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Caucasus Times: Interview with Maurizia Jenkins

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Maurizia Jenkins is an independent consultant, who worked from 2001 to 2003 as political officer for the United Nations Observer Mission In Georgia. During the previous three years she made regular visits to South Ossetia and Abkhazia. She designed and implemented several projects on community and peace building in Abkhazia (notably its Gal/i Region) and facilitated cross-border relations between Georgian IDPs, returnees and Abkhaz NGOs. Among her activities, she previously served in the Lord Chancellor’s Office as Justice of the Peace in the Commission Area of Inner London (1990-1994), participated in broadcasts on Current Affairs for the Italian Service of the BBC and worked in the Press and Culture Section of British Embassy in the former GDR (1976-79). In recent years she has participated in several OSCE election-observing missions in different countries, monitoring in particular women’s participation to the political process.

The interview with Maurizia Jenkins was prepared specially for Caucasus Times by Sergey Markedonov, political scientist, candidate of historical sciences. 

Sergey Markedonov: You have rich practical experience in the Caucasus region working as a Political officer of the UN Mission in Georgia. Now this Mission has stopped its activity. How can you estimate its effectiveness? What are the most important pluses and minuses of it that you can name?

Maurizia Jenkins: The work carried out by the Mission over its 16 years in Georgia has been subject to legitimate scrutiny, but also to criticism, not always well informed or deserved. My observations relate mainly to the five-year period of direct experience of the mission’s operations, which began in mid 1998.

To have a clear picture, one needs to distinguish the monitoring activities of the military observers, who were addressing security matters, stipulated in detail by the May 1994 Ceasefire and Separation of Forces Agreement, from the more wide-ranging work of the political office, which was striving to reach a comprehensive political settlement. This involved, primarily, the question of the status of Abkhazia and of citizenship, the agreement on security guarantees, the rehabilitation of the economy and of the infrastructure, and, of course, the safe and dignified return of the Internally Displaced People (IDPs). 

On the military side, one must remember that United Nations Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG) was an observer mission and that the duties of the military monitors were to observe and report through the appropriate channels, not to respond to problems, as sometimes outsiders expected them to do. They were unarmed and for their safety relied on the protection of the CIS peacekeepers, with whom they conducted joint patrols. The Area of Responsibility (AoR) on the Abkhaz side of the border covered the highly volatile territories of Kodori Valley and Gal/i region. Land mines, criminal gangs and ‘partisan groups’ controlled from the Georgian side, made operations difficult. Winning the trust of the returnees and establishing essential lines of contact with them was also a challenge, as they lived in constant fear and in atrocious conditions.

Taking all this into account, I think that the military branch discharged their duty in a competent manner and made a significant contribution to keeping the everyday security situation under control, sometimes at considerable personal risk. The shooting down of the UN helicopter in Upper Kodori in October 2001 is an unequivocal reminder. 

With the benefit of hindsight, one can also say that UNOMIG role was important for setting in place a framework of confidence building measures aimed at promoting dialogue between the Georgian and Abkhaz sides. In 1997 the first session of the UN- led talks of the Geneva Process began. In the same year the parties agreed on the establishment of the Georgian- Abkhaz Coordinating Council, which was to operate via three working groups (WG): on security and non-resumption of hostilities  (WGI); refugees and IDPs issues (WGII); and socio-economic problems (WGIII). Three big conferences in Athens, Istanbul and Yalta took place in 1998, 1999 and in 2001, bringing together a variety of officials and representatives of Georgian and Abkhaz society. At the same time, between 1998 and 2001, UNOMIG began actively to encourage and foster contacts of Abkhaz and Georgian NGOs, journalists and experts across the conflict divide. A number of meetings were held in Tbilisi and Gal/i , while new ideas and cross-border projects began to take shape. Moreover, International NGOs, UN agencies and relief organizations received valuable logistic and organizational support to gain access and travel in the conflict zone. The sanctions imposed by the Georgians in 1996 and the consequent intransigence of the Abkhaz authorities made progress difficult and slow. Nevertheless, at non- governmental level, several ongoing peace- building dialogues did start with the facilitation of UNOMIG at that time. 

On the political front, the Mission did not succeed in bringing about a political settlement. More specifically, it failed in putting forward a proposal concerning Abkhaz status, acceptable to the Georgian and Abkhaz sides, which in turn would have allowed the vital issues of security guarantees, return of the IDPs and economic rehabilitation to be negotiated in a more constructive manner. In my view, one important reason for this was that in such negotiations the UN was neither neutral, nor did it appear to be so.  Indeed nor could it have been, given the geopolitical interests of some key UN member states, active also in the very influential Group of Friends of the Secretary General, with whom the political solution had to be discussed. Consequently, the paper on The Distribution of Competences between Tbilisi and Sukhum/i, finalized by the Special Representative of the Secretary General, Dieter Boden, in December 2001, which envisaged from the outset dual sovereignty of Georgia and Abkhazia on Georgian territory, safeguarding the principle of territorial integrity, was rejected by the Sukhum/i authorities. 

