Sabine Fischer: Europe needs to engage with Abkhazia to keep the communication channels open

Dr. Sabine Fischer is an expert of German Institute for International and Security Affairs (Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik) in Berlin. From 2007 to 2012 she was Senior Research Fellow am European Union Institute for Security Studies in Paris. Dr. Fischer is a specialist on Russia-EU relationship as well as European policy in the post-Soviet space. The Georgian-Abkhaz topic is a very important issue of her studies. She organized numerous conferences, round table discussions and panels concerning this problem.


Caucasus Times: How do you evaluate the political dynamics of the EU approaches to the Caucasus after the “hot August” of 2008? I mean here not only Georgia or the Georgian-Russian relationship but the Caucasus region as whole. What lessons have politicians learnt? What positive or negative tendencies can we define?

S.F.: To answer this question we must first look at the different instruments the EU applies to the three South Caucasian republics, and the roles it plays in the region.
First, the EU has been consistently working on deepening and broadening political and economic relations with Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. All three countries have been partner countries in the framework of the European Neighbourhood Policy since 2004. They have concluded Action Plans to foster economic cooperation and support domestic reform processes. In 2009 the EU launched the Eastern Partnership (EaP). This idea existed before the Russian Georgian war in August 2008. Poland and Sweden had initiated the debate already in spring 2008. However, the shock of the war accelerated the process of adoption of the EaP which can be seen as a signal of the EU’s willingness to increase its engagement for peace and stability in the region. The EaP offers a number of things which go beyond the European Neighbourhood Policy, including Association Agreements, Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreements (DCFTAs), mobility partnerships, i.e. visa liberalisation (in the long run), new, if limited financial resources, multilateral initiatives, the EaP Civil Society Forum etc. Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan all take part in the EaP. Negotiations on Association Agreements with the EU commenced in 2010 and all three countries are scheduled to start negotiations on DCFTAs towards the end of 2011.
Therefore, one lesson which the EU has learned from the August war is indeed that more engagement in the region is necessary.
The second important lesson from the shock of the war was that the EU should also take on a stronger role as a security actor contributing to the resolution of the protracted conflicts which continue to block the development of the affected countries and conflict territories, as well as regional relations. The war catapulted the EU into being the most prominent security actor in Georgia. Under the leadership of France, which in August 2008 held the EU Presidency, it was the EU who mediated the ceasefire between Georgia and Russia. In September 2008 it deployed a monitoring mission (EUMM) along the administrative boundaries between South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and uncontested Georgian territory. Since the dissolution of the OSCE Mission to Georgia and UNOMIG, the EUMM is the only international actor to monitor developments along the conflict lines. Last but not least, the EU, represented by an EU Special Representative, has become the chief mediator in the so called Geneva International Discussions which is currently the only forum in which the parties to the conflicts interact.
Unfortunately, and this is a less positive lesson, the EU was not able to uphold the unity it displayed during the first weeks after the war, nor was it able to back up its steps on the ground with a clear-cut strategy. The EaP is a relatively weak instrument because Member States do not agree on its endgame and because what it offers doesn’t provide the neighbours with stronger incentives. The EUMM’s presence in Georgia is an important stabiliser, but the EU could do much more to foster the resolution of the Georgian-Abkhaz and Georgian-South Ossetian conflicts if it had a concise strategy and actors to promote it. Moreover, both the institutional transformation caused by the creation of the European External Action Service and the economic and financial crisis currently undermine pro-active foreign policy making.
The EU’s deeper engagement in the conflicts between Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia emerged in response to a situation of emergency. This is rather typical for the Union’s policy, which oftentimes is reactive rather than pro-active. However, the question whether the EU should become more active also in the conflict over Nagorno Karabakh has been raised on a more regular basis recently. For instance, the Review of the European Neighbourhood Policy of May 2011 mentions a potential role for the EU in the Minsk Process. At the same time, however, it remains unclear if the parties to the conflicts will appreciate such a role, and if the EU will go for it actively in the near future.


