The European Union’s High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana returned empty-handed from his June 6 talks with Abkhaz secessionist leaders in Sokhumi. Solana held talks with Georgian leaders first, while en route to Sokhumi; and briefed Georgian leaders afterward, before returning to Brussels.
Solana described his visit as a high-level harbinger of the EU’s intentions to become involved in efforts toward settling the conflict. “It is my first visit but will not be the last one,” he said. With only one year remaining in Solana’s term of office, such a statement could imply that he regards conflict-resolution in Abkhazia as a possible legacy issue. It has certainly not been a priority issue for Solana at any point during his term; but legacy issues sometimes tend to rise suddenly to priority status in the final year, not only of Solana.
His agenda for this visit was to seek changes to the peacekeeping and negotiating formats (created and dominated by Russia since 1994) and encourage the Abkhaz to resume direct talks with the Georgians. Talks between Tbilisi and Sokhumi had taken place intermittently until 2006 but were doomed to failure by Russia’s presence, which intimidated the Abkhaz side.
Solana gave a characteristically upbeat briefing in Sokhumi at the conclusion of his talks and again when he returned to the rest of Georgia. “The meetings in Sokhumi were very constructive….The process of resolving the conflict is going in the right direction,” he repeatedly said.
This display of optimism notwithstanding, Solana retreated from his initial goals. He claimed that any changes to the “peacekeeping” format should be agreed on by both sides, based on the 1994 ceasefire agreement. This interpretation echoes Moscow’s and Sokhumi’s traditional interpretation of the agreement, which, should it prevail, as it has thus far, would continue to block any change. It also plays into Russia’s broader goal of trumping international law by using the 1994 and similar agreements, although they have no legal value or standing in international law.
Honored by Solana with a joint news conference in Sokhumi, Abkhaz “president” Sergei Bagapsh turned down the entreaties to engage in direct talks with Tbilisi with EU assistance. Bagapsh countered with the standard preconditions to talks: withdrawal of Georgian “forces” from the upper Kodori Valley and the signing of an agreement coequally with Georgia on non-use of force. Moreover, he ruled out direct talks with Tbilisi, insisting that Russia must be present. Although Solana referred to him as “the President,” Bagapsh gave nothing in return for the flattery.
Bagapsh also ruled out any changes to the “peacekeeping” format: “Russian peacekeepers have been and will stay in Abkhazia. If Georgia raises the issue of withdrawal of the peacekeeping force from its territory, we will do everything for the Russian peacekeepers to stay here [in Abkhazia]… There is no alternative to the Russian ‘blue helmets.’ The issue of replacing them with anyone will not be discussed with anyone.” The “foreign minister,” Sergei Shamba, reaffirmed, “We are strongly against any change in the existing negotiating and peacekeeping formats.”
Abkhaz leaders, among whom Bagapsh is often perceived as relatively moderate, were highly pleased with the fact of Solana’s visit. It gave them a modicum of international standing for the first time ever, certainly at such a high level. They bagged the photo opportunity but gave nothing in return. They even expressed interest in air and maritime links directly to the EU. Apparently, they feel that they can earn acceptance on their own terms as interlocutors of the EU.
While in Georgia, Solana criticized Russia’s recent steps toward annexation of Abkhazia: “Russia’s latest measures are not intelligent measures, [and will] not contribute to lowering the temperature.” But he promptly canceled the effect of his words by adding, “We have very good relations with Russia, and we pass these messages whenever we meet with them.” If so, Moscow’s constantly worsening conduct in Abkhazia indicates that it does not take Solana’s and other EU officials’ messages seriously.
President Mikheil Saakashvili and Georgian government officials reaffirmed Tbilisi’s readiness to sign an agreement on non-use of force. This should involve the EU and other international authorities as guarantors, with an international, impartial peacekeeping mission and provisions for the internationally supervised return of Georgian expellees to their homes in Abkhazia.
A landmark resolution of the European Parliament, adopted by an overwhelming majority on June 5, ascertains, “The Russian troops have lost their role of neutral and impartial peacekeepers” in Abkhazia. The resolution calls for an EU border mission to be deployed to Abkhazia as part of the European Security and Defense Policy. It demands immediate withdrawal of supplementary Russian troops recently deployed to Abkhazia; it expresses “deep disapproval” of Russia’s April 16 presidential decree (which authorizes the Russian government to engage in direct official relations with Abkhaz and Ossetian secessionist authorities) and demands immediate repeal of that decree. The resolution urges the EU executive authorities to “firmly raise” these issues during the EU-Russia summit next month (European Parliament press release, June 6).
The European Parliament’s resolution should strengthen Georgia’s case in demanding the urgent transformation of the “peacekeeping” operation. The European Council can not be expected to take such an initiative in any foreseeable future, as demonstrated by its exercise in appeasing Russia at the latest meeting (see EDM, June 4). It is for Georgia to take this initiative (Civil Georgia, Apsny Press, Rustavi-2 TV, June 6 – 12).