Sergey Markedonov: Now many experts write about the lack of any international presence both in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. It is essential, therefore, that the fundamental principles guiding a negotiating process are clear from the offset. What dangers does this represent for the dynamics of conflict resolution? How will Russia and the West reach a compromise on this issue? And what kind of international mediation could be considered as the best option? 

Maurizia Jenkins: Let’s concentrate on Abkhazia and be pragmatic in tackling this question.

International involvement in conflict resolution is potentially a valuable asset, but can also be counterproductive and carries risks.

The Western approach to the solution of the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict, for instance, had as a prime goal the containment of Russia. All policies aimed at finding a solution, leaving more or less convincing rhetoric aside, were conceived in the light of geopolitical interests. The settlement itself, to some extent, was secondary. Over the years, we have witnessed Western governments supporting the failing policy of sanctions, brushing under the carpet the principle of self- determination and neglecting an active and visible policy of engagement in the conflict zone, hence contributing to the polarization of positions of the two parties. Russia, on the other hand, responded beginning to increase its influence in the conflict region, well before 2008, with a series of measures (issuing of Russian passports, rehabilitation of the railways, easing of border restrictions, etc) which proved very valuable to the Abkhaz population and to Russian-Abkhaz relations, but detrimental to the Georgian-Abkhaz peace process.

One has to consider and qualify carefully, therefore, which type of international intervention is desirable, its real aims and who is benefiting from it. The EU policy of Engagement without Recognition, launched in December 2009, in my view, has a flaw, because it brings to the fore the highly political and contentious principle of non- recognition, which we know as unacceptable to the Abkhaz. A EU policy of engagement and reconciliation in Abkhazia is vital, but it should be ‘without preconditions’, depoliticized and with tangible benefits for the population at large.  Moreover, however well meaning, it cannot be a substitute for direct dialogue between the two sides, who need to find new terms of reference for a road map on different issues, just as the Russian and Georgian governments are now doing in their bilateral meetings .The case of the Inguri hydroelectric power station shows that partnerships can be forged and maintained across the conflict divide.

Coming to the question regarding the kind of international mediation in which Russia and the West could work together, for the time being I believe that the Geneva International Discussions are the answer. They are moving slowly, but are the only arena, where all actors involved in the South Ossetian-Georgian and Abkhaz-Georgian wars can meet.

If the Geneva Talks were to deliver a Treaty of Non Resumption of Hostilities, there is no doubt that their credibility would receive a considerable boost. 

Sergey Markedonov: In one of your comments on Abkhazia you stated that "successful negotiations for the return of IDPs to Abkhazia and a sound peace agreement between the Abkhaz and Georgian sides can be achieved only if both the West and the Georgian government change their approach…” What approaches do you mean? And how can change be brought about?

Maurizia Jenkins: Ethnic conflicts are intractable and difficult to resolve, particularly after a protracted and violent dispute. Furthermore, they are emotionally highly charged, as they threaten deep-rooted feelings of cultural identity and ethnic survival. It is essential, therefore, that the fundamental principals guiding a negotiating process are clear from the offset. The enabling tools  (international engagement, channels of mediations, etc) are secondary.

To me, a genuine wish for reconciliation by both sides, together with the recognition that both have equal political and moral rights, are essential. Without such components any lasting agreement will remain unobtainable. Turning to the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict and to the policies so far adopted by the Georgian side with the support of its Western partners, frankly I do not see any such a commitment. The response from the Sukhum/i authorities is bound to be unconstructive.

To begin with, the blockade imposed in January 1996 was aimed at forcing the surrender of an opponent through isolation and deprivation. Reconciliation was not on the agenda. The sanctions set in place caused untold hardship and suffering to the population. When I began visiting Abkhazia, in mid 1998, I  witnessed at first hand the dreadful conditions that both the Abkhaz people and Georgian returnees had to endure. The latter were considered ‘traitors’ by many Georgians, because they had returned to their birth place in Gali, while the daily struggle for survival and self -preservation, made the resentment and the desire of the Abkhaz for independence grow stronger by the day. Against such a backdrop it proved impossible to reach a positive conclusion to the talks on a safe and dignified return of the IDPs to Abkhazia . What I found interesting at that time was that anti-Russian feelings were also present among the Abkhaz population, because the CIS troops manning the borders were mostly Russian. However, in this respect a shift of attitudes slowly begun to take place, as I mentioned earlier, when Putin came to power. Even if some confidence building initiatives and rehabilitation programmes had begun in the late nineties with the help of UN agencies and a few Western countries, their impact was limited, as Georgian sanctions were kept in place.  In the Saakashvili era, with the mounting support given by the western community to Georgia, in terms of aid and assistance on various fronts, the gap between the two sides widened still further. The war with South Ossetia was the coup de grace. Looking at Georgian-Abkhaz relations today, I think that the Georgian side has to come to terms with the fact that sanctions failed and that an entirely new spirit has to be at the heart of their strategies .The notion that Russia is the main cause of the present state of affairs, is simply not true. To begin with the gradual abolition of sanctions and the departure from “territorial integrity ”as a guiding principle, should be reconsidered.

