“A day will come when you, all nations of the continent, without losing your distinct qualities and your glorious individuality, will be merged closely within a superior unity and you will form the European brotherhood.
“A day will come when the only fields of battle will be markets opening up to trade and minds opening up to ideas.
“A day will come when the bullets and the bombs will be replaced by votes, by the universal suffrage of the peoples, by the venerable arbitration of a great sovereign senate which will be to Europe what this parliament is to England, what this diet is to Germany, what this legislative assembly is to France.”
This prophecy of Victor Hugo made at the International Peace Congress in Paris in 1849, which sounded implausible then, has largely materialized.
The optimistic words of the leader of French Romanticism were repeated to European politicians by the leader of the romanticized Rose Revolution on 23 November 2010. On that day — the seventh anniversary of the Revolution, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili addressed the European Parliament in the status of a special guest.
Saakashvili arrived in Strasbourg at the invitation of the President of EU Parliament, the Polish politician and former dissident, Jerzy Buzek. This was the second address to the EU legislature by the Georgian President. The first address was delivered four years ago, on 4 November 2006. Only the Georgian President and the Dalai Lama have been so honored. The invitation to speak before the European Parliament has never been given twice to any representative of a non-member state save the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader and the President of occupied Georgia.
“I came here to affirm that peace - a just and lasting peace - is possible in my region, and that we need Europe to contribute to it,” Saakashvili told members of the European Parliament. To prove that Georgia is committed to a peaceful resolution of its conflict with the Russian Federation, the Georgian President made a public pledge: “We take today the unilateral initiative to declare that Georgia will never use force to restore its territorial integrity and sovereignty, that it will only resort to peaceful means in its quest for de-occupation and reunification.”
Moscow branded Saakashvili’s declaration as “rhetorical trappings.” According to Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Saakashvili’s statement that Georgia will only retain the right to self-defense in the case of new attacks and invasion of the Georgian territory that remains under control of the Georgian government, “produces an ambivalent impression.” It seems that the Kremlin will have a clear impression only when Saakashvili not only refuses to use force to restore Georgia’s territorial integrity and sovereignty but also, by and large, waives its right to self-defense recognized under international law.
It is not difficult to guess why Russia is unhappy – it has been years now since our Northern neighbor demanded that an agreement on the non-use of force be signed between Georgia and the puppet regimes. Georgia committed itself not to use force long before the August war of 2008, under the Moscow, Sochi and Dagomys agreements. Those agreements, however, also contained a reciprocal obligation for the return of internally displaced persons to Abkhazia, which did not play into the hands of Russia. Therefore, before the August war, Russia’s aim was to separate the two issues, hoping that a new agreement would dilute the obligation concerning the return of refugees. Apart from the issue of the return of refugees, another reason the Saakashvili government opposed signing any new agreement was that it regarded Russia – not Abkhazia and South Ossetia - as a party to the conflict and was, therefore, trying to change the existing format in this respect.
Nothing from the Moscow, Sochi and Dagomys agreements survived Russia’s actions in August 2008. But the commitment on the non-use of force remains in place under another agreement, the one brokered by French President Nikolas Sarkozy on 12 August 2010. This agreement, unlike the earlier ones, names Russia and Georgia as conflicting parties. The main problem Russia sees with this agreement – in addition to the obligation to withdraw its military forces, which it has not fulfilled anyway – is the fact that it is a party to the conflict.
The U.S. State Department shares Georgia’s position: “We note that the August 12, 2008 ceasefire agreement between President Saakashvili of Georgia and President Medvedev of the Russian Federation, mediated by President Sarkozy of France, already establishes the sides’ commitment to the non-use of force,” Philip Gordon, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian affairs, said in June after one of the rounds of Geneva talks.
Russia’s concern about being represented as a side to the conflict was apparent in the statement the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued on 24 November in response to the Saakashvili initiative: “Saakashvili is still trying to convince the international community that there is a conflict between Russia and Georgia, while at issue is actually the long-running conflict between Tbilisi and the peoples of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.”
