You attended the Geneva talks just recently. What is the status of the Geneva talks now? How do you evaluate positions of the Russian, Abkhaz and South Ossetian sides? What could be changed after your team takes reins of government? Is a breakthrough expected in the talks?
I was in Geneva owing to the good will of the current government. This was part of an ongoing process – the transfer of power by the outgoing government to the incoming government. If I am content with anything and have received a good and positive impression from that trip, it is the interaction with the Georgian side. I want to thank very much each and every public official who was involved in that process.
The outgoing government is treating the power handover process with complete sincerity. There was no topic which they did not explain to me thoroughly, with arguments supporting those approaches. Whether I agree or disagree with those arguments is a separate issue.
As regards the Geneva discussions, in general, I got what I expected – that is, nothing. Generally, that is no one’s fault. The format is undeveloped; parties to the conflict are not identified; who talks with whom is not clear; relations take place at the level of experts; no document of any kind has been signed yet.
The Geneva format was established after the [August 2008] Russia-Georgia war and mirrors precisely the format of Russia-Georgia relations, in which Abkhaz and South Ossetian participants actually voice Russia’s positions. It is a fact that this format is ineffective, though necessary. It is better than having nothing. I think certain steps need to be taken – the main line, the Russia-Georgia context, must remain [the priority]. The Georgian authorities want that format to be a Russia-Georgia format and I agree with that. Russia wants it to be a Georgian-Abkhaz and Georgian-South Ossetian format, with which I disagree with Russia.
I do not expect any breakthrough in the Geneva format, but the absence of that format would impede many things and, therefore, it must exist and we must try to turn it into a certain field for settling the Georgia-Russia conflict.
As regards the Law on Occupied Territories, you and members of your team have repeatedly stated that the law must be changed and must be softened. Could you be more precise; what in particular are you going to change?
The point is that neither I nor members of our team have said that. Journalists put that question to us, and I replied sincerely that we do not plan to scrap [the existing law]. That is excluded. The territory is occupied and Georgia’s attitude toward that fact must be set out in the law. Therefore, the law with that very title must exist.
Amending that law is not a priority for me. And I am not going, upon my appointment, to rush and tear it up or throw it away. So long as that law does not impede us in our activity, the issue of its revision will not emerge. But if, for example, the law proves to be an obstacle for international organizations to work in the territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, we will review those positions where problems must be eradicated. That is not an idée fixe.
Is it possible that agreements on non-use of force will be signed with Sokhumi and Tskhinvali?
I never exclude anything, but that is not an idée fixe. I do not think that we must necessarily sign such a document with anyone. There is a unilateral commitment of the Georgian authorities to the non-use of force. I demanded that since the Shevardnadze rule and that is a better option than signing the obligation on non-use of force directly with Abkhaz and South Ossetians.
Because Abkhaz and Ossetians, at the urging of Russia, demand that precisely such a document be drawn up and signed. I say that that is not a problem in itself. We should not act as if we are afraid of everything. As soon as we start discussing that issue, we will find out that Abkhaz and Ossetians do not face a problem of security. They are not afraid of us any longer. They have the problem of status. We must ask: “How should an agreement with them be signed, as between the states?” But, sorry, we have not recognized them. I speak about such topics so boldly because I know that things will not reach the point of agreements.
Our government made a mistake at the very beginning when it rejected the existence of Georgian-Abkhaz and Georgian-Ossetian conflicts. By doing so, it made those conflicts a hostage of Russia. The Georgian authorities brought those conflicts into several deadlocks and now the key to those conflicts is in the hands of Russia. It will take much effort to break each of those deadlocks, but we must take that very path – slowly, without haste. In contrast to Saakashvili, we are not in a hurry.
There is an opinion, however, that that is a path which we have already gone through. Before the August 2008, we had Georgian-Abkhaz and Georgian-Ossetian formats of conflict settlement. After 2008, Sukhumi and Tskhinvali became more dependent on Russia – be it in terms of budget or control from army and security bodies. How productive can Georgian-Abkhaz and Georgian-Ossetian formats be under these circumstances?
