Interview: Lasha Darsalia discusses Georgia's relations with Russia and South Caucasus regional co-operation

Lasha Darsalia, Deputy Foreign Minister of Georgia, discusses relations with Russia, and how Georgia views the recent agreement ending the  Karabakh War in this exclusive interview with commonspace.eu. He also  lays his vision for South Caucasus regional co-operation.

When it comes to Georgian foreign policy, Russia remains the elephant in the room.  Over the last years Georgian-Russian relations have stabilised, but not normalised. How do you assess the current state of Georgian-Russian relations? Has the pandemic impacted Georgian-Russian relations positively or negatively?

Amid the global struggle against the COVID-19 pandemic – while states are desperately trying to curtail the spread of the virus; when more than ever the world needs peace, compassion, and a common effort not only to fight the pandemic, but to think about post pandemic recovery – the Russian Federation shows no sign of respite. Indeed, the scale of Russia’s aggression policy against Georgia, which is manifested in conventional provocations and hybrid warfare tools, intensifies.

One vivid example of a conventional provocation is the ‘Caucasus 2020’ military drills, which included military units from several member states of both the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and Collective Security Treaty Organisation – around 100000-120000 men and 3000 military armoured vehicles in total. What is more alarming was that the military manoeuvres in Russia’s Southern Military District included the Russian military bases illegally deployed in Georgia’s occupied regions of Abkhazia and Tskhinvali/South Ossetia, grossly violating the EU-mediated 12 August 2008 Ceasefire Agreement.

I would like to remind you that before Russia’s military invasion of Georgia in August 2008, the Russian Federation conducted the unprecedentedly large ‘Caucasus 2008’ military exercises in the Northern Caucasus.

Another evident example of Russia’s increased provocations during COVID-19 is the intensification of the so-called process of ‘borderisation’ –  the erection of barbed wire fences and so-called "border” signs along the occupation line, as well as illegal detentions and kidnapping of local conflict-affected people by the Russian FSB troops, many of whom still remain in illegal custody in Tskhinvali.  

Alongside these conventional means, Russia continues its active disinformation campaign intended to intimidate Georgia as a country aligned with the West, to undermine our sovereignty and frame us, ironically, as a threat to regional security. In this regard, Moscow’s propaganda continues to target the Richard Lugar Research Laboratory, which has played a critical role in the fight against COVID-19 in Georgia and is held in high regard by the Georgian public and the international community alike. The centre has continuously been accused by Russia of developing pathogen agents for military purposes, and even during the pandemic, the Lugar laboratory was the victim of cyberattack supposedly conducted by a Russia-linked source.

Both Russia’s conventional and hybrid tools used against Georgia have one main goal: to destabilise the situation in the country, and obstruct Georgia’s path towards European and Euro-Atlantic integration. At the same time, all these actions represent a demonstration of power, exerting pressure on the government of Georgia, and threatening peace and stability – not only for the South Caucasus region, but for the wider Black Sea area. 

Nonetheless, Georgia has been trying to engage constructively with Russia, to find durable solutions to the conflict and achieve lasting peace and security through negotiations and a peaceful conflict-resolution policy. Moreover, in order to deescalate the situation, in 2012 the Government of Georgia assigned a special representative of the Prime Minister to conduct informal talks with its Russian counterpart on, amongst other things, economic, trade and cultural topics. Although the talks bore tangible results in these spheres, this progress has not had any positive implications for the settlement of Russia-Georgia conflict.

On the contrary, years of experience have shown that Russia is not interested in either a solution to the conflict nor the normalisation of its relationship with Georgia. It is interested only in the preservation of this shaky status-quo that allows it to hold leverage against Georgia and the West more generally. As Georgia has been moving towards a consolidated democracy and European and Euro-Atlantic integration, Russia’s policy has become more and more aggressive. The Russian Federation has used the ongoing occupation and its large arsenal of hybrid tools to slow down Georgia’s progress and impair its ability to establish a secure and stable foundation for its development. If the Russian Federation were ever determined to normalise relations with Georgia, this should first and foremost be reflected in progress of the settlement of the Russia-Georgia conflict.

