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Y. Popov: Tension in Transcaucasia Becomes Permanent Factor

28.05.2008 17:27

Interview of Russian Ambassador at Large Y.F. Popov, Head of the Russian Branch in the Mixed Control Commission for Settlement of Georgia-Ossetia Conflict, published in the IZVESTIA newspaper.

- In these later days mass media attention is focused mainly on the developments in Abkhazia. We do not write so much about South Ossetia therefore we know it worse. Official statements also refer to this Republic more seldom. But why, don’t the current developments in this unrecognized Republic cause grave concern?

- Unfortunately, they do. Perhaps the developments in South Ossetia do not look as sensational as in Abkhazia, which aerospace is visited permanently and with suicidal persistence by reconnaissance drones shot down one by one by the Abkhaz AD systems. Such phenomena haven’t been observed yet in the sky of the Georgia-Ossetia conflict zone.

However, there are serious grounds for concern over the situation in and around South Ossetia. It is well-known that ready units of the Georgian troops are permanently stationed within 30-minute drive to Tshinvali. Day by day Georgia is enhancing its police units including assault teams and increasing the number of illegally established and equipped police posts within the zone of conflict. Passenger and cargo traffic on the roads including delivery of essential commodities is blocked.

Besides, the geographical location of South Ossetia makes it potentially more vulnerable comparing to Abkhazia in case of an armed conflict. Sukhumi is situated at a more of less safe distance from the armistice line whereas Tshinvali is closely surrounded by Georgian villages that are actually Tbilisi-controlled enclaves in the territory of South Ossetia.

The above-mentioned circumstances surely cause concern. Tension in the regions becomes a permanent factor. It could be eased by an efficient dialogue between the parties of the conflict but the talks remain stuck for two years due to the freak of the Georgian party, which suddenly disliked the peacekeeping formats settled during fifteen years of previous work.

- Why did Georgia dislike the format of the Mixed Control Commission just now? How do you assess a new format of the talks recently proposed by Tbilisi?

- In August 2006 at the meeting of the Mixed Control Commission for Settlement of Georgia-Ossetia Conflict in Moscow the Georgian delegation suddenly demanded to revise this format as ineffective. By the way, it was the time when the Commission started implementing conceptually important decisions on establishment of a working team to elaborate a three-stage peaceful settlement programme, and on coordination of law enforcement body activities, etc.

The Russian party, OSCE, European Union, sober-minded foreign partners tried to convince the Georgian leadership to change its mind but in vain. Georgia fails to see and accept the evident fact that the Commission is a unique channel of political contacts between Tbilisi and Tshinvali, and keeps speaking about low efficiency of this mechanism. The paradox is that the Georgian party itself stonewalls the work of the Commission for almost two years and in so doing claims that it is low-efficient.

In the beginning of this year after the presidential election in Georgia a new person was appointed as the State Minister for Conflict Settlement. To start with he renamed his position as the State Minister for Reintegration. As it was expected such step was sharply opposed by Tshinvali. South Ossetia claimed that it is not going to keep contacts with a Georgian agency named like this. It seems that such response was deliberately provoked by Tbilisi.

The novelties were not limited with renaming the ministry. Tbilisi officially stated that Georgia from now on is not going to participate in the work of the Mixed Commission, which should be replaced with a new mechanism designed by formula “2+2+2”. The essence of this mathematics is that the new negotiation format should include Tbilisi and village Kurta (a Georgian enclave hosting a so-called interim administration of South Ossetia headed by Dmitry Sanakoyev) on the one hand, Moscow and Tshinvali on the other hand, plus OSCE and EC. At first sight it looks symmetrical, but it is an illusion designed for wet-head people to conceal absolute inefficiency of such format.

The point is that the Georgian formula offers conceptual revision of a recognized and settled negotiation pattern with Russia operating as a mediator. Meanwhile in format 2+2+2 we will be a party of the settlement that is an absurd. The idea to involve the Kurta “administration” in the process is also vicious. It could be regarded with great reserve as a part of the Georgian executive power tree but it cannot be regarded as a party of conflict by definition. Besides it is a priori clear that the delegation of South Ossetia will never have talks with the Kurta men because the Ossetians look on them as traitors.

- However “the Kurta men” are stationed immediately within the zone of conflict and perhaps could make contribution to elaboration of one or another decision. May be it would be better to convince South Ossetia, wouldn’t it?

- In principle, I have already answered this question. But let me develop the theme.

The alternative “government” appeared in Kurta located within the zone of conflict eighteen months ago as a creature of Georgian political technologists and special service. The idea was to generate an illusion of diarchy in South Ossetia, and thus weaken the positions of its leadership headed by Eduard Kokoity. They created something like a village council that has a high-sounding title of “interim administration of the South Ossetia autonomy” and is presented as a real political factor allegedly to be taken into account.

