The foreign ministers of Georgia and Russia met this week on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, the highest-level meeting between the two sides since they fought a war in 2008.
Little was announced about the content of the meeting, held on September 26 between Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and his Georgian counterpart Davit Zalkaliani. Georgia’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying the meeting touched on the “de-occupation of its regions,” referring to Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the breakaway Georgian territories whose de facto governments are heavily backed by Moscow. The diplomats also discussed “the security situation and the recent developments in Georgia’s occupied territories, as well as problematic issues in the relations between Georgia and Russia.”
The Russian MFA said even less, saying only that “current issues on the bilateral agenda” were discussed. “There was an exchange of opinions on the problems of regional security.”
But beyond the content, the mere fact that the meeting took place was notable. In recent years the two sides have carried out lower-level dialogues as part of what is called the Geneva International Discussions, but these deal with practical issues like prisoner exchanges and de-facto border issues and not substantive matters. It’s not clear whether the meeting at the UN would lead to anything further.
“I think this is to some extent an important event,” said Zurab Abashidze, the Georgian representative in the Geneva talks, in an interview with the news website Sova. “It’s a different question, what sort of results the meeting will bring. There are no expectations that there will be a breakthrough. There were no illusions before the meeting, and there aren’t any now. It’s a process.”
Abashidze said one possible outcome would be a reinvigoration of the Geneva talks. “This format could work much more effectively, if there is a readiness from the Russian side. Our delegation in New York worked exactly on that for the last few days, to get support from our Western partners in the Geneva format,” he said in another interview.
It’s not clear how much readiness there is from the Russian side. Moscow-Tbilisi relations hit a low point this summer, after a Russian lawmaker made a scandalous appearance in the Georgian parliament, leading to anti-Russia and anti-government protests in Tbilisi that lasted for weeks this summer. That, in turn, led to an attempt by Russia to impose a travel embargo on Tbilisi, including blocking direct flights between the two countries.
In an interview in the days before the meeting with Zalkaliani, Lavrov told the Russian newspaper Kommersant that he was in favor of restarting flights, but put the onus on the Georgian side. “I would probably restart the flights,” Lavrov said. “And I think it would be correct, after the majority of the Georgian population realizes the counterproductive, provocative character of the escapades that occurred in the Georgian parliament.”
Both the Georgian and Russian sides said that the meeting was initiated by Swiss diplomats, which Switzerland’s foreign ministry confirmed. But a subsequent report in Kommersant claimed, citing “a source familiar with the mechanics of the preparation for the meeting,” that it was in fact initiated by the Georgian side, which sought the Swiss mediation because direct talks with Moscow would be politically sensitive back home. According to this source, the Swiss role was purely ceremonial: “the Swiss representative showed the ministers to Swiss chocolate sitting on a table, noting that with that, its mediation mission was completed, and left the negotiations.”
The meeting was hailed by Georgia’s Western partners, from the U.S. to the European Union to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to the United Nations secretary general. The meeting “was an important opportunity to discuss regional security issues, to lower tensions in Georgian-Russian relations, and to address the impact of these tensions on citizens. Dialogue is key for peaceful dispute settlement, which the European Union fully supports,” the EU said in a statement.
But among many in the more anti-Russian opposition in Georgia, the meeting carried a whiff of treason. One member of the opposition United National Movement party, Tinatin Bokuchava, told RFE/RL that new prime minister Giorgi Gakharia is a “man of Moscow” and that the government is “ready to give up absolutely everything to Russia.” As such, she said, “any such meeting is extremely dangerous for our country.”
The UNM’s leader-in-exile, former president Mikheil Saakashvili, said in a Facebook video that the meetings were aimed at negotiating Georgia’s “military neutrality,” i.e. abandoning its long-standing strong devotion to Euro-Atlantic integration and NATO membership.
Asked about that, Abashidze said that discussions of neutrality were “not being discussed and have never been discussed.”
"I doubt [the meeting] will change anything in bilateral relations, except that Russia may try to sell it as success of its foreign policy towards Georgia," Kornely Kakachia, head of the Tbilisi think tank Georgian Institute of Politics, told Eurasianet. However, bilateral talks can hold a danger for Tbilisi, Kakachia said: "It risks overshadowing the Geneva international negotiations, the international format where Georgia is not alone with Moscow."
Joshua Kucera, a senior correspondent, is Eurasianet's former Turkey/Caucasus editor and has written for the site since 2007.