of goods from Russia to Georgia and Armenia—with the prospect of extending this “transit corridor” all the way to Iran. Rather, the main obstacle now appears to be the position of the authorities of Abkhazia and South Ossetia themselves.
In February 2018, when negotiations between Moscow, Tbilisi and SGS were nearing completion, the self-declared “Ministry of Foreign Affairs” of South Ossetia proclaimed that transit traffic could not commence until a special, separate agreement with Tskhinvali was concluded. “The possibility of the practical implementation of the provisions of this agreement affecting the interests of South Ossetia, depends on the results of direct negotiations of regional actors with the official authorities of the Republic of South Ossetia [sic] and the formation of an appropriate legal framework for further equal cooperation in this project,” the statement reads. The separatist region’s foreign ministry further stressed that “attempts to exert political or economic pressure against South Ossetia in resolving this issue have no prospects” (EAdaily, February 2, 2018).
More recently, the Abkhazian parliament passed a law prohibiting transit traffic between Russia and Georgia via the territory of the self-declared republic (Ekho Kavkaza, February 8, 2019). Abkhazia’s “Foreign Minister” Daur Kove also rejected the possibility of transit through the region without the “equal participation” of Sukhumi and conclusion of a separate agreement: “Abkhazia is not a signatory of the 2011 agreement. I can say with confidence: the allegations that transit will be carried out on the territory of the Republic of Abkhazia [sic] within the framework of this agreement are absolutely not true. Without an official appeal to the authorities of Abkhazia asking about the possibility of transit, [and] without defining the role that the Republic of Abkhazia will play in this (and this should be fixed in a separate agreement), there will be no transit through the territory of Abkhazia. The bilateral agreement between Russia and Georgia in no way affects the sovereign interests of our republic” (Abh-n.ru, February 17).
However, Tbilisi categorically excludes any negotiations with Sukhumi and Tskhinvali on the issue of transit: “Abkhazia and South Ossetia have never been mentioned in the 2011 agreement. We do not recognize the ‘independence’ of the occupied territories,” the representative of the Georgian prime minister for relations with Russia, Ambassador Zurab Abashidze, told this author in an interview on February 26, 2018.
The Georgian opposition warned the authorities that any agreement with Abkhazia and South Ossetia would signify recognition of the legitimacy of the occupation. As one of the leaders of the European Georgia Party, Sergo Ratiani, noted, “Agreement with the so-called ‘authorit[ies]’ of the occupied territories will be a betrayal of the interests of the country” (Author’s interview, January 10, 2019).
In turn, former state minister for reconciliation and civil equality Paata Zakareishvili expressed certainty that Moscow is “playing” around the issue of transit. “If Russia really decides to [re]start [north-south] transit, Moscow will completely ignore the positions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia,” he asserted (Author’s interview, February 1).
The coming months will answer the question of how Moscow solves the problem of Abkhazia and South Ossetia’s “refusal” to allow transit from Russia to the South Caucasus.