The restoration of territorial integrity remains the main foreign policy objective of Georgia. Yet we see very little progress in this direction. In the last months the scheduled meeting of the Geneva International Discussions (GID) were disrupted. How do you see the situation at the moment with regards to Abkhazia and South Ossetia? Will there be a meeting of the GID soon? Is this mechanism (GID) useful?

Peaceful conflict resolution is indeed the primary objective of the Government of Georgia, relying on two major pillars: namely the de-occupation of Georgian regions, and reconciliation and confidence building between the communities divided by occupation lines. Georgia is in full compliance with the EU-mediated 12 August 2008 Ceasefire Agreement and has several times unilaterally reaffirmed the non-use of force commitment. Whilst Georgia has been implementing this principle, we are still awaiting the reciprocity from the Russian side. Notwithstanding the hardships, the Government of Georgia has been trying to effectively utilise the peace negotiation format to reach tangible results for lasting peace, security and human rights protection of conflict-affected populations on the ground.

The Geneva International Discussions represent a unique and inclusive format with co-chairmanship of the EU, UN, OSCE and participation of the US, established to address the security and humanitarian challenges stemming from Russian occupation in full respect of the 12 August 2008 Ceasefire Agreement. This format gives us the opportunity to sit around the negotiation table and discuss the manifold challenges that the conflict-affected people face on the ground, which has helped to alleviate major escalations in the past 12 years.

Nevertheless, we could not reach any tangible solution to the outstanding security and humanitarian issues within the format of the GID. But let me be clear and stress that the problem is not the format itself but Russia’s lack of willingness to make any progress towards the peaceful settlement of the conflict. Due to Russia’s destructive attitude, the practice of walkouts and deliberate politicising of humanitarian issues, no progress could be made concerning the agenda items, including: the non-use of force commitment, international security arrangements and the safe and dignified return of IDPs and refugees. Every time the Georgian side brings up the issue of IDPs and refugees, the Russian side leaves the negotiation table making it effectively impossible to find any solution to the existing problems.

The Russian Federation went even further and, using the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic as a pretext, disrupted the scheduled 51st round of talks and hampered the negotiation process. This is while, in light of the aggravated situation, the Geneva International Discussions are even more crucial in order to find solutions to the security and humanitarian problems of the conflict-affected people. Georgia, together with the Co-Chairs, has been doing its best to make sure it takes place in the near future.

In parallel, the Russian Federation has also been undermining the work of the Incident Prevention and Response Mechanisms, which have been useful for addressing immediate safety and humanitarian issues on the ground.

Every day, conflict-affected people continue to struggle with unbearable conditions resulting from Russia’s ongoing occupation – amongst other things, the installation of physical barriers along the occupation line, resulting in restrictions to freedom of movement; kidnappings and arbitrary detentions; deprivation; torture and ill-treatment; ethnic discrimination; and a ban on native language education. Moreover, Russia’s actions accelerate a factual annexation of these regions based on the so-called ‘integration treaties’, to fully incorporate these regions into its military, political, economic and social spheres.

Turning to regional issues, your two neighbours in the South Caucasus – Armenia and Azerbaijan – have in the last weeks fought a bitter and bloody war in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone. What is Georgia’s approach to this conflict?

Georgia’s foreign policy concerning the region is clear, effective and balanced, and comprised of both political and economic considerations. From the regaining of independence, Georgia developed a strategic relationship with Azerbaijan and good neighbouring relationship with Armenia. However, the recent escalation of this conflict considerably deteriorates the security environment of the region as a whole. It shows that there are no “frozen conflicts” and that the efforts of the international community must be directed towards solutions. Whilst I do not have the recipe of how to do this, one thing is clear: we must not allow the conflict to freeze again.