That Georgian-Abkhaz and Georgian-Ossetian formats existed was the greatest success. And scrapping those formats by the Saakashvili government was the gravest crime. They were abolished not after 2008, but before 2006 when the Georgian government entered Kodori, thereby violating the international Moscow agreement on Abkhazia, and when it created the [Tbilisi-backed parallel provisional administration of South Ossetian leader Dmitry] Sanakoyev. One can boldly say that, since 1992, the year 2006 was the best period for the settlement of Georgian-Ossetian and Georgian-Abkhaz conflicts. At the same time, that same 2006 year was the worst year. Until June of that year, everything was going on smoothly, but thereafter everything went on badly.
Why was that period the best? What results were achieved then?
Every structure worked perfectly. Every relationship was confined within the format recognized by international law. Abkhaz and Georgian sides worked under the supervision of our friendly states [the so-called Group of Friends].
The UN worked in Abkhazia, while the OSCE worked in Tskhinvali. A Mixed Control Commission comprising four sides was up and running; decisions were taken upon consensus; and the Georgian side regulated the situation there. No matter how critical we are about Shevardnadze on other issues, we must admit that Shevardnadze proved to be a thousand times stronger than Saakashvili on issues of conflict settlement. Shevardnadze managed to achieve an absolutely different level. He made Georgia and Russia sit together in Tskhinvali, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, Tskhinvali and Vladikavkaz together. In other words, the four-partite commission became a two-tier body. Shevardnadze tied the economy of North Ossetia to Georgia – recall the spirits business. True, corruption was rife; the crime situation terrible. A lot of other things were to be improved, but not scrapped – as it was in the case of the Ergneti market. Those parties were involved in the Georgian context.
The phrase that “we have gone through that path” is false and hypocritical. Upon coming to power, Saakashvili took up Shevardnadze’s achievements correctly – for instance, the Baku-Ceyhan-Tbilisi and Baku-Erzerum project; NATO membership. The pullout of Russian military bases was also a process that was begun by Shevardnadze in 1999. But Saakashvili did not even try to exploit that direction which Shevardnadze left in the area of conflict settlement. From the very beginning, Saakashvili clung to the idea that we have nothing to do with Abkhaz and Ossetians and that our key rival is Russia. We went on a confrontation with Russia, abandoning Abkhaz and Ossetians to it and, by doing so, strengthened Russia’s positions. Unfortunately, the August 2008 war was a logical outcome of those vice politics which Saakashvili sowed. I am a witness that he never tried to get in touch with Abkhaz and South Ossetians.
Do you not think that the politics of that time was a logical effort to break free from the formats imposed by Russia, the format that did not play to the advantage of Georgia?
How was it imposed by Russia? There was the OSCE in one place and the UN in another. Today, we boast about resolutions of the UN General Assembly. Back then, the UN Security Council adopted two resolutions a year, according to which Russia was clearly and explicitly obliged to recognize the territorial integrity of Georgia – something we dream about today. Our territorial integrity was explicitly recognized at the OSCE summits, which now belong to history…
However, those formats brought no result for years, for example, in terms of the return of refugees…
Sorry, but if we say that Shevardnadze’s politics were vile, including in prison, energy sector, in terms of corruption, thieves-in-law, etcetera, how could one say that everything was OK in the direction of Abkhazia? If Shevardnadze’s politics were unsuccessful, why did we not start a dialogue with Abkhaz and Ossetians from scratch? Why did we declare that that was Russia’s fault, perhaps it was Shevardnadze’s fault?
You know where the whole tragedy lies? Not long ago, [Russian President Vladimir] Putin admitted that he started preparations for the war with Georgia in 2006. That precisely coincides with what I have said about the year 2006. Abkhaz and Ossetians took steps toward Georgia. They developed trust in the “beacon of democracy.” And I am a witness to how they longed for meetings with us and how Saakashvili prohibited his public servants from reciprocating that.
Did this government also take successful steps before 2006?
Of course. Saakashvili’s politics in 2005 and 2006 were successful. An example of that is the OSCE Ljubljana summit. The Brussels conference was also a success, where large amounts were earmarked for the rehabilitation of Ossetian villages. But Saakashvili unexpectedly changed those successful politics and entered Kodori and also launched the most shameful Sanakoyev project.