Despite numerous attempts, Moscow has failed to find an ally that would support it in this endeavor. The proof lies in the Geneva talks where Russia and Georgia alone are formally recognized as parties at plenary sessions. The puppet regimes are not considered parties to the conflict under the Geneva format, which is why Russia boycotts plenary sessions and insists on holding negotiations only in the format of working groups. Representatives of the puppet regimes attend these meetings only in their personal capacity, as do representatives of the legitimate Abkhaz and South Ossetian governments in exile.
Medvedev was recently reminded by his key European partners that Russia is indeed a party in this conflict. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nikolas Sarkozy made that clear during their meeting with the Russian President in Deauville, as Tabula learned in Strasbourg from a source close to French diplomatic circles.
Official Paris reacted favorably to the Saakashvili address the very same day: “France welcomes the Georgian President’s commitment of not using force to regain control over its regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which he made in Strasbourg in front of the European Parliament… This is definitely a strong gesture for the peace process in the Caucasus…. France reiterates its support to the independence, territorial integrity and sovereignty of Georgia.” French Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie called on the participants in the Geneva talks to treat Georgia’s unilateral initiative with trust and to allow the European Union Monitoring Mission on the entire territory of Georgia.
Catherine Ashton, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, also welcomed Saakashvili’s pledge, calling it “a constructive step.”
“The Georgian President’s declaration is what Europeans are willing to hear,” Professor Gia Nodia of the Ilia State University told Tabula. “Such a statement significantly strengthens Georgia’s positions. This was the best thing that Saakashvili could do in the situation where the West, after the August war, still maintains the attitude that Russia is bad but Saakashvili is aggressive as well.” Nodia believes that this statement may not bring results in terms of reunification of Georgia but will contribute to a positive mood between Georgia and the West.
The Russian reaction to the Georgian President’s peace initiative puts Moscow, despite its thawed relations with the U.S. and Europe, in international isolation with respect to this issue. Comments of European diplomats about the Saakashvili speech serve as a proof of this. Moreover, Europe has begun following in U.S. footsteps by using the term “occupation,” thereby depriving Russia of an opportunity to sell the conflict with its Southern neighbor as an inter-ethnic disagreement within Georgia.
The actions of Georgian authorities were described as “constructive unilateralism” by the head of the EU Monitoring Mission in Georgia, Hansjörg Haber. In his article published on the Internet edition of Civil.ge in August 2010, Haber wrote: “In a situation where the sides to a conflict cannot come to an agreement, formal or informal, unilateral concessions by one side might prove the only way to push things forward. As a result, the party that bravely accepts to make such concession not only is not harmed, but can actually benefit from it.”
In addressing the EU Parliament, the Georgian President repeated the descriptive phrase coined by Hansjörg Haber. “We understand that peace is in our supreme interest and we are convinced there is no alternative to peace. By jeopardizing peace, we would place at risk everything we have achieved and everything we want to achieve in the coming years. And so I came here to announce a new step in our policy of ‘constructive unilateralism’,” Saakashvili told European lawmakers.
It is doubtful that the unilateral declaration of Saakashvili can alter the status quo, but a certain result of this move is apparent – the Georgian government has thrown the ball onto Russia’s field. After 23 November 2010, Russia will find it difficult to use the non-use-of-force topic as a bargaining chip with Georgia.
The “most active week” spent by the Georgian President in Lisbon and Strasbourg made clear that warmed relations with Russia has not taken the issue of Georgia off the agenda, at least formally. The experience shows that supporting resolutions and statements may not resolve the de-occupation issue instantly, but we may expect that they will shore up the security of the rest of Georgia in the short-term; they will be conducive to Euro-Atlantic integration in the medium-term, and they may well lead to de-occupation in the long-term.