Turning to Georgia’s allies, the West in general, and in particular the Bush administration, must share responsibility for the Georgian failure in the peace process, as they did not recognize the need of their engagement in Abkhazia and gave almost unconditional backing to the Saakashvili regime, which excelled at “spin” but had a very poor record on upholding democratic rights. With a new government now in place in Georgia, Western countries have the opportunity to revisit their approach and learn from past mistakes. The EU in particular should be at the forefront and agree with Georgia on a new strategy, aimed at bringing barriers down and at the de-isolation of Abkhazia, in terms of transfer of know-how, socio-economic rehabilitation, institution-building, good governance, cross-border exchanges and freedom of movement. 

Sergey Markedonov: In 2008 Russia recognised the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. How can you evaluate the development of both republics over the subsequent five years? What challenges have they brought?

Maurizia Jenkins: I have not been to South Ossetia for a long time, therefore I will direct my observations only to Abkhazia. 

The recognition by Russia was a turning point in several ways. Firstly, it made the Abkhaz feel ‘accepted’ and less vulnerable. Russian forces and financial support from Moscow also brought border security and the possibility to begin an essential socio-economic rehabilitation of the infrastructure. A multitude of bilateral treaties with Russia (more than seventy so far), are establishing increasing ties and cooperation between the two allies in a variety of fields, including institution building. Tourism and private business initiatives have transformed Sukhum/i and holiday resorts along the coast. If I look back at my early visits to Abkhazia in 1998, when streets were almost empty, signs of activity were absent, and many buildings were uninhabitable, this is an entirely different world. The picture changes considerably, however, if one moves inland. In the regions, unemployment and poor infrastructure are highly problematic. Living standards are much higher for some, but have remained almost unchanged for others. At institutional level, parliament is weak vis-à-vis a too strong central government, while the justice system is fragile. What is most striking in all this is the almost total absence of the West, in terms of any meaningful assistance, on the one hand, and the omnipresence of Russia, on the other. The need to re-dress the balance should be obvious to all interested parties, including Russia, if the internal stability of Abkhazia and democratic development are a priority.

On the vital question of state building, Natela Akaba has written a thought provoking paper, ‘ “ The Abkhazia” project: political nation or community of minorities? ’. Personally, I think that Abkhazia is at a cross- road. Government, parliament and the public at large have to decide, if the ethno-centric state infrastructure now in place should become gradually more open to mirror its multi-ethnic society, or if the Abkhaz-centric profile is to be kept in place. In other words, they need to reflect, whether democratic inclusiveness is going to be the guiding principle of their state -building project. Moreover, they must face the thorny question of whether, in the longer term, the present isolation of the Georgian inhabitants of Gal/i, is in the interest of national security and stability, or if their gradual integration into wider society will make Abkhazia stronger, more secure and self-reliant. 

Sergey Markedonov: You observe the political dynamics in Georgia. The period of president Saakashvili is over. What impact this will have on the dynamics of resolution of the two ethno-political conflicts?

Maurizia Jenkins: The heritage of Saakhashvili is a heavy baggage to bear for the new Georgian government in various ways.

To begin with, the nationalistic rhetoric is bound to remain for sometime in the mind of the Georgian people and a change of approach and policy on the resolutions of the two conflicts, if chosen, will require a lot of explaining at home. To gain the support of its citizens and of the IDPs in particular, the new government will have to speak with one voice and find convincing arguments to lead the country on a different course.

This will not be easy, because the Georgian Dream coalition consists of several parties with diverse views and because, as mentioned earlier, on ethno-political conflicts emotions can run very high.

The re-establishment of good relations with Russia will be a key factor. A good deal of diplomatic efforts will have to be invested in this, but already there are signs that the new government has taken on board the fact that getting closer to Europe and building better relations with Russia are both essential for the stability of Georgia’s future.

The war with South Ossetia represents, no doubt, the most difficult inheritance of the Saakashvili era. To distance itself from the past and build some form of trust with the South Ossetians and the Abkhaz people, the Georgian government will have to be prepared to adopt convincing U-turn policies and offer tangible proofs of its intention. To continue with the same old approach will bring no reward. 

First published in Russian in Caucasus Times.

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