Caucasus Times: Last November you published the analytical text entitled “How to engage with Abkhazia?” Now I would like to address the same question to you. What real obstacles exist now? What hopes do EU and you personally as an analyst have?

S.F.: First of all one should reflect on why we need engagement and why we are discussing it. From an EU perspective, engagement is important because, in the current situation, it is the only way to keep communication channels open. Of course Abkhazia has ever closer contact with Russia, but it remains almost completely isolated internationally. Moreover, even though the Abkhaz do not consider Georgia as a major threat anymore because they feel protected by Russian military presence, Georgia, and the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict, will persist. Over time there needs to be some kind of interaction and work towards the solution of the conflict if people in the region ought to live in peace in the future.
The EU’s political long-term goal remains the restoration of Georgia’s territorial integrity. In the medium term, however, a policy of engagement aspires to break through isolation – of Abkhazia, but also of the Georgian and Abkhaz societies from each other – and to work for conflict transformation, i.e. the creation of conditions which favour the reconciliation of the parties. The EU has endorsed the idea of a non-recognition and engagement policy towards Abkhazia and South Ossetia in December 2009. Elements of such a policy do already exist: The EU funds rehabilitation and civil society projects in Abkhazia run by the EU Delegation, other international organisations and NGOs. Former EUSR for the South Caucasus Peter Semneby conducted an active dialogue with the Abkhaz de facto authorities, but also civil society. The EUISS has been organising a series of roundtable events on EU politics and policies in Sukhumi since 2009. In December 2010, the EUISS, in cooperation with EUSR Peter Semneby, held a seminar involving representatives of EU Member States, NGOs and outstanding experts on the region to discuss non-recognition and engagement policy in more detail. This discussion showed that engagement is possible in many different areas and at many different levels: political, economic, societal. More systematic contacts with Abkhaz society could involve scholarships for Abkhaz students to go and study in the EU, EU support for private entrepreneurs in Abkhazia or more ambitious economic and infrastructure projects, the opening of an EU information office in Sukhum/i, regular events organised by the EU in Abkhazia. Engagement also requires a structured dialogue with the Abkhaz de facto authorities so as to create favourable conditions for more interaction with the society. Partial involvement of Abkhaz civil society in the EaP, for instance in the Civil Society Forum, should be considered as a future option.
As mentioned before some measures do already exist. But the EU needs to become more active, and it needs to link its different activities and projects more strategically so as to make its involvement visible. In August 2011 EU High Representative Catherine Ashton appointed Phillip Leffort, a French diplomat, to be the new EU Special Representative, now with a combined mandate for the South Caucasus and the Crisis in Georgia. I do hope that the new EUSR will be as active in promoting engagement with Abkhazia as was his predecessor.
Of course there are obstacles to such a policy. First, the EU is considered a pro-Georgian actor by many Abkhazians. This obviously undermines its policy of engagement. It is important the EU make it clear to the de facto authorities in Abkhazia that its policy is distinct from the Georgian Strategy for Reintegration. At the same time it has to reassure the Georgian government that its policy is not a slippery slope towards the recognition of Abkhazia. This is a difficult tight trope walk, but the EU needs to find the right balance if it wants engagement to go ahead. Secondly, the difficult strategic balance in the South Caucasus, and the EU’s sometimes uneasy relationship with Russia have always complicated more EU engagement in Abkhazia and other unresolved conflicts. However, EU-Russia relations, and also US-Russia relations have normalised since the August war. This should be used as an opportunity by the EU to pursue a more active and constructive engagement policy not only towards Abkhazia, but also with a view to relations between Russia and Georgia.


Caucasus Times.: My third question is the continuation of the previous one. Of course, Abkhazia is quite often discussed, as a potential partner (albeit with some nuances about the non-recognition of this entity). But what’s South Ossetia or Nagorno-Karabakh? Do they need to be engaged? And if so, would such a policy be different from similar approaches to Abkhazia? Or should it be based on similar grounds?


