|The Russia-Georgia conflict—Going nowhere fast|
|April 07, 2011|
By G.E. | TBILISI
AS RUSSIAN tanks flattened the Georgian army in August 2008, did the two countries’ diplomats discuss Russia’s obligations under theConvention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination? It sounds like an April's fool, but the International Court of Justice was in no mood for pranks when it ruled on Georgia’s charges against Russia on April 1st.
The Georgian government's failure to raise allegations of ethnic cleansing with Moscow directly, said the judges, meant that it had not exhausted the convention’s remedies before heading to court. They dismissed the case by a ten to six majority.
This was a “very, very good decision”, said Kirill Gevorgian, a legal adviser to the Russian foreign ministry. Georgian officials were less effusive. Tina Burjaliani, a deputy justice minister, spoke of a “procedural technicality” that could be overcome. Grigol Vashadze, the foreign minister, said he was “very disappointed” at the decision, parts of which he dubbed “totally ridiculous”.
But Mr Vashadze's deputy, Nino Kalandadze, smelt victory. Georgia contends that its primary conflict is with Russia, which has supported separatism in Georgia's breakaway regions since the early 1990s. Russia, conversely, insists that the conflict is between Georgia on one hand and South Ossetia and Abkhazia on the other; its own role is simply that of a mediator. As a result, Russia’s lawyers argued in court, it could not be in dispute with Georgia in this case. The judges disagreed. Russia’s claim to third-party status, Ms Kalandadze insisted, is now untenable.
Legally speaking, that is probably going too far. In finding that a dispute exists under the treaty, the court did not assert that Russia was a party to the conflict. But niceties aside, few people outside Moscow take Russia’s argument seriously: Hanjörg Haber, head of a European Union monitoring mission set up in Georgia after the short war, said it is “clearly absurd”.
Even so, Russia’s attempt to reposition itself as honest broker is central to its strategy in the internationally mediated Geneva negotiations, which began in the aftermath of the war in 2008. With representatives from Russia, Georgia, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, the United States, the United Nations, the EU and the OSCE around the table, the talks aim at an agreement on security, stability and the return of the displaced.
In practice, Russia dominates this dysfunctional process, according to Vladimir Socor of the Jamestown Foundation, a Washington-based think-tank. South Ossetia and Abkhazia tend to defer to their Russian sponsors. Talks failed to prevent Russian vetoes from hastening the departure of OSCE and UN missions from both territories, where Russia has stationed overwhelming military forces.
One rare sign of progress concerns recent statements not to use force. Georgia's president, Mikheil Saakashvili, made a unilateral declaration to that effect at the European Parliament last November. The authorities in the two breakaway provinces followed suit. But Moscow then insisted that the three parties should put their pledges in writing, while refusing to commit itself to such an agreement. Georgia objects to the implicit legitimacy this would lend South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and instead wants a bilateral agreement with Russia. The result: stalemate.
On the ground, at least, the situation remains relatively calm, thanks to the EU monitors and a locally convened Incident Prevention and Response Mechanism (IPRM). Civilian casualties have decreased, and fears that the conflict might re-ignite soon have largely dissipated. Georgia, says Mr Vashadze, is in a much better situationthan it was in December 2008.
But things remain fragile. Last week, a minor spat over the provision of public information about NATO in a school in the border village of Ergneti, which was due to host the next meeting of the IPRM, led to South Ossetians temporarily withdrawingfrom the mechanism altogether.
Moreover, stability has not led to diplomatic progress. Russia, reckons Mr Haber, lost its leverage over Georgia when it recognised the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. At the same time, Georgia’s tendency to seek short-term diplomatic victories—over Russia’s bid to join the World Trade Organisation, for example—comes at the expense of reintegrating its separatist regions. A wiser strategy, Mr Haber suggests, would see Tbilisi dealing with Abkhazia and South Ossetia separately, and gradually tempting them back into the fold.
A flawed process is probably better than none. The Geneva talks are the only place where all parties to the conflict meet. But with no side in the mood to make concessions, the status quo grows ever more entrenched. What was once a frozen conflict is in danger of freezing over again.
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