Today, we do not have a moral right to say that Stalin established [the Autonomous Region of] South Ossetia illegally. In 2006, Saakashvili forced the Parliament to adopt a shameful decision on the establishment of a provisional administration on the territory of the former South Ossetian Autonomous Region, and within those very boundaries which were set by Stalin. He appointed Dimitry Sanakoyev as the head of that administration, which proved to be a project of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB). Sanakoyev’s relatives – the Karkusov brothers – said that their cousin, Vladimir Sanakoyev, admitted that they were planted by the FSB. They reinstalled South Ossetia with Akhalgori included, which essentially had never been part of South Ossetia. The occupation was then carried out within those very boundaries which Saakashvili set for the territory.
Since 2006, different politics were implemented – not of dialogue, but of imposition. That was Russian politics. We could have bargained with Tskhinvali, but instead of that we gave it the entire South Ossetia within the boundaries set by Stalin. We hung the entire South Ossetia, like a medal, on Russia. That was big anti-Georgian politics.
I can say, based on the example of the Perevi village, that Russians clearly misappropriated only that territory on which we inscribed Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The Kodori Gorge and Akhalgori were under Georgian control. After Saakashvili started those shameful projects, they were no longer ours. Whatever Saakashvili touched, he spoiled and ruined everything.
I want to understand your position accurately: Had the Sanakoyev and Kodori projects not existed, Russia would have been unable in 2008 to occupy the territories within the administrative boundaries?
It would have been unable to occupy those territories. Things would not have even reached such an extreme as the war. That was a cascade of mistakes, wrong steps, which Putin made Georgia take proceeding from his projects. Representatives of the Georgian authorities swallowed the bait that Russia was not interested in Tskhinvali and repeatedly stated that publicly. Russia made the Georgian authorities believe that it would not interfere. We saw in August 2008 how it was “not interested.” That was a well-elaborated Russian project in which, unfortunately, our government appeared a blind puppet.
As regards the politics pursued by the former government, what is your take on a status neutral document? A year ago, in one of your interviews, you called that document “ridiculous” although it has been recognized by up to ten states. In that same interview, you said that you supported the legalization of Abkhaz and South Ossetian passports on the territory of Georgia. Will that be one of your political directions? Will you reject status neutral documents?
Those are the issues which must be agreed with the government. I want to study who has taken those passports. I know seven or eight persons in Abkhazia and South Ossetia who really took those documents: They are Georgians who have Abkhaz and South Ossetian passports; in addition to Abkhaz passports, they have Georgian passports too, taken secretly; and they also took neutral passports, for the only reason of traveling easily to the United States. If my information is credible, then the question comes to my mind: “Whom do we deceive?” Why do we need such delusion? But, if those passports prove effective, I will admit that that is the case.
However, I have information that since October 2010, when neutral status passports entered into force, some sixty people have taken neutral passports and more than three hundred people have taken Georgian passports. I myself assisted the Abkhaz in arriving here and taking Georgian passports.
If an Abkhaz overcomes some barrier, he/she prefers to take a Georgian passport. With that document, one can travel around the world, not only in one country. Moreover, a neutral status document is not sufficient to take a travel visa; the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has to issue some certifying document. With the Georgian passports, you are more secure – no one asks whether you are Georgian, Abkhaz or Armenian. According to my information, in Abkhazia today the receipt of a neutral status document is considered more shameful than the receipt of a Georgian passport. Paradoxically, a Georgian passport is more neutral for them.
However, abolition of neutral passports would not be topical today – one cannot abolish something non-existent.
What about Abkhaz and South Ossetian passports?
We must acknowledge them as IDs inside Georgia. These people must enjoy, not all, but almost all of those preferences which a Georgian citizen enjoys, including free movement, registration, pension, receipt of education, health care services. But I would not advise, for example, banks to issue credits by those documents. But, where their use does not harm state interests, the use must be allowed.
As regards the reaction of the Abkhaz side to the change of power in Georgia and to your statement in particular, the de facto president of Abkhazia, Aleksandr Ankvab, said that if the Georgian Dream means to regain Abkhazia then that dream is futile. An Abkhaz politician and your friend, Batal Kobakhia, expressed a negative attitude very emotionally to your statement that Georgia must convince Abkhaz that it is better to be with Georgia. Thus, Sokhumi’s reaction to your peaceful rhetoric is very sharp. Given those circumstances, how are you going to find common points with Abkhaz?
Their reaction speaks of something, does it not? When a person contracts some virus, he/she runs a temperature – that is a reaction of the body. They were frightened of something – frightened of peaceful Georgia. We must try to ensure that their rhetoric remains in the epoch of Saakashvili, not to allow them to reproach us on anything. We do not hurry. Unfortunately, conflict settlement is a long process.