Engagement as a strategy is needed in all the conflicts in the South Caucasus (and also in Transnistria) if only because isolation has proved to be an obstacle to any kind of solution. Particularly in the case of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict the isolation of Nagorno-Karabakh from negotiation processes and other contacts has contributed to the radicalisation of the political atmosphere. At the same time, however, the conflicts differ a lot, and any policy needs to be tailored to meet the specific challenges. South Ossetia is almost inaccessible for the EU and other international actors except Russia. Obviously the door for engagement with South Ossetia should be kept open, but for the time being EU activities should probably focus on Abkhazia. Successful engagement with Abkhazia could in the medium term spark interest in more interaction with the EU also in South Ossetia. The case of Nagorno-Karabakh is even more complicated because here the EU’s role in conflict resolution is still rather small. A first important step would be to increase funding and activities in the realm of confidence building in Armenia and Azerbaijan and between the Armenian and Azeri societies, and to involve representatives of the civil society in Nagorno-Karabakh. More ambitious projects could be envisaged at a later stage. In a nutshell, a strategy of conflict sensitive engagement with the disputed entities should become a major component of the EU’s policy in the South Caucasus.


Caucasus Times.: Currently, Russia and Georgia negotiate on Russia’s entry to the WTO . This process looks like a stalemate. What possible scenarios do you see for this issue?

S.F.: The scenarios are quite obvious: a) Russia and Georgia continue negotiating without result or even abandon negotiations while WTO insists on Russia’s accession by consensus which will indefinitely delay the process; b) Georgia and Russia, possibly with the help of the EU or the U.S., find a compromise on the contentious issues which currently block progress; c) Russia and Georgia are not able to compromise and Russia manages to accede the WTO by vote and not by consensus – which is legally possible, but against common practice and politically questionable.
From an EU perspective, clearly, scenario (b) would be most favourable. At the same time, however, Russian WTO accession is very much in the Union’s (and also the U.S.’) interest because it would help solve important issues in bilateral and trade relations. For instance, the EU and Russia could finally move ahead with regard to the idea of a ‘common economic space’. Therefore, the Russian-Georgian deadlock puts the EU in a difficult dilemma. Time is also a problem. If Vladimir Putin returns in the Kremlin in May 2012 (which is very likely as we know) chances are even smaller that the sides will be able to agree on a compromise. At the same time it is also unlikely that the outgoing Medvedev administration will try to push through major initiatives before the elections. Unfortunately I don’t really see a solution for this problem in the near future. The EU will find it difficult to agree on a common position either way (to put pressure on Russia to concede to Georgian claims or to put pressure on Georgia to agree to Russian WTO accession). Both the EU and the U.S. have encouraged the sides to find a solution but so far to no avail. The most likely scenario is, therefore, that the current back and forth continues into the future and further delays Russian WTO membership.


Caucasus Times.: The last question concerns “the Geneva talks”. This format is criticized by all sides. What practical and pragmatic importance in these negotiations do you see?

S.F: The Geneva International Discussions are indeed a complicated negotiation format. In a way they reflect the complexity which has emerged from the Russian-Georgian war in August 2008 and the Russian recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

It would be unfair, however, to claim they have not yielded any result in the past three years. The establishment of the Incident Prevention and Response Mechanism was one important outcome of the Geneva International Discussions. This mechanism brings together representatives from all sides in regular meetings both on the Abkhaz-Georgian and the South Ossetian-Georgian conflict lines to discuss urgent security matters and prevent escalation. The mechanism is being run in close cooperation with EUMM (and was, indeed, a EUMM initiative), and it has helped to increase Abkhaz and South Ossetian trust in the EUMM.

During the first year or so, the continuation of the Geneva Talks was much in doubt with the parties regularly threatening to leave the negotiation table. By now the format seems to be relatively stable, the 17th round taking place at the time of writing. Disagreements on the big issues, such as non-use of force, return of refugees and IDPs have not changed and are unlikely to be solved any time soon. But the Geneva Talks are the only negotiation format in which the parties to the conflicts meet on a regular basis. That alone is an important reason to continue, and it seems that all relevant actors have ultimately understood this.

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