It is actually a real factor but with the negative sign. The experiment turned into a dangerous adventure that entailed upsurge of tension in the zone of conflict. Most probably these consequences were initially programmed by its originators. .

Today a few people believe in viability of “the alternative government”. It is noteworthy that recently Kurta was left by Maya Chigoyeva-Tsaboshvili, an alternative “foreign minister”, who joined the Georgian opposition in Tbilisi. Explaining her decision she complained that their former colleagues die of laze playing cards in their offices because they are absolutely incompetent in anything.

Evidently, the Sanakoyev-headed pseudo-power structures created by Georgia cannot be regarded as a party of settlement. Tbilisi is in conflict with Tshinvali but not with Kurta otherwise the situation would look like an intrapersonal conflict. But it is already an area of mental medicine rather than diplomacy.

- So, the standstill in the talks between Georgia and South Ossetia is for long. Is there any prospect of further work in searching the ways to settlement of this conflict? And another question: What would you tell us about the demand of Tbilisi to exclude North Ossetia from the peacekeeping formats?

- To start with, let me answer the second question. The Republic of North Ossetia-Alania was involved in the work of the Mixed Commission and activities of the Peacekeeping force in the zone of Georgia-Ossetia conflict from the very beginning, and nobody objected to it until recently. Firstly, the North and South Ossetians as two halves of one split nation have close relative, cultural, historical and other ties. Secondly, North Ossetia provided shelter to tens of thousands of refugees from South Ossetia. It is clear that without Vladikavkaz it is impossible to take conceptual decisions in the context of the Georgia-South Ossetia conflict settlement.

As for the prospects for near revival of the talks they are not bright in terms of the current situation yet have not been lost for ever. We still hope and together with sober-minded partners look for ways out of the deadlock. A sole reasoned and positive solution would be further work in the MCC format. We have no other option for the moment. The sooner Tbilisi understands this fact, the closer and clearer would the prospects for sound settlement of this exhausting conflict.

Unfortunately, Georgia still is not interested in ending the deadlock. It is confirmed by the results of recent Russian Foreign Ministry consultations with State Minister Temury Yakobashvili. By the way, Tbilisi already for six months ignores our proposal to hold an informal meeting of MCC co-chairmen in Moscow that would revive the dialogue between the parties and provide for opportunities to clear the available obstacles.

- Is the Russian side in position to offer any particular ideas in the context of the Georgia-Ossetia conflict settlement?

- The main idea is that it is high time to deal again with this settlement after the long-drawn pause. I have already mentioned the important decisions that we started implementing two years ago. I think that if Tbilisi did not start dismantling the MCC, the conflict between Georgia and South Ossetia would be already an event of history today.

There is no need to offer novelties here. Benchmarks were aired by President Saakashvili in September 2004 at the 59th Session of the UN General Assembly, where he declared a three-stage pattern of the settlement: social and economical rehabilitation of the conflict zone, its demilitarization and decriminalization, and determination of the South Ossetia’s status.

This three-stage concept has been developed in the response initiatives of Eduard Kokoity. In December 2005, the leader of South Ossetia proposed to establish a working team within the MCC format to elaborate peaceful settlement programme basing on this concept (demilitarization with simultaneous restoration of confidence and security guarantees, social and economical rehabilitation, and political settlement).

The working team was established two years ago and ready for the work. But the Georgian side immediately stepped back. Things haven't budged an inch.

There are also other landmarks in the context of Georgia-Ossetia conflict settlement. For example, in November 2004, late Prime Minister of Georgia Zurab Zhvania had a meeting with Eduard Kokoity in Sochi through intermediary of Russia, at the meeting the parties succeeded in reaching important compromise decisions on priorities of joint activities. They included consolidation of armistice, disengagement and withdrawal of all armed formations from the zone of conflict but for the peacekeeping force, and implementation of other confidence-building measures.

This January Eduard Kokoity put forward an initiative to hold a meeting of the presidents of Georgia and South Ossetia to discuss the ways to ease tension in the zone of conflict and to develop constructive cooperation in the law enforcement, economic and humanitarian spheres. Evidently, the direct top-level talks between Tbilisi and Tshinvali would facilitate improvement of the situation in the region and progress in settlement of the conflict. However, Tbilisi ignored this initiative.

So, try as Georgia would deny it, the fact is that there are important stepping stones to the settlement, which would provide for forward movement in case of joint efforts of the parties. But evident deficiency of good will in our Tbilisi partners slows down this process.