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A Long Road to Peace, By Roland Oliphant

The New Phase of the Geneva Talks Is Merely Meant to Lay the Groundwork for Future Conflict Resolution in the Caucasus

The latest round of talks between Russia, Georgia and the two breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia got off to a predictably acrimonious start in Geneva on Monday. The Georgians flat-out rejected a Russian proposal that they sign a non-aggression agreement with South Ossetia and Akhazia. The Abkhazians refused to attend at all, because they felt the UN draft report did not adequately reflect their de-facto independence from Georgia. And late on Monday the Russians and South Ossetians followed suit, saying it was “pointless to discuss security in Abkhazia without the Abkhazians.”

The two breakaway republics may yet change their minds – RIA Novosti reported on Tuesday that the Abkhaz were happy with a redrafting of the report that omitted any mention of Georgia’s sovereignty over the region. But the latest talks are unlikely to break the deadlock faced by previous rounds (this is the fifth) because none of the sides have significantly changed their positions.

Russia’s proposal for an agreement in which the parties commit to the “non-use of force” was rejected by Georgia before it was even tabled. And the Russian Foreign Ministry must have predicated the response it would get. The Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s government has long made it clear that it can never enter into any king of “interstate” agreement with its breakaway regions because that would be a tacit acknowledgement of their sovereignty.

The talks are rather hubristically titled “Security in the Caucasus.” But the intractability of differences between the two sides underscores what a long, slow, and thankless business stabilizing conflict zones is. The Geneva process is not aimed at resolving the conflict or finalizing the status of breakaway regions. The more modest agenda of the participants – and probably the only reason they are there, given their differences on almost every other issue – is “conflict management.”

The August war destroyed a status quo that had held since Abkhazia and South Ossetia fought their first wars of independence in the early 1990s. The agreements hammered out in 1992 (South Ossetia) and 1994 (Abkhazia) provided for a complex system of international observers and CIS peacekeepers to enforce a security regime. Their record was mixed (in 1998 violence again broke out in Abkhazia, and there were always intermittent skirmishes and exchanges of fire), but there is little doubt that this did have at least some effect in keeping the conflicts “frozen.”

“We now have a situation where we have no security regime whatsoever,” noted Oksana Antonenko of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, which monitors conflict resolution. “We have no agreement on the separation of forces, on ceasefire enforcement, on monitoring confidence building measures. All that makes the situation more fragile.”

Antonenko believes that there is at least some common interest in preventing another outbreak of violence. And there has been some, however limited, progress on that front. The fourth round of talks in February concluded with an agreement to set up what the Russian Foreign Ministry called a mechanism for “preventing and responding to incidents in the region,” though that document is not legally binding (yet) and contains no specific commitments. In a hopeful sign, however, the Russian Defense Ministry announced late Tuesday that it would deploy fewer personnel at military bases in Abkhazia and South Ossetia than previously planned.

Moving beyond “conflict management” to what analysts in the field like to call “conflict transformation” and finally “conflict resolution,” will be more difficult, however. “International experience shows that either you agree on a comprehensive mechanism straight after the conflict, or it will take a very long, difficult process building it up from the ground, and without even an assurance of success,” said Antonenko.

Resolving the four-party conflict between Russia, Georgia and the breakaway regions already seems destined to take the harder path. “Not one side – not Russia, not South Ossetia, not Abkhazia and not Georgia – is interested in real talks,” said Alexei Mukhin, the general director of the Moscow based Center for Political Information. “The only temporary solution would be the recognition by Georgia of Abkhazia and Ossetia as independent governments, or the inclusion of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as either a part of Russia or a part of Georgia.” It needn’t be added that none of those options could possibly be agreed upon by all parties.

So how long will this take to settle? First, the sides will need time to come to terms with the changed realities on the ground, and come to the conclusion that they have no alternative but to talk to each other. Antonenko identified two facts that will have to sink in. The South Ossetians and Abkhazians will have to come to terms with the fact that recognition of their independence by Russia will not bring them into the community of nations, and may actually prolong their legal limbo rather than ending it (Northern Cyprus, pointed out Antonenko, has been in a similar situation for some thirty years). At the same time the Georgians will have to abandon any hope that the international community has either the will or the ability to restore the former status quo (let alone the leverage over Russia to reverse their recognition).

The Geneva process, then, is merely a stop gap – a kind of confidence building measure until real negotiations can start. That could take years, or it could take decades. Or it might never happen at all. “Experience has shown that it has not been possible to stabilize the Caucasus fully,” noted Mukhin wryly. “Ever.”

Source: Russia Profile

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