We in Georgia believe that the region has great potential and that it is possible to find solutions to all problems based on mutual respect and shared values. As an example, in Georgia, our Azerbaijani and Armenian citizens live side by side, sometimes in the same villages, even in mixed families. They historically have always played a great role in the development and strengthening of our country, as well as the entire region. Their peaceful coexistence demonstrates that Georgians, Armenians, and Azerbaijanis have the potential to turn the entire South Caucasus into an area of peace and development.  

How do you assess the news that volunteers from Abkhazia went to Armenia to fight in this war?

Considering the significant number of ethnic Armenians living in Georgia’s Abkhazia region, it was expected that there could be volunteers. However, we can also see Russia’s role in this situation. For years now, Russia has been trying to promote the contacts of  its occupation regime in Sokhumi with Nagorno-Karabakh. Now that the fighting is over, it is no longer relevant; but even if it was, two dozen volunteers would have little impact other than symbolic. It is evident that this move has been a part of Russia’s hybrid and provocative approach to spread its desired narrative of the new realities in the Abkhazia region in full contradiction of the fundamental principles and norms of International law.

As you know, on 10 November an agreement was reached between Russia, Armenia and Azerbaijan to stop hostilities. What is the position of the Georgian government on this agreement?

We hope that the ceasefire agreement reached between Azerbaijan and Armenia will contribute to the full-scale resolution of the conflict. Georgia obviously supports the dialogue between both parties. Once again, we have also expressed our readiness to contribute to the peace process together with the international community. We believe that the international community’s active efforts and the enforcement of multilateral international mechanisms will have an effect on ensuring long-term peace that will open up new opportunities for the region as a whole.

As I underlined, it is important that the international community mobilises efforts towards finding a long-term solution to the conflict, which would be beneficial to all sides. This ceasefire agreement might become an even bigger cause of escalation in future without the active role of the International Community towards a final resolution to the conflict.

The agreement also provides for the deployment of two thousand Russian troops to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zones. Georgia has had its own experience of Russian peacekeeping and knows that it does not come without a price. How do you view the presence of this large Russian force in the South Caucasus?

You are right. Unfortunately, Georgia is well aware of the price of Russia’s ‘peacekeeping’, and the reality that it is not ‘peace’ that they are protecting but Russia’s interests. Currently, in violation of the EU-mediated 12 August 2008 Ceasefire Agreement, Russia holds a considerable number of military personnel in Georgia’s occupied regions of Abkhazia and Tskhinvali region/South Ossetia – more specifically, approximately 4500 military and 1300 FSB personnel in each. These illegal military bases are equipped with contemporary and sophisticated offensive weaponry. So, we can see that Russian ‘peace’ has offensive qualities.

Now that Russia has an increased military presence in the South Caucasus, it will use it to exert political pressure on the countries of the region and beyond, posing a threat to European and Euro-Atlantic security as a whole.

The world has learned that Russian peacekeeping is an oxymoron. Therefore, an increased Russian military footprint in the South Caucasus requires more active engagement from the international community. It should take a firm stance and send a clear message to the Russian Federation that illegal attempts to redraw the borders of its neighbouring countries or halt their free choice of democratic development and European and Euro-Atlantic integration is unacceptable.

Georgia has from time to time embraced regional co-operation as a solution for some of the problems of the South Caucasus. If we can ask you for a personal, rather than an official viewpoint, do you think regional co-operation in the South Caucasus is ever going to be possible; and if so, what can be done to make that happen sooner?

As I mentioned, Georgia’s example of the peaceful coexistence of Armenian and Azerbaijani people shows it is possible. Of course, the situation within a country and between independent States is different. But there are also common similarities.  We have to set the main rules of political game, we have to respect each other’s sovereignty and foreign policy choices, we have to look for common interests and mutual benefits which can guarantee peace in the region. This is the only way to create opportunities for the countries of the region and for the people living in those countries.  In this regard, Georgia might be able to play a unique role as a champion and strong promoter of regional cooperation. There is awareness of the need of such cooperation in Georgia and I also believe there is a strong will to work in this direction.

Georgian Deputy Foreign Minister Lasha Darsalia spoke to commonspace.eu in Tbilisi on 16 November 2020

 

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