You know that the Northern part of Cyprus is occupied by Turkey. That territory of the European Union (EU) is occupied for thirty years now and the EU says it can do nothing unless Greeks and Turks reconcile. Shouting endlessly “Occupation! Occupation!” will not take us ahead. Some steps need to be taken toward de-occupation. I am confident that, within eight to nine years, we will achieve what has not been done in Cyprus during thirty years. There are Greeks and Turks, Orthodox Christianity and Islam…
Here are Russia and its interests….
Fine, but no one loves Russia, neither Georgians and, believe me, nor Abkhaz and Ossetians. Until now they had a choice – Putin’s Russia or Saakashvili’s Georgia. Putin’s Russia will remain for at least ten years, while we can offer them another democratic Georgia. Trust me, in two or three years’ time, we will have an absolutely different conversation on that issue. We may not have tangible results, but dynamics will be visible. There will be no aggressive rhetoric. Interests toward each other will be more vivid.
It may sound very paradoxical, but I am not rushing to bilateral relations. Important at this stage is to change Georgian politics. For me, it is a thousand times more important to convince a Georgian opponent who has doubts about the righteousness of my position. If we find a common language here, it will be easier to find that with Abkhaz too. They will see that discussions on how to take care of Abkhazia have started in Georgia.
Last year, a member of your team, Mamuka Areshidze, said that the recognition of Abkhazia’s independence could become a topic of discussion. Commenting on that opinion in one of your interviews, you said that that suggestion is not categorically unacceptable, but it is premature and may become topical ten or fifteen years later if negotiations prove unsuccessful. Could you explain the essence of that strategy – telling the opponent that if it remains uncompromised enough, at the end of the day we will be ready to meet that requirement which is now unacceptable?
I meant Saakashvili’s politics. If it continued in the way it was carried out, Mamuka Areshidze’s words would become a reality. At the time of that interview, [Georgian Dream leader Bidzina] Ivanishvili had not entered politics, the old politics were being carried on – a catastrophic loss of population and territories, an increase of Russia’s influence….
Back then, Areshidze said that, against that backdrop, the solution was recognition of independence. I said then that, even under the conditions of Saakashvili, such a reality might come after ten or fifteen years. That means that it was not I who compromised on that, but it was Saakashvili who would take the country to that condition.
You think that, in case of the continuation of former politics, Tbilisi would be forced to agree to recognize Abkhazia?
It would be recognized by the entire world. On the tenth anniversary, the world said that Serbs had failed to find a common language with Albanians in Kosovo. We could not tolerate that for a long time and started recognizing Kosovo. I used to say that we had a cushion of peace for ten years alone. Thereafter, Europeans would seize away that cushion and we would find ourselves bogged down in a quagmire. Europe never says either “no” or “yes” eternally. Europe is a live, dynamic organism and its behavior changes.
But the non-recognition policy is still in force…
I am a specialist and I see how Europe acts in Cyprus and in Kosovo. I see the dynamics of Europe. I talk to them and they say, “Do something or Russia is coming and coming. Talk to your authority.” The West is not interested in Abkhazia and South Ossetia – there is no oil or natural gas there. They are bordering Russia and, if anything happens on those territories, that is in the interests of only Russia and Georgia. Therefore, lying on a cushion of peace will not last long.
You want to say that, under the politics which will be carried out by your team, the issue of recognition of Abkhazia will not emerge?
No, it will not. That is excluded. If Georgia becomes a democratic state, the world will tell the Abkhaz that Georgia has embarked on a different path. We must show the world that, if a new dynamic starts, that is to the credit of a new government.
People gave us the mandate to essentially change the situation. We must necessarily fulfill that mandate. By a peaceful change of power in Georgia, we have set a unique precedent in the post-Soviet space. That is a significant credit of the outgoing government too. Consequently, if we are talking about a breakthrough, that breakthrough happened here in an overall Georgian consensus.
Thank God, the outgoing government acts reasonably. And we must also act accordingly. Proceeding from the idea of rescuing the country, we must cooperate and I am ready to talk on these issues with the opposition. They did not talk to me. And I am ready to hear their arguments, to argue and even, whenever necessary, to agree.
This article first appeared in Tabula Georgian Issue # 119, published